The Corporate Race for Governor of Virginia

Photograph Source: Kate Wellington – CC BY 2.0

Virginia’s gubernatorial election, to be held on November 2, 2021, will be contested between former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin. The 2 candidates, pro-corporate politicians to the core, are each trying desperately to differentiate themselves from the other. In addition, both have substantial demerits, which have to be brushed-over during the campaign.

The Constitution of Virginia bars a sitting governor from serving consecutive terms, so McAuliffe had to make way for the election of another governor, who happened to be his fellow corporate Democrat Ralph Northam.

Youngkin has never sought any kind of political office before.

Virginia’s current demographics, as revealed by the 2020 Census, are playing a significant part in shaping the campaign pitches of both candidates.

There are now 2 Virginias— the urban and suburban arc in Northern Virginia (NOVA) around Washington DC, as well as the belt that extends from there to the state capital Richmond and its surrounding areas;  and rural southwestern Virginia (SWVA) to the west of 1-64.

NOVA is now solidly Democratic, while SWVA has been Republican, with some signs that patches of it are starting, somewhat evenly, to align with the Dems.

The 2020 Census showed that Fairfax County in NOVA, the state’s largest, is now “majority minority”, that is, no racial group in the county constitutes a majority. Another NOVA county, Prince William, is the 10th most diverse county in the US.

The reverse is the case in SWVA. For example, Dickinson County was 97.2% white in the 2020 Census, having been 98.8% white in the 2010 Census, and 98.96% white in the 2000 Census. A similar situation prevails in the other SWVA counties.

Population growth and decline are similarly polarized.

According to the first release of data from the 2020 Census, by far the biggest population growth in Virginia since the 2010 Census has been in NOVA and its outlying areas, as well as above-mentioned the belt between Washington DC and the state capital Richmond (including the hinterlands of both cities).

At the same time, SWVA has seen an overall population decline, except for small pockets with college towns, namely, Lexington, Staunton and Harrisonburg cities, Roanoke city (home of the Virginia Tech-Cariion medical school), and Montgomery County (where Virginia Tech is located).

A widening skills gap has also exacerbated the divide between NOVA and SWVA, with the exception of the above-mentioned college towns in the latter— people with college degrees move to NOVA and the SWVA college towns, increasing their populations, while the rest of SWVA experiences population decline, with the elderly and less-educated starting to become preponderant there in greater numbers.

So what are candidates Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin trying to do in this situation?

On the face of it, McAuliffe has the easier task. As a recent former governor he is recognized by more Virginians (even if only “facially” and by name), while his Republican opponent can’t of course be identified as the municipal dog-catcher in any Virginian locality.

Moreover, NOVA and Richmond (as well as the Virginia Beach suburbs) and their surrounding areas are the where most of Virginia’s population reside, and the Democrats are at a numerical advantage here.

The economic rebound from the lifting of Covid restrictions is not doing McAuliffe any harm.

This leaves Youngkin having little choice but to secure Trump’s base in SWVA, and he has made no bones about pandering to it. He’s mouthed the usual falsehoods about critical race theory, and, anxious not to alienate women in the cities and suburbs, he’s been evasive about abortion rights. Youngkin says he’s against abortion, but has not been specific about the measures he will take to implement his restrictions. He spent months not giving direct answers to questions about Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election when he campaigned for the Republican ticket, but changed his position as soon as he won nomination by acknowledging Biden’s victory.

Apart from that, Youngkin mouths the usual platitudes about being tough on crime, wanting more jobs, and having schools raise their standards. Who on earth can be against wanting reductions in crime, more jobs, and better education?

Youngkin wanting more jobs for Virginians provides a pause for thought.

He needs to be pushed on the fact that he was CEO of the Carlyle Group before he entered politics. The Carlyle Group specializes in private equity, real assets, and private credit. An important part of its business is leveraged buyouts, that is, buying distressed firms in the hope that they can be made profitable. A key tool in turning a company round is reducing wage costs, a fancy word for culling its work-force.

So far Youngkin has refused to debate the always slick McAuliffe (who admittedly is too smooth for some tastes). Youngkin may change his mind if he starts to fall behind in the opinion polls.

McAuliffe for his part has had to defend his support for the controversial Mountain Valley pipeline, an environmentally disastrous project that will confer few economic benefits on surrounding communities. He will play the numbers, and decide that voters on his party’s left will hold their noses and prefer an older-school capitalist (no matter how slippery) to a relatively unknown new-fangled venture capitalist.

For now the opinion polls are in McAuliffe’s favour.

The latest Virginia Commonwealth University poll shows McAuliffe leading the race 40% to 37% (though this is within the margin of error).

Another poll, by Roanoke College, shows McAuliffe leading 46% to 38%, with 13% undecided (the margin of error for this poll is plus or minus 4.2%).

McAuliffe will be hoping these numbers will hold, or be improved upon, as the election approaches.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.