By Joseph Ax and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Almost a year after President Joe Biden trounced Donald Trump in Virginia, the state's unexpectedly tight race for governor has alarmed Democrats and left Republicans hopeful they can win back crucial suburban voters https://www.reuters.com/world/us/culture-war-education-rages-virginia-governors-race-2021-07-22 who left the party during Trump's tumultuous presidency.
With early voting under way, the non-partisan Cook Report has labeled the Nov. 2 contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, a toss-up. A poll last week by the University of Mary Washington gave Youngkin an advantage with likely voters.
That is a surprising show of strength for the Republican in a Southern state that has trended Democratic in recent years. Trump lost by 10 percentage points in November, double his margin of defeat in 2016 in large part because his scorched-earth politics repelled moderate, suburban and female voters.
As one of the first statewide elections since Trump's departure, the Virginia race is seen as a barometer for national political trends and a preview of what is to come in the 2022 elections that will decide which party controls Congress.
Current Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, cannot seek re-election because the state bars governors from serving consecutive terms.
While McAuliffe, 64, remains favored, Democrats "should absolutely be worried about the prospect of losing this race," said Jesse Ferguson, an aide to Democrat Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.
"This is absolutely a four-alarm fire," he said. "It's been burning red-hot for months."
The Biden administration has faced abundant challenges recently, including the chaotic pullout of forces from Afghanistan, the persistent COVID-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.
This week, the White House faces the prospect of a government shutdown if Congress cannot reach a deal to keep the federal government funded, while Democrats are split over a massive spending bill that includes Biden's key priorities.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week, 44% of U.S. adults approved of Biden's performance, while 51% disapproved – his lowest marks since taking office in January.
Youngkin, 54, a former chief executive of The Carlyle Group Inc private equity firm, provides an alternative for voters who were not comfortable with Trump but do not feel at home in the Democratic Party, said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from northern Virginia.
"These people voted for Biden because they didn't want Donald Trump in their living room for four more years," Davis said.
Youngkin, he said, "speaks the language of suburbia. People don't have to be embarrassed to put a Youngkin sign in their yards."
Democrats are watching the race closely. A lack of enthusiasm among their voters and some independents who backed Biden in November is a worrisome harbinger ahead of next year's elections, said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.
"Democrats have a year to turn this around, but right now the electorate is not where we need them to be for the midterms," Tribbett said.
A CHECK ON POWER
The governor's race in Virginia has often served as a check on the party holding the White House. After Republican George W. Bush became president, Virginians elected Democrat Mark Warner in 2001. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell won a year into Democrat Barack Obama's presidency. While Virginia has trended in a more liberal direction since then, experts say it is more competitive without Trump on the ballot to galvanize Democratic turnout.
The former president still looms large: The election has become a test of whether Republicans such as Youngkin can successfully navigate the space between having Trump's support and being branded as a full-fledged adherent to his "Make America Great Again" movement.
Youngkin has cast himself as an outsider businessman rather than a politician picking up Trump's mantle. At the same time, he has tried not to stray too far from Trump's orbit as to alienate his ardent supporters.
He has not endorsed Trump's false stolen-election claims, although he spoke at an "election integrity" rally in August held by Trump supporters. He has urged Virginians to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but has opposed vaccine and mask mandates. Youngkin has advocated for voting by mail - methods that Trump has falsely attacked as untrustworthy.
An adviser to Youngkin, Kristin Davison, said the campaign has brought together "forever Trumpers and never Trumpers" —trying to appeal to Trump's base while reaching out to independents and disaffected Democrats on issues such as inflation, education and crime.
There is a risk to that strategy. Trump argued in a recent radio interview that Youngkin needs to fully "embrace the MAGA movement" or risk losing. McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to Trump at every opportunity, suggesting there is little daylight between the two.
"He is a Trump wannabe," McAuliffe said of his rival at their first debate. The second debate is scheduled for Tuesday.
McAuliffe, who served as the state's governor from 2014 to 2018, increasingly has made the contest about safeguards against the virus. He has said he would require all teachers and healthcare workers to be vaccinated and has run ads criticizing Youngkin on the issue.
His campaign believes it will be a difference maker with suburban parents, an aide told Reuters.
A source familiar with the White House's thinking said McAuliffe was running a race centered on COVID-19 and the economy, similar to the themes Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized in handily defeating a Republican-led recall campaign this month.
The White House is not worried about the race, the source added. "We always knew it was going to be close."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and James Oliphant in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)
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