President Joe Biden made a forceful return to the campaign trail on Friday night in Virginia, stumping for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe by linking the Democrat’s opponent to the man Biden had defeated several months ago – former President Donald Trump.
While Biden did not say Glenn Youngkin’s name, he directly linked the Republican businessman-turned-politician to Trump, another businessman-turned-politician who lost Virginia handily in both 2016 and 2020. Biden echoed the argument that McAuliffe has made central to his own bid.
“You got to elect him again, and I mean this, not just for Virginia, for the country. The country is looking, these off-year elections, the country’s looking. This is a big deal,” Biden said. “Terry and I share a lot in common. I ran against Donald Trump and so is Terry. And I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia and so will Terry.”
The President added: “I tell you what, the guy Terry is running against is an acolyte of Donald Trump – for real, I mean it’s just like, I don’t know where these guys come from.”
The event was Biden’s first in-person candidate-specific event since he moved into the White House in January, and it represented his strongest attempt to use his political power to protect both Democratic candidates across the country and his own political future.
The pressure on Biden is great. Numerous presidents before him – including his immediate predecessor and the president he served under, Barack Obama – suffered significant losses in their first midterm elections. And with markedly narrow majorities in the House and Senate, the stakes for Democrats are enormous. The Virginia elections, a year after Biden’s presidential victory and a year before the 2022 midterms, will provide a powerful marker of where political sentiment is headed.
For McAuliffe, the stakes are more personal. The former governor of Virginia and longtime Democratic fundraiser is vying to do something rare by winning a second gubernatorial term in a state that bars their executives from serving successive terms. And to do so, he plans to spend much of his time linking Youngkin to Trump.
McAuliffe told voters on Friday that while he is “running for you,” Youngkin “is not running for you, he is running for Donald Trump.” McAuliffe used the term “Trump-Youngkin-style Republicans” during the speech and said the Republican nominee was a “chicken” for declining to debate him.
“Why is it that Glenn Youngkin and Donald Trump are so close?” McAuliffe asked. “Because they share the same agenda.”
He was far from alone in attacking Youngkin on Friday night, however.
“You can cancel the tow truck, Mr. Youngkin, because we are alive and well,” Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam bellowed at the event, responding to Youngkin saying the state was in a ditch. “We don’t need the tow truck because we are not in a ditch, and we don’t need you, Mr. Youngkin, in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Youngkin campaign spokesman Matt Wolking responded to the attacks by saying that “it’s totally dishonest for Terry McAuliffe to use President Trump’s endorsement to smear Glenn Youngkin, when McAuliffe is actually friends with Trump and took thousands of dollars from Trump to fund his campaign.”
CNN reported in 2009 that Trump had cut McAuliffe a $25,000 check during his failed bid for governor that year.
Biden’s political gambit
To counter the history of midterm losses, Biden’s political operation has begun a two-prong strategy: Work to keep the President’s legislative priorities popular, while also looking to fortify the party’s top committees, like the Democratic National Committee, earlier in the political calendar. Biden has already shifted money from his joint fundraising committee into the DNC and the committee announced on Thursday they would spend at least $5 million in Virginia ahead of the 2021 races.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2020 campaign manager and his deputy chief of staff in the White House, said Biden has been a supporter of party building throughout his decades in public life and has told his top aides that he wants to do “whatever he can” to help the party while he is in the White House.
“He has made it abundantly clear his priorities are that he continues to do what he’s always done, what he did in 18, what he did in 16, which is go across the country and help wherever possible,” said O’Malley Dillon. “He wants to make sure that, as the leader of the party, that the DNC, the state parties have the resources they need.”
McAuliffe has been clear throughout the campaign that he intends to run alongside Biden – both physically and rhetorically. In his speech earlier this summer accepting his party’s nomination, he heralded Biden’s “great leadership” and said his election highlighted the “important strides” the country has made in its post-Trump recovery. During the Democratic gubernatorial primary, the McAuliffe campaign had touted the former governor as the Biden-style candidate in the race.
While it may not be unique that a Democrat is heralding another Democrat, that hasn’t always been the case in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Although McAuliffe did run alongside then President Barack Obama in his successful 2013 bid, there was tension – especially after the rollout of the Obamacare website healthcare.gov failed so spectacularly just weeks before the election.
Obama did eventually rally with McAuliffe – “We cannot have people stay at home when so much is at stake,” the then-President said at the event.
The fragile nature of Obama’s support of McAuliffe in 2013 signals how quickly sentiment can change in an off-year election like Virginia’s, and Biden’s legislative priorities – after successfully passing the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan – have stalled in a gridlocked Congress.
O’Malley Dillon said Biden knows “that the most important thing he can do for the midterms is continue to deliver for the American people and the people that put their faith with him when he took office.”
For years, Virginia’s off-year elections were seen as a key indicator on how the political winds could be shifting after a presidential election. Since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election always came from the party in opposition to the White House. That shifted in 2013, when McAuliffe won his first term just a year after Barack Obama won his second term in the White House.
Still, Virginia’s once-balanced role as a political indicator has tilted left in recent years, with Republicans losing each statewide election in more than a decade. Every Democratic presidential nominee has won Virginia since 2008, including President Joe Biden in 2020. The commonwealth is currently represented by two Democratic senators, seven of its 11 representatives in the House are Democrats and four of the last five governors of the commonwealth have been Democrats.
That – along with Biden’s popularity in the state – has led some Democrats to believe the Virginia race should not be competitive. But McAuliffe and his top advisers believe Democrats are underestimating how close the race could be, especially because Youngkin is a multimillionaire who can self-fund much of his campaign.
McAuliffe, in an interview with CNN earlier this year, argued one reason he believes it will be close is because this will be the first election in recent years without Trump on the ballot or in power, raising questions about Democratic energy.
“We had Donald Trump here for four years. He drove Democratic turnout,” McAuliffe said. “Donald Trump is not president anymore. … It’s going to be very close. It’s going to be nip and tuck. … You bet it’s going to be close.”
Biden’s Friday event – a rally in voter-rich, suburban Northern Virginia – was an attempt to address these concerns.
Key suburbs across the country, including those in Northern Virginia, rejected Trump in 2020, with lean-Republican voters turned off by his temperament and bluster backing Biden. In order to win in 2021, McAuliffe will have to keep up that momentum, while Youngkin will need to turn things around for Republicans in these wealthy suburbs.
Republicans have argued that Biden coming to Virginia months before the election – far earlier than past presidents – makes McAuliffe look desperate.
“McAuliffe must be looking at grim poll numbers if he needs the President to campaign nearly 4 months from Election Day,” said Maddie Anderson, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association. “With violent crime spikes and skyrocketing inflation at the top of voters’ minds this year – the harmful policies and rhetoric supported by Biden and McAuliffe will be squarely in focus during this visit.”
This story has been updated with remarks from Friday night’s event.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Donald Judd contributed to this report.