President Biden sought to boost Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s run for governor in Virginia on Tuesday, telling voters that a Republican victory would boost efforts to continue spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election and undermine democracy.
“We can’t let this happen,” Biden told supporters at an outdoor rally in Arlington Tuesday evening.
The president said that “extremism can come in many forms” such as “the rage of a mob” but also with “a smile and a fleece vest.” McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has campaigned in a trademark vest. Biden’s reference to a mob followed his warnings about the violence of Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“Either way, the ‘big lie’ is still a big lie,” Biden said, urging Virginians to “show up for democracy.”
Biden focused much of his speech on Trump. He said Youngkin had embraced the former president during the Republican primary, but that Youngkin “doesn’t want to talk about Donald Trump anymore.”
“Well, I do,” Biden said. “[Youngkin] won’t allow Donald Trump to campaign for him. ... What’s he trying to hide? Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is he embarrassed?”
Biden called Youngkin “an acolyte of Donald Trump” and quoted from a Washington Post editorial that said the Republican candidate had “failed” the “character test” by tolerating the former president’s lies about the 2020 election.
“At a moment when democracy itself is under assault, Mr. Youngkin chose to dignify a fundamental fiction that is subverting our system, rather than stand up squarely for the truth. In so doing, he proved himself unfit for office,” the Post wrote.
The Virginia governor’s contest is seen as a bellwether for the national political mood and could have major implications for the president’s domestic agenda. Political observers will draw conclusions about the Democratic Party’s chances of retaining control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections depending on the outcome. Biden’s visit comes amid his own declining approval numbers, and as he continues to push Democrats in Congress to reach a deal on infrastructure and social programs by the end of this week.
A deal in Congress would deliver much-needed funding to help fix the nation’s aging roads and bridges, and would expand the social safety net for lower-income and middle-class Americans. It would also provide a big boost to Biden’s presidency, which is widely viewed as being on the ballot as much as McAuliffe’s own record as governor during his first term.
McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014 to 2018 and was limited by the state constitution from serving more than one consecutive term, can use every bit of help he can get.
McAuliffe led Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, by around 8 points in August, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. That lead is now down to about 2 points, and pollsters have picked up on an enthusiasm gap between reliable Republican voters and regular Democratic voters in a state that had trended Democratic in recent cycles.
Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2009, and the last Republican presidential candidate to win Virginia was George W. Bush in 2004.
In an attempt to overcome apathy and overconfidence among Democratic voters, McAuliffe’s campaign has called in a list of politicians and entertainers to help him turn out supporters. Former President Barack Obama campaigned with McAuliffe in Richmond on Saturday, and musicians Dave Matthews and Pharrell Williams are also pitching in to headline events for the Democratic candidate.
Youngkin’s campaign is a test of whether Republican candidates can bring back voters who were turned off by Trump without alienating the former president’s hard-core supporters. Youngkin presents himself as a country club Republican in the mold of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, which is appealing to suburban Republicans who could not stomach Trump.
But the GOP candidate has also retained the support of Trump voters in the commonwealth by using language that many interpret as support for the former president’s falsehoods about the 2020 election. Earlier this year Youngkin talked regularly about “election integrity” — a phrase used often as a placeholder for disproven claims about the election — and more recently he has called to audit voting machines, which already takes place.
“Talk about an oxymoron: Donald Trump and election integrity,” Biden said. “I can’t believe he puts ‘Donald Trump’ and ‘integrity’ in the same sentence.”
Youngkin has also leaned hard into a major miscue by McAuliffe, who came across as dismissive of the concerns of parents of public school children when arguing that the process for deciding curricula cannot be ad hoc and chaotic. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Youngkin pounced on those remarks and has attempted to make them the central issue of the campaign.
“If you had any doubt — any doubt whatsoever — about Terry McAuliffe’s principles, he laid them bare last week,” Youngkin said at an October rally.
Youngkin’s campaign then ran an ad featuring a parent outraged that her child’s school had assigned a book that she claimed contained material inappropriate for the classroom. Though the ad didn’t name the book, it turned out to be “Beloved,” the acclaimed novel by Toni Morrison.
McAuliffe made sure his audience knew the book and the author in question.
“Yesterday, Glenn Youngkin released his closing argument of this campaign. In it he promotes an effort to ban books by Toni Morrison from Virginia schools,” he told his audience Tuesday evening, adding, “Glenn Youngkin is promoting banning books by one of America’s most prominent Black authors. Just the fact that he’s even discussing this is bringing shame to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Biden’s speech was interrupted at times by protesters in the crowd. The president forged ahead, cracking jokes at a few moments, and using even those moments to draw a contrast with his predecessor.
“This isn’t a Trump rally. We let them holler,” he said.
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