The alarms from the Democrats’ campaign headquarters arrive in the mailbox every hour. It’s about “all or nothing”, a defeat means “game over”, democracy will be “destroyed”. The message is always the same: the gubernatorial election in Virginia on Tuesday in a week’s time is also a referendum on a possible return of Donald Trump.
The wake-up calls show how nervous Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe is, and with good reason. For a long time, the 64-year-old entrepreneur, who was governor from 2014 to 2018, had comfortably led in polls. But since the end of August, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made up ground. In the meantime, the 54-year-old is following his opponent so closely on his heels that his lead over the statistical margin of error has melted.
“Many are disappointed in Joe Biden.”
In fact, it’s about much more than an exciting local election. The Democrats have just taken control of both houses of parliament and the government for the first time in almost 30 years. They legalized marijuana, abolished the death penalty, raised the minimum wage, extended the opening hours of the ballot box. The previously conservative Virginia was declared by the Democrats to be a progressive model for all southern states. A role model that is acutely endangered.
Now the Democrats are getting their most prominent heads to help. Joe Biden will campaign for McAuliffe on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris was already there, and last Saturday Barack Obama traveled to the capital, Richmond. “We are at a tipping point in Virginia, in the United States, in the world,” the former president called out to the young audience. “I know you’re tired. But we can’t afford to be tired.” Obama pleaded fervently to vote and be patient: it is difficult to undo centuries of discrimination.
The message was tailored to African Americans, nearly one-fifth of Virginia’s residents. If the Democrats succeed in mobilizing them, they have a chance of winning the election. Obama didn’t need to convince 73-year-old Leslie Hall. “Biden is doing a great job,” says the African American from Richmond. “But his hands are tied because the conservative Senate is blocking everything.” Despite all the frustration at the national level, it is important to secure progress at home, adds Brenda Johnson, 73.
Younger African American women, on the other hand, are more likely to stay away from the polls. Democratic party officials call this forecast a media invention, but Cenaya Reed sees the evidence in his own environment. “Many are disappointed in Joe Biden. It’s not moving fast enough,” says the 20-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There was no real police reform, our voting rights were not secured. The schools in our neighborhoods are worse, we have fewer parks and more pollution, our children still don’t have the same opportunities.”
The other world in the mountains
Quite different from these urban voices are the voices of the Appalachian voters in the south and west of the state. In the mountain areas, the clocks only seem to run backwards. The boom in the coal industry is long gone. Gone are the days when the miners voted for Democrats because their unions campaigned for better working conditions.
The coal industry is now starving, the local press is full of police photos of suspected drug offenders, every second shop is boarded up, many of the simple dwellings are dilapidated, and only the few wealthy live in stone houses.
Such areas seem lost to the Democrats. Plenty of their officials have defected to political opponents. One of them is Gerald Arrington, the prosecutor-elect in Buchanan County, where Trump recently won 83 percent of the vote. He was always a libertarian, says Arrington, but because his family was Democratic, he stayed with the party for a long time. His area has always been conservative, very religious, free gun ownership, firmly opposed to abortion and the “LGBTIQ movement,” says Arrington in a windowless meeting room in Grundy.
“Everyone has forgotten us.”
“Our values have not changed. The Democratic Party has slipped to the left,” says Arrington. He has just left the party because, like three local sheriffs before him, he disagreed with criticism of the police and with criminal justice reforms. Arrington is dissatisfied with the politicians in Richmond and Washington: “Everyone in the Appalachia has forgotten us.”
Aaron also feels forgotten. Thirty-something boy and two friends are fishing for rainbow and gold trout in Grundy’s Levisa Fork. He leaves no doubt that he is one of Trump’s supporters. He eyes the media critically, so he doesn’t want to give his last name or his exact age. The bearded man brushes aside the complaints of African American women about sluggish equal rights: “We fought for the abolition of slavery during the Civil War. For me, the issue is closed.”
What worries Aaron is inflation, the fact that the price of a tank of fuel for his pickup truck has risen from $30 to over $50, that lumber has become more expensive, that global supply chains have stalled. It is clear to Aaron that the US President is to blame: “Biden can’t even form a whole sentence.”
Rarely are there democratic and undecided voters like Paris Parker, who sips his morning coffee in a petrol station shop in Tazewell. “Most people here would vote for a head of cabbage if the Republicans nominated it,” says the craftsman. He himself, on the other hand, wants to first check what the candidates stand for. It remains unanswered whether this is the usual subterfuge of a voter who does not want to announce his Trump preference.
According to experts, however, the elections would by no means be decided in such ultra-Republican areas, but in the densely populated agglomerations of Virginia, especially those that border on the federal capital Washington. In Arlington, for example, known worldwide for its huge military cemetery, there were hardly any Trump signs to be seen last fall. Now, however, a red “Youngkin for Governor” lights up here and there in the front yards. According to surveys, among voters without party affiliation, climate or minority policies are not the decisive factors that keep the Democratic Party on its toes. What occupies there is the state of the labor market, the management of the pandemic and the security situation. Biden’s answers are obviously not convincing enough for these voters, his poll numbers are worse than those of any other democratic president.
Democrats drive risky strategy
The Democrats’ strategy of demonizing Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin as a Trump fanatic does not seem to be working here, on the contrary: they risk scaring off pragmatic middle voters. They could therefore be all the more tempted to at least give the majority in Virginia’s parliament back to the Republicans.
Republican Youngkin has done his part to win over such swing voters. The former fund manager has adopted a moderate tone and has apparently repeatedly flirted with the Trumpists, but without taking a clear stand for the former president. Youngkin is Trump in sheep’s clothing, criticize the Democrats.
Some observers, however, object that Youngkin is cleverly trying to unite Republicans. His strategy could work. The operator of a historic guesthouse, for example, says he didn’t vote for Trump, but that a change of power is now needed in Virginia.