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Biden stumps for Terry McAuliffe in Virginia in early test of political clout

President Biden and Terry McAuliffe
President Biden greets Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe as he arrives to campaign for McAuliffe at an event in Arlington, Va., on Friday, July 23, 2021.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

President Biden led the kind of campaign rally on Friday that was impossible last year because of the pandemic, speaking in front of nearly 3,000 people in support of a fellow moderate Democrat whose race for Virginia governor could serve as a test of Biden’s own strength and coattails.

Biden traveled in a motorcade across the Potomac River to back Terry McAuliffe, a former governor looking for a second term whose centrist leanings in many ways mirror those of the president. The race is seen as an early measure of voters’ judgment on Democratic control of all branches of the federal government.

The president stood before an enthusiastic and largely unmasked crowd that gathered around a park pavilion and playground on a warm July night. He emphasized that he shared the same vision as McAuliffe about the need for greater public investments in order to drive economic growth. But Biden was also focused on the political stakes.

“You’re not gonna find anyone, I mean anyone, who knows how to get more done for Virginia than Terry,” Biden said. “Off-year election, the country’s looking. This is a big deal.”

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Biden pointed to his management of the pandemic and highlighted the economic recovery during the first six months of his term, providing a window into his party’s messaging as it tries to maintain narrow margins next fall in both houses of Congress. He also highlighted the relative popularity of his $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill and called for action on his infrastructure plan, much as he has done in official visits to congressional districts expected to see close races next year.

It was a clear return to politics as normal after 2020, when Biden had to speak to supporters who stayed in their cars at drive-in rallies or give remarks in front of sparse and socially distanced audiences. The rock songs and tightly packed people standing before center stage suggested that Democrats will not be waging campaigns via Zoom meetings and conference calls this year.

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Protesters against an oil pipeline interrupted Biden and the president took a shot at his 2020 opponent as he told the crowd to not shout them down.

“It’s not a Trump rally,” Biden said. “Let them holler. No one’s paying attention.”

McAuliffe’s win in his state’s gubernatorial primary was one of a string of recent victories by self-styled pragmatic candidates in relatively low-turnout elections — which tend to draw the most loyal base voters — and his race is being carefully watched by Democrats looking to shape their messaging for next year.

“It’s an important test for the Biden administration. The margins are so small, and he needs to be able to use his clout to help candidates get across the finish line,” said Adrienne Elrod, a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who also worked on Biden’s inaugural. “His message is simple: that he is delivering on promises on vaccines, record job growth and infrastructure.”

McAuliffe, who previously served as governor from 2014 to 2018, is facing Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer who made a fortune in private equity. Despite the state trending blue over the last decade, the race is seen as competitive. As one of only two regularly scheduled governor’s races this year, it is drawing outsize national attention as a potential measuring stick of voter sentiment ahead of the 2022 midterms.

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Biden and McAuliffe have similar profiles, as moderate Democrats who don’t necessarily electrify the party’s base but who won their primaries on a promise of electability. The Virginia race could serve as a checkup on Biden’s status, and the Democratic National Committee has pledged to spend $5 million to help McAuliffe’s campaign this year, a clear signal that the White House has prioritized the race.

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Youngkin, however, has distanced himself from former President Trump, even as much of the Republican Party remains in the thrall of the former president.

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Still, Democrats on Friday repeatedly tried to link Youngkin with Trump, who lost Virginia last year. Biden told the rally crowd: “Terry and I have a lot in common. I ran against Donald Trump and so is Terry. And I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia and so will Terry.”

Biden has long been an eager campaigner on the road — and on the rope line — during his time as senator and vice president, and emerged as a successful surrogate in 2018 when Democrats won back control of the House.

But the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated campaigning for the bulk of the 2020 race, and the events that were held for the general election stretch run were socially distant and infrequent. As the pandemic receded this spring, Biden, always the most tactile of politicians, has reveled in interacting with people, spending an hour chatting with supporters at a recent Philadelphia event.

Aides said he was eager to do the same in Arlington on Friday. But privately, there was increased worry about the danger posed by the virus’ highly contagious Delta variant.

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Biden has pledged to work with Republicans and has spent enormous political energy on the bipartisan infrastructure deal. But he was still expected to go after the GOP, particularly on Republican efforts to restrict ballot access in a number of states and on how Trump fueled the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

White House aides have pointed to polling that suggests Biden’s agenda is broadly popular with voters of both parties, even though it has received little support from GOP lawmakers in Washington. But Republican strategists cast doubt on whether Biden’s poll numbers would translate into votes.

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“This will be the first real test of how voters feel about Democratic control. What does the electorate look like without Trump on the ticket?” said Alex Conant, who was a senior advisor to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid. “The president’s approval ratings are relatively good, but no one trusts the polls anymore.”

Republicans are attempting to label Biden and McAuliffe as “two peas in a pod” who are now currying favor with the extreme left, a sign that identity politics could play as large a role as policies.

“They are both swampy career politicians with failed records who are now tripping over themselves to embrace the radical left as quickly as possible,” Tommy Pigott, rapid response director for the Republican National Committee, said in an email before the event.

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Although Biden and McAuliffe have been active in Democratic politics for decades, they have relatively few direct political connections, though McAuliffe ran the state campaign for Biden in 2020. But their political and ideological similarities are extensive.

Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University, recalled that McAuliffe was interested in running for president himself in 2020 but held off and deferred to Biden, knowing that they would occupy the same political lane, which Rozell described as “centrist-progressive.”

Virginia’s off-year elections have always been looked at as a sort of national bellwether, and “with the Democratic nominee being so philosophically close and similar to Biden, many may see Virginia as a stronger bellwether than usual,” Rozell said.

Current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, like all Virginia governors, is prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term. The other notable off-year election in 2021, for New Jersey governor, is not expected to be competitive, with Democrats probably maintaining control.

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Biden’s political activities have been sparse during his first six months in office, mostly just a few virtual fundraisers. And his travel has also been limited because of the pandemic.

Biden hasn’t ventured farther west than Texas, where he visited in February to tour the site of devastating storms. And he has not spent a night at a hotel in the United States, limiting his travel to states where he can return to the White House or home to Delaware at the end of the day.


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