August 24, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story

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Deciding Factors 

A close governor’s race between two wealthy Virginia businessmen could set the tone for broader national elections, but this time it’s not business as usual.

click to enlarge Left: Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Right: Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin.

Scott Elmquist

Left: Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Right: Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin.

Call it a tale of two campaign stops.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin picks a small office building in a working-class part of Emporia, a Southside town where Amtrak passenger trains no longer stop. It is chiefly known for stock car driving and speed traps given its proximity to the North Carolina border.

Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s choice is the parking lot of Port City Brewery in a middle class neighborhood of Alexandria lined with modest red brick houses of the type built by the thousands after World War II.

Seem similar? They are and they reveal strategies that both candidates must follow if they are to win what seems to be a close race Nov. 2.

Both neighborhoods are modest and might play to voters who may or may not favor former President Donald Trump. How they choose might mean the election.

McAuliffe already seems to have wrapped up rich suburbs that have voted predominately Democratic for the past 12 years. Youngkin, a Harvard-trained financial expert who has Trump’s endorsement, needs to lure more undecided from more varied areas.

“The big question is whether McAuliffe will turn out post-Trump voters and will the Republicans decide to highlight culture wars at schools,” says Robert Holsworth, a Richmond-based political analyst.

Off-season Virginia gubernatorial races are always national political bellwethers since they can set the tone for much broader elections, including federal ones. But this one is particularly special. Only a few times has a former Virginia governor run for office again.

McAuliffe is a known entity and major player among national Democrats. Youngkin is an urbane and ultra-wealthy former corporate executive with no political experience.

The race comes as Virginia has been undergoing a dramatic demographic change with big impacts on elections. New census figures show that the number of Virginians who identify as multiracial has tripled since 1990.

Rich suburbs around Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads have voted increasingly Democratic. More rural and reliably Republican areas – Donald Trump’s rock-hard base – are in decline. Trump lost Virginia twice and during his term, several Republican congressional districts flipped. The General Assembly became blue.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s politics are changing in another, huge way – diversity.

Running for lieutenant governor, Republican Winsome Sears, a Marine veteran born in Jamaica, faces Democrat Hala Ayala, a cyber-security specialist with roots in El Salvador, Lebanon and Ireland. [Editor's note: Princess Blanding (Liberation party), a Middlesex resident and activist whose brother was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018, and Paul Davis (Independent), are also running for governor with Blanding appearing on the general election ballot and Davis running as a write-in candidate].

 

By contrast, the two leading candidates running for governor aren’t exactly diverse, at least judging from their ritzy ZIP codes

Youngkin and McAuliffe live in Northern Virginia six miles from each other in gilded parts of Great Falls and McLean where homes average about $1.4 million, making them among the wealthiest areas in the country.

Both men have made lots of money. McAuliffe ran an assortment of businesses, starting as a for-hire driveway cleaner as a teenager. He’s said to be worth about $30 million and was considered a master fundraiser when he was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In money terms, however, he’s hardly in Youngkin’s league. Youngkin’s wealth is estimated to be anywhere from $300 to $400 million. He made it by rising to the top of the tony Carlyle Group, a Washington private equity firm with connections to top U.S. politicians, aerospace and defense companies and Middle Eastern sultans, among others.

Despite his riches, Youngkin has zeroed on grievance rage among lower-and middle-class earners who may seem ignored and exploited by leftist elites. Trump quickly endorsed him.

One of Youngkin’s television ads spells out the approach: It shows a gaggle of doddering older men in dark suits and ties walking down a sidewalk in one direction. Walking the other way towards the camera, Youngkin, wearing a business casual vest, says: “For too long, we’ve been told there’s only one way to do things in Richmond. The same politicians are taking us in the wrong direction. I’m Glenn Youngkin and I’m not a politician. I spent 30 years building business and getting big things done.”

Then he cuts to the chase with the closing: “It’s a new day in Virginia and the future belongs to us, not them.”

The anger that Trump sparked still resonates in this year’s state and local races. In fact, it could be the deciding factor if, come Nov. 2, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, debates about face masks and vaccinations continue and parents are still battling loudly over educational theories that before last summer, never made it out of graduate school classrooms.

Yet, Youngkin is often silent about Trump.

click to enlarge In a television commercial, Youngkin seeks to walk against a tide of greedy state legislators.
  • In a television commercial, Youngkin seeks to walk against a tide of greedy state legislators.

“He has a very difficult challenge here,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “If you seem too much like Trump, you lose some voters. If you seem not enough like him, you can lose others.”

McAuliffe, who is slightly ahead of Youngkin in recent polls, is crystal clear on the former president: “We just went through four years of insanity with Donald Trump.”

As of Aug. 18, McAuliffe has raised slightly more funds – $20,330,101 to Youngkin’s $19,564,425. According to The Washington Post, Youngkin aides estimate his total campaign cost at $75 million but it’s still unclear how much Youngkin himself will contribute to that number.

Tall, well groomed and a former college basketball player, Youngkin is a political novice and it sometimes shows. He’s committed a number of unforced errors. He seemed to come on strong against abortion, but was caught on tape saying he was backpedaling.

He attacked McAuliffe and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for running the state into an “economic ditch” just as business news media outlet CNBC declared Virginia the No. 1 state for business in the country.

In written responses to Style, Youngkin said “Unfortunately, Virginia hasn’t performed like the number one state to do business in and we’ve watched our cost of living and our cost of doing business be ranked literally in the bottom half.”

On another issue, Youngkin has tried to benefit from widespread concerns over critical race theory, an academic concept that explores the impact of race on institutions. The theory came about in graduate schools about a half a century ago and suddenly became a matter of concern in the last months of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Youngkin has agreed that the theory developed about 50 years ago but claims it is being taught “in all schools of Virginia.” However, Politifact, a nonpartisan fact checker, rated that statement as false. In response to a Style question about the Politifact finding, Youngkin staff says he will keep the theory out of schools as governor.

 

click to enlarge Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin addresses supporters in Emporia. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin addresses supporters in Emporia.

Youngkin was born in Richmond and grew up in Virginia. As a teenager he washed dishes along the boardwalk at the beach and attended Norfolk Academy, a private school. He graduated from Rice University and has a master’s degree in business from Harvard.
In 1995, he joined the Carlyle Group, founded in 1987 in a Washington then thought of as a financial industry backwater. The group has managed billions in investments and included many political heavyweights such as Frank Carlucci, a former U.S. secretary of defense, among others.

Carlyle grew to have a global reach. It had financial links to powerful people in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. It held investments from the family of Osama bin Laden that were sold off soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to The New York Times. McAuliffe also has been a Carlyle investor.

According to news accounts, Youngkin worked up the ladder, attaining continuously more responsible positions, including one in London. He was made part of management in 2008. He was smooth, congenial and a consensus seeker, reports say.

The original management team wanted to prepare successors. So in 2018, Youngkin was made co-chief executive officer along with Kewsong Lee. But Youngkin retired last July. At one political event in Prince George County this spring, Youngkin told supporters that he felt it was time to get into “public service.”

Bloomberg, the business news outlet, tells another story. In a recent article it claims that Youngkin was pushed out of the job by Lee, a more aggressive dealmaker.

Earlier this year, months after Youngkin left, Lee told The Wall Street Journal that he has worked to “close the gap” between Carlyle and other, better performing private equity funds.

When asked about the discrepancy in reports, an unnamed campaign official wrote this to Style Weekly from the Youngkin campaign: “Glenn had a stellar career at Carlyle. During his investment career from 1995 to 2008, he led investments in many of Carlyle’s most successful funds and then was promoted into management in 2008.”

 

click to enlarge Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe rallies in Alexandria before a tour arranged by the national Democrats to push infrastructure spending. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe rallies in Alexandria before a tour arranged by the national Democrats to push infrastructure spending.

McAuliffe has had some business issues as well. About 11 years ago, he got involved with Anthony Rodham, the brother of former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016.

The problems involved a firm called Greentech Automotive that would invite investment from Chinese individuals. They were to build a factory to make small electric cars in Mississippi that would employ hundreds. The vehicles would be exported to China. As part of the deal, Chinese investors would get special access to permanent U.S. visas. But the firm stumbled and layoffs began. McAuliffe left in 2012 just before he announced his run for governor.

In 2017, McAuliffe and Clinton’s brother were named in a $17 million suit by 32 Chinese citizens who claimed they were defrauded of $560,000, according to Politico. The Greentec firm later went bankrupt, though McAuliffe already had left years earlier. The McAuliffe camp had no response to questions about the matter.

In 2013, McAuliffe won a tight, three-point race against a hard-right conservative, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Among his accomplishments in office, McAuliffe won the freedom for voting rights for 173,000 convicted felons once they have served their sentences. He helped Northern Virginia recruit Amazon for a second national headquarters that will employ 2,000 workers, according to a U.S. News and World report in May. He was a strong supporter for gay and lesbian rights.

His biggest disappointment was failing four times to get support from Republicans in the General Assembly to expand Medicaid health insurance to 400,000 lower income Virginians.

His record on the environment and energy is mixed. He enraged environmental groups by backing two controversial pipelines, the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was later abandoned.

According to Glen Besa, retired head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club: “As a climate activist, I’ll be holding my nose and voting for Terry McAuliffe.  Terry needs to apologize for his support of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. ... But Youngkin and the Republican Party would attempt to reverse the recent progress Virginia has made on climate protection.”

McAuliffe went out of office on a high note. In November 2017, the well-respected Governing magazine included him as one of its public officials of the year. He was cited for creating about 207,000 new jobs during his term. McAuliffe has characterized it as a record of performance. At the Alexandria event, he joked that while in office, “I created three times more craft breweries than anyone else.”

But a closer looks shows that in jobs formation, he was more in the middle of the pack. In fact, former Govs. George Allen, James S. Gilmore III and Mark R. Warner all created more jobs.

 

click to enlarge McAuliffe, in Alexandria, says it’s time to move away from former President Donald Trump. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • McAuliffe, in Alexandria, says it’s time to move away from former President Donald Trump.

Around Labor Day, the candidates will need to bring more clarity and substance to their issues. Farnsworth, for example, says it’s important for Youngkin to solidify his ideas. Plus, the television and social media ads will air in earnest. Some analysts predict productions not seen in Virginia before, given the money available.

In written answers to Style, Youngkin says on education, he wants to “sign an executive order returning Virginia’s schools to pre-McAuliffe standards.” He will upgrade teaching advanced mathematics, create more governors’ schools and create new metrics to see how well children are learning.

McAuliffe says he’s proud of his progress on teaching and he’ll invest $2 billion in education. Both candidates want to keep children in schoolrooms during the pandemic.

On law enforcement, Youngkin wants to pay troopers, police, correction officers and sheriff’s deputies bonuses of $5,000 to sworn officers over the next three years.

Both Youngkin and McAuliffe want to improve broadband service. Youngkin says he’d put $700 billion into the efforts. McAuliffe says he “wants to have broadband at every home in Virginia.” Both want to expand science and mathematics education.

Holsworth and Farnsworth agree that of the two, Youngkin has more work to do in tightening his platform. “He doesn’t have a consistent message,” Holsworth says.

Whatever he does come up with has got to be something that attracts voters who are undecided. “For McAuliffe, that’s less of a problem.”

The former governor has a lot of advantages, Farnsworth believes. He came in as an outsider linked to the Clinton camp of which many voters were suspicious and barely beat Cuccinelli. “This time, he’s got the networks, the policies and the ability to raise money,” Farnsworth points out.

What could change the equation in a big way is if the current popular rage over coronavirus facemasks, vaccinations and critical race theory keeps growing. Across Virginia, one school board after another has erupted into shouting matches among parents with strong ideas on those issues. Some on social media have somehow even linked the theory to a covert Marxist plan to take over the state’s school systems. Disputes about the theory emerged about the time of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis that touched off nationwide demonstrations and a rethinking about race.

Virginia had been doing relatively well on fighting the pandemic, even though there were lots of complaints of closed businesses, lost revenue and interrupted class time. More than half of state residents have been vaccinated.

If the more infectious delta variant of COVID, which is already erasing Virginia’s gains, becomes much worse, it could impact undecided voters more than the usual meat and potatoes issues. It could make more people go the polls. That would be unusual because Virginia voters tend to stay away from off-year elections. It could hurt McAuliffe because, in a sense, he is the incumbent.

It’s obvious that Trump still has plenty of influence nine months after leaving office. How Virginia’s undecided voters make their choices could have a profound impact on what happens in not just the Old Dominion, but the nation in coming years.

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