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Democrats on the clock: Test of how blue Virginia really is coming in 2021

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Forgive Virginia Democrats for cutting short their post-election celebrations, considering the odd trend, dating back to the mid-1970s, with our statewide elections.

Just once since 1977 did our vote for governor go to the nominee from the party that had won the previous year’s presidential election.

And you could argue that the year that bucked the trend, 2013, was more about how Republicans couldn’t stand prosperity – going with a borderline extremist, Ken Cuccinelli, over the measured, moderate two-term lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, to challenge big money centrist Democrat Terry McAuliffe, and even then, McAuliffe had to eke out a 2.5-point, 56,000-vote victory.

With Joe Biden our president-elect, it’s Democrats who are on the clock heading into the 2021 cycle, which promises to be as topsy-turvy as any in recent memory in the Old Dominion.

Setting the scene

At the start, there is no preset in terms of a favorite to be the gubernatorial nominee really on either side.

It’s been so long since Republicans have won a statewide election – can you believe it’s been since 2009? – that the bench on the GOP side is mighty thin.

Oddly, though, the same is true on the Democratic side, despite everything having gone the Dems’ way the past decade-plus.

This all dates to a few days in early February in 2019, starting with the release on a conservative news blog of a shocking photo from a yearbook of the sitting governor, Ralph Northam.

One of the men in the photo was in blackface, the other wearing a KKK costume.

As Northam bumbled his response to that story, it then came to light that the sitting lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, had been accused of two separate, unresolved incidents of sexual assault, which he immediately, and categorically, denied, but even so.

With Northam and Fairfax reeling, the focus then turned to two-term Attorney General Mark Herring, who himself admitted to donning blackface at a 1980 party, which, wow, it’s pretty much a circular firing squad at this point.

All three were rendered damaged goods, though Herring has thrown himself back into the fray for a possible third term as AG, and against all odds Fairfax has launched a longshot bid for the gubernatorial nomination.

Against that backdrop, instead of a marquee matchup for the nomination between two sitting state office holders, we have, well, recycled goods, in the form of McAuliffe, back in the running for a possible second term, and two upstarts, State Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

The Republican field, still fleshing out, lacks anything in the way of a heavyweight, with the top names at this early stage being former House Speaker Kirk Cox and a pair of state senators, conservative firebrand Amanda Chase and moderate Emmett Hanger, an intriguing November candidate who will nonetheless have a tough time winning the party nomination almost precisely, and otherwise paradoxically, because he might be the best November candidate.

The unknowns: COVID and the economy

Democrats have the obvious advantage heading into 2021. Since 2012, they’ve dominated elections in Virginia – sweeping the statewide races in 2013 and 2017, re-electing Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to the U.S. Senate twice each, going Democratic at the presidential level in 2012, 2016 and 2020, including giving Biden a 10-point win over Donald Trump.

The two unknowns that could make 2021 competitive are the obvious ones: COVID-19 and the economy, and of course they’re interrelated.

Northam, to his credit, has been able to guide Virginia through the past eight months with the state seeing a fraction of the impact in terms of public health – the Commonwealth’s 44 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents is less than a fourth of the death rates in New York and New Jersey – while also keeping the economy humming along, relatively, anyway – the news today being that tax-revenue collections are actually up 6.7 percent this year, a clear sign of economic health that came as a pleasant and welcome surprise.

Northam, because the state constitution doesn’t allow governors to run for re-election, is a lame duck politically, governing not for a possible second term, but for whoever from the Democratic field gets the nomination to be his successor.

Don’t think that political considerations aren’t a factor in how Northam proceeds from here both in terms of COVID and the economy, either.

Elections, more than anything, are a function of the economy – basically, if you’re better off than you were four years ago, you’re likely to attribute that to the party in power, and reward them, not for their benefit, but for yours.

This could explain how Trump was able to make the 2020 election close despite all the negative press for his handling of COVID, the impeachment drama of the past couple of years, the negative attention that he unwittingly drew to himself with his scatterbrained approach to messaging via Twitter.

Despite all of that, the economy was much stronger as of the beginning of 2020, and then after the calamitous drop in GDP in the second quarter, due to the COVID-19 public health restrictions curbing economic activity, we had a record-setting third-quarter recovery.

The economy, stupid, almost gave Trump a second term, in spite of it all.

I think this is why we’re seeing Northam handling the recent spike in COVID-19 positive test numbers with all deliberate speed and caution.

It’s a tough balancing act, but if he can continue to manage COVID and hospital capacities without having to put a two- or four- or six-week curb on the economy, that gives Democrats a significant tailwind heading into next year.

It helps that we have the news from earlier this week that Pfizer seems to be on the verge of rolling out a powerful COVID-19 vaccine, and that White House COVID czar Anthony Fauci thinks the vaccine could begin being deployed next month, with an eye to the early spring for the bulk of Americans being able to be immunized.

It’s obvious that getting COVID under control is key to getting life back to the old normal.

And old normal, politically speaking, is good for Virginia Democrats.

Flip side, if short-term considerations vis-à-vis COVID force Northam to go with a modified stay-at-home order, with impact down the line on jobs, small business, tax collections, the rest, the door opens for Republicans.

There is already the prevailing sense that Americans are well past being weary in terms of the COVID disruption.

Add economic upheaval to COVID weariness, and tens of millions of dollars worth of campaign TV spots blaming it all on the new party in power, and 2021 becomes anybody’s ballgame.

How blue is Virginia?

A 10-point win for the presidential nominee a year out from the next statewide election would make you want to feel pretty good about your chances.

But it’s not going to be that simple for Virginia Democrats heading into 2021.

It starts with there being no obvious nominee-in-waiting.

Then you factor in the unknowns of COVID and the economy.

Virginia is pretty blue, but it’s not New York, not California.

Democrats still need to run good candidates, and run against a favorable backdrop.

There’s still a ton of work to do in both of those areas, and right now, nothing is given.

Story by Chris Graham

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