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The Democratic coalition will be tested in the Virginia governor's race

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speaks during an Oct. 17 rally in Norfolk supporting Terry McAuliffe in his bid to reclaim the Virginia's governor's office. To try and drum up enthusiasm, Democrats have brought in some of their biggest names.
Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speaks during an Oct. 17 rally in Norfolk supporting Terry McAuliffe in his bid to reclaim the Virginia's governor's office. To try and drum up enthusiasm, Democrats have brought in some of their biggest names.

In politics, it's often said that demography is destiny.

But the Virginia governor's race on Nov. 2 — the first big electoral test of the Biden presidency — is the latest warning of the potential peril in assuming which way key demographic groups will vote, or if they will vote at all.

"I don't believe that demographics are destiny," said Luis Aguilar, Virginia director for CASA in Action, the political arm of immigrant advocacy group CASA. "It's about a culture of civic engagement."

Virginia, a state President Biden won by 10 points in the 2020 election, has trended Democratic in recent years. But the race for governor this year between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is close, according to Democrats and Republicans involved in the election.

That's in large measure because Democrats are fighting apathy among their base. The party's agenda in Washington, D.C., is stalled, Biden's poll numbers are sagging, and Democrats are sounding the alarm.

To try and drum up enthusiasm, the party has recently brought in some of its biggest names, including Biden, Vice President Harris and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. Former President Barack Obama will hold a rally in Richmond Saturday.

Fighting apathy

Engagement is crucial in retaining support, especially for those in underserved communities, advocates say.

Aguilar said CASA in Action has knocked on some 50,000 doors in Latino communities in the state. And while he is optimistic about a McAuliffe win, he has run into a degree of "political cynicism."

"People are so tired," Aguilar noted.

Latinos are often underrepresented at the polls. In the 2020 presidential election in Virginia, Latinos were 7% of the electorate despite being 10% of the population. It's been worse in state elections. When McAuliffe, a former governor, won the race in 2013, Latinos were 8% of Virginia's population, but just 4% of the electorate.

During those door-knock conversations, Aguilar said his team is reminding voters of policy wins since Democrats have taken over the Virginia legislature. He pointed specifically to access to driver privilege cards and prenatal care for undocumented immigrants, as well as an increase in the minimum wage.

The Latino voting bloc "needs that constant engagement, that constant communication about why this election is so important," Aguilar said.

Geoffrey Guns, senior pastor at Second Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk, where Abrams spoke, said he has seen a similar apathy among potential Black voters.

"The energy is starting to pick up," he said, but added, "There are people who feel that the election doesn't matter."

That's particularly true, he said, of younger Black Americans, who feel "it doesn't matter who gets elected, because nothing changes for them."

Democratic politicians have come to the Black community and made really glorious promises that they haven't kept.

He pointed out that Norfolk, for example, is 40% Black and nearly a quarter of African Americans in the city live at or below the poverty line.

"So the question people ask is, what is a governor going to do for them?" Guns noted. Guns said he put a version of the question to McAuliffe when he spoke at Second Calvary.

"I asked Terry McAuliffe what he was going to do with our public schools," which Guns called "dilapidated."

" 'We're going to rebuild all of these schools,' " Guns said of McAuliffe's response. "I said, 'We'll see. We'll see.' Democratic politicians have come to the Black community and made really glorious promises that they haven't kept."

Black voters have lifted McAuliffe in the past

Black voters have put white Democrats over the top in Virginia elections before.

Consider that in 2013, McAuliffe lost the white vote by 20 points, according to exit polling. But he won more than 90% of Black voters. They made up 20% of the electorate and it was enough to help McAuliffe to a 3-point victory.

For its part, the McAuliffe campaign says it is acutely aware of the importance of the Black, Latino and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and has been focused on outreach to them from the outset of the campaign, both on the ground and over the airwaves.

With early voting available on Sundays for the first time, McAuliffe has been in majority Black churches for most Sundays encouraging people to vote. He was in seven churches this past Sunday, his campaign said.

"This past weekend, we've been seeing a lot of enthusiasm," campaign spokesman Renzo Olivari said. "As we're getting closer [to Election Day], we're seeing more and more voters realizing what's on the line in this election."

"Way higher" engagement with Asian Americans

Democratic state Delegate Mark Keam, the first Asian-born immigrant elected to a state-level office in Virginia, has been campaigning for McAuliffe — and for his own reelection.

"There's no secret here," Keam said, "there is a little bit of an enthusiasm gap between our party and the other party."

The AAPI community in Virginia is growing. Like Latinos, the Asian American population in the state has doubled in the last 20 years.

But AAPI Virginians have also often been underrepresented at the polls. In the 2020 presidential election, for example, AAPI voters made up just 4% of Virginia voters despite being 7% of the state. And it's been far lower in statewide races. In 2013, they were just 1% of the electorate in the governor's race, and in 2017, just 3%.

But like Aguilar, Keam is optimistic McAuliffe will win, in part because he sees engagement with the AAPI community as "way higher" than it was eight years ago when McAuliffe first ran.

He noted that younger Asian Americans are becoming more involved and are far more progressive than their parents and grandparents.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during a rally Tuesday in Stafford, Va.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during a rally Tuesday in Stafford, Va.

But he said he does see the Youngkin campaign's messaging on education and police working to an extent with older, non-native, English-speaking Chinese Americans and Korean Americans.

"Critical race theory for them [some older Asian Americans] is a dog whistle that Democrats only care about Blacks, not Asians," Keam said of the Youngkin campaign's focus on education, which seeks to capitalize on conservative energy around not allowing anti-racist curricula in schools.

Keam believes the strategy "goes hand in glove" with the GOP's anti-affirmative action argument, which resonates with some Asian Americans, he said. The message, he said, is: " 'Why line up with Blacks and Latinos? You are more independent, the 'model minority,' more like whites.' "

Historical headwinds

Democrats have had a lot of success in Virginia over the past two decades. They have won the state in four consecutive presidential elections and in four of the last five gubernatorial elections, won every single statewide race since 2009 and, in 2019, wrested control of the state legislature after decades of Republican rule.

That political shift has, in part, been as a result of sweeping demographic change.

Virginia, home to the onetime capital of the Confederacy, has gone from a white-dominated, culturally Southern state to a more diverse place that is now one of the most educated states in the country — and taking down Confederate statues.

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But there is no guarantee Democrats can keep their diverse coalition stitched together in a potentially low-turnout, off-year election in a gubernatorial race in which voters have historically sided with the party that doesn't control the White House.

Because the Virginia governor's race comes a year after the presidential election, it's one of the first opportunities for supporters of the party out of power to register their frustration.

That's a big reason why just once since 1977 has the president's party won this election. It just so happens McAuliffe is the man who broke that streak and is on the ballot again. But he won a narrow victory in 2013 against an unpopular culturally hard-line Republican in Ken Cuccinelli.

His opponent this time, Youngkin, a wealthy former private equity executive, has been trying to present a softer side as a suburban dad and businessman.

Democrats are trying hard to tie him to former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Youngkin, though Youngkin has declined to campaign with him.

Hinging Democratic turnout on ... Trump?

Trump is the one selling point that seems to resonate across the Democratic base.

Keam said that "the world has changed since November 2016," arguing that Trump's rhetoric and policies were largely responsible for shifting many Asian Americans toward Democrats.

For Latinos, "An element of a ghost of Trump is still a big element of this race," Aguilar said. "For the immigrant community, they do not forget the four years of the Trump administration and an administration that was hostile to the immigrant community."

Geoffrey Guns, the pastor, noted that while Black voters aren't always thrilled with Democrats, "the problem we have with Republicans is Republicans don't hide their anti-Blackness. More Blacks would be Republican if Republicans were really sincere and honest and weren't anti-Black. But they don't want Blacks to vote, they don't want Blacks to have a decent quality of life."

He added, "You should know this is going to be a very close race, and if Terry McAuliffe wins, it's going to be because a lot of Blacks really went out and voted."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.