‘We are seeing real momentum’: Republicans think Virginia could be in play this year

Republicans are openly floating that this will finally be the year that Virginia shifts from the Democratic column it’s been in for several presidential elections and back into the battleground category where Donald Trump could win.

The prospect of turning the state red was the topic of discussion between the former president and Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin when they met last week, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.

That hope, which GOP strategists and the chair of the Republican National Committee have aired publicly, is partially based on a recent poll showing the presidential race tightening there, and partially the fact that the state has a Republican governor and a state legislature narrowly controlled by Democrats.

“We are seeing real momentum on the ground in Virginia,” RNC chair Michael Whatley said on X recently.

Zack Roday, a Republican strategist who works for Youngkin’s political action committee, pointed to recent elections in the state as signs that it is truly a battleground, and, in a year where Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is polling competitively with President Joe Biden nationally, that means the commonwealth is winnable for Republicans.

In 2021, Youngkin defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe by 2 points, a year after Biden carried the commonwealth by 10 points. Republicans also flipped a US House seat in the 2nd congressional district in 2022 and came close in the state’s 7th congressional district that same year.

“Youngkin has clearly moved the state where it’s more competitive, but will it translate to a federal race?” Roday said. “If we’re here in September and October and it’s 45-45 or 48-48, that’s just really bad news [for Democrats] because we’re playing on Democratic terrain.”

Votings ends in Virginia’s Republican and Democratic primaries on Tuesday. The results of those races will offer glimpse into potential turnout and enthusiasm among Republicans and Democrats alike in the general election.

Youngkin’s PAC has been active in looking to boost Virginia Republicans this year with eyes on the 2nd and 7th congressional seats in particular. The governor has been on an ongoing heavy media blitz, and the PAC has built a large amount of voter data from recent elections.

The PAC has also been active in coordinating with the Trump campaign on data and targeting, according to a Republican strategist with knowledge of that work.

Neither Trump nor Biden have spent significantly in Virginia during the general election at this point. The Biden campaign has spent just over $23,000 on digital ads, while the Trump campaign has not spent any money at all, ad tracking data shows.

Democrats are skeptical about any Republican chest-thumping for Virginia.

“Biden is not taking any blue-ish state like Virginia for granted,” said Max Glass, a veteran Democratic campaign manager. “If you look at Donald Trump’s numbers in the Republican primary, there was over 250,000 voters who chose not to vote for him. He only got 63%of the vote. Where are those other voters going to go? I don’t see them now that he’s convicted willing to change their mind and return to Trump.”

Another veteran Virginia Democratic strategist argued that “the demographics aren’t there” for Republicans. Democrats, the strategist said, fare well in Virginia whenever Trump is on the ballot. The exception was the year when Youngkin won and Trump was less in the campaign spotlight. “That is the only period of time where Donald Trump was highly irrelevant. In 2022 races, he was extremely relevant. He was out on the campaign trail. He was doing stuff. … And when Trump is front and center, Democrats have won.”

A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won Virginia in a presidential election since the George W. Bush reelection campaign in 2004, but prior to that, Republicans dominated the state for 40 years. There hasn’t been a Republican senator representing the state since John Warner retired in 2009. This year, Sen. Tim Kaine, a two-term Democrat senator, is running for reelection and is the clear favorite in the race.

Hedging bets

Privately, Virginia Republicans are more unsure about the GOP’s chances in Virginia. They see national headwinds that could buoy Republican chances in this year’s Senate race, as well as Trump’s prospects, but concede that it’s still an uphill battle.

“Trump lost to Biden by 10 (points) in the last general, on-year, statewide,” a veteran Virginia Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity to share their mixed views about Republicans’ chances going forward. “Virginia is trending purple but that is a hell of a hill to climb.”

Any discussion about Virginia becoming more fertile ground for Republicans again is the latest in a set of floats that a handful of reliably Democratic states could actually, truly flip to Republican leaning states this cycle if Trump wins – the others being Minnesota, New Hampshire or New Jersey. At a recent appearance in Wildwood, New Jersey, Trump repeatedly suggested that he could win New Jersey in 2024. Biden defeated Trump in New Jersey by nearly 16 points in 2020.

“I think there are three states right now that people don’t consider battlegrounds right now – Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Virginia,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who has done work for the Trump campaign.

“It’s real,” he added, speaking of Republicans’ chances to compete in Virginia.

McLaughlin added that it hasn’t been that long since former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell got about 58% of the vote there in his successful 2009 gubernatorial race.

Trump himself has shown a persistent interest in being able to say he flipped some of these states.

“I thought we won it in 2016,” Trump said of Minnesota in May during a fundraiser for the state Republican party. “I know we won it in 2020.”

Trump did not win Minnesota in either race. In 2020, Biden won it by about 230,000 votes, or 7 percentage points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump in Minnesota by almost 44,000 votes – less than 2 points.

At a recent donor summit, the former president’s top advisers walked attendees through each state, making an effort to argue the potential to compete in both Virginia and Minnesota, according to multiple attendees of that presentation.

But Virginia Republicans are more cautious about their party’s chances of actually winning the Old Dominion.

“I believe the polling I’ve seen,” said Travis Smith, a Richmond, Virginia-based strategist. “If Virginia is in play, it’ll be a landslide.”

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