McAuliffe cancels election eve event in Virginia Beach as forecasters move state to "lean Republican"

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Gotta be careful not to read too much into this. It’s possible that McAuliffe got some good polling in another corner of the state and thought his final hours on the trail would be better spent there, rallying the troops. Or maybe he got good polling in Virginia Beach itself and calculated that the troops there didn’t need rallying, in which case he should redeploy and try to get out the vote in a city where his numbers are weaker.

But Virginia Beach is located in a swing district, Virginia’s 2nd. It leans slightly Republican yet has elected Democrat Elaine Luria in the last two cycles. Normally we’d expect the nominees from both parties to compete there, looking to tilt centrist voters into their column. The fact that Youngkin is going ahead with a rally in the city while McAuliffe is bugging out suggests only one candidate is competing hard for the moderate vote as Virginia prepares to vote.

Team Terry would say that they don’t need to worry about moderates in a state as blue as Virginia. All they need to do is turn out their own base to win, which is fair enough. But when the candidate who’s spent weeks losing momentum in the polls starts canceling last-minute events, usually it’s not because a sweet opportunity has suddenly opened somewhere on the map. It’s because he’s doing triage and urgently needs to shore up another jurisdiction that suddenly looks wobbly for him.

Either way, a local news outlet is reporting that Youngkin will hold a rally in Virginia Beach as scheduled this afternoon while McAuliffe is pulling out, without specifying why. That came just hours before election forecasters at Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” shop at UVA declared that Virginia now looks more likely to go red than blue, an unthinkable development a few months ago. And even if McAuliffe ekes out a win, the tiny margin is apt to spook Democrats in Washington regardless:

[L]et’s assume that the bulk of the polls are correct and that the race ends up being very close either way. Both of those possible results — a narrow win by either candidate — would suggest a significant falloff for Democrats from their strong Virginia performances in the Trump era and represent, at the very least, a bright red “check engine” light at the midpoint of the Democrats’ journey from last year’s presidential race to next year’s midterm…

Those who believe McAuliffe will still win — and they very well may be right — will remember 4 years ago, when many seemed to think Ed Gillespie (R) had controlled the narrative of the race and was headed for an upset. But the difference between now and then is that Ralph Northam (D) had the advantages of voter enthusiasm, history, and political environment. As noted above, Youngkin benefits from those factors now. That may be enough to get him across the finish line, although a victory by either candidate remains on the table.

Crystal Ball also pointed out that Virginia’s gubernatorial result has been a solid bellwether of the congressional midterms in the following year over the last four election cycles:

The one recent case where the party that lost Virginia’s election went on to gain seats in the House in the next election was 2013-14, when the Dems’ gubernatorial nominee was … Terry McAuliffe. He also had the smallest margin by far of any winner in the past 30 years, so even a narrow victory over Youngkin tomorrow won’t reassure his party that they’ll still be in charge of Congress in 2023.

But look: He could win. The strong momentum in Virginia towards Youngkin over the last month has convinced Republicans that he’s now likely to prevail, which means we’re in for another round of “rigged election” whining if he falls short. McAuliffe has two major advantages in Virginia that make him hard to beat, though. One, obviously, is the state’s solid Democratic lean. The other is the fact that Virginians have been voting since mid-September, weeks before Youngkin’s surge in the polls began. It’s possible that some centrists who already cast their ballots for McAuliffe would have switched to Youngkin if only they’d waited a bit longer and seen the debate between the two over parents’ role in schools play out. “McAuliffe was five points ahead of Youngkin when early voting started in Virginia,” Philip Klein reminds us today, ominously:

Over 1.1 million early votes were cast — that represents nearly 44 percent of the total number of votes cast in the 2017 gubernatorial election. While overall turnout could be higher this year, it’s clear that a significant portion of the electorate has already voted…

It’s impossible to know whom the early votes went to. The firm TargetSmart estimates that 53 percent of early voters were Democrats, 31 percent were Republicans, and 16 percent were unaffiliated. If the partisan voting preferences followed a recent Washington Post–Schar School poll that showed McAuliffe up one point, that would imply that McAuliffe enters Tuesday with about a 58 percent to 41 percent lead among the universe of early voters.

Given the shift in opinion towards Youngkin in October, McAuliffe obviously benefited from the early start to voting. The question is whether he benefited enough to overcome booming enthusiasm among Republicans. We’ll know in about 30 hours.

I’ll leave you with this succinct take on the dilemma for Democrats generally and for McAuliffe specifically. African-American voters are a special worry for Dems in the “depressed base” category since the party is expecting Youngkin to prove much more appealing to white suburbanites than Trump did, forcing McAuliffe to make up those lost votes elsewhere. If black Dems aren’t out in force tomorrow, he’s in trouble. “They need to be bailed out and they’re going to a constituency that’s been there for them in the past,” one GOP consultant told Fox News about the Democrats’ anxiety over black turnout. “It’s really an admission of their strategic failure throughout the campaign that they have not been able to build a winning coalition based off of the issue sets that voters care about.”