by Chris Saxman
Last night’s debate between Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin was more or less like the first one on substance – pretty much the same answers but perhaps a deeper, more clarifying look at those.
I don’t see a lot of votes changing from those who actually watched the debate but there were some notable moments which could be turned into ads that THEN might move the electorate.
This is what campaign consultants fear and desire about debates – there is so much on the line that they are just hoping and praying their candidate makes it out clean but also that the opponent creates an opening to exploit.
I predicted a tie, and on points it was just that. Therefore, given his strong first debate performance, Glenn Youngkin held serve by not losing. Terry McAuliffe was much better this time — less agitated and more at ease.
Princess Blanding, the Liberation Party candidate who has qualified for the ballot, disrupted the debate about ten minutes after kick off. Moderator Chuck Todd seemed unprepared for this and eventually went to commercial breaks.
Honestly, if you know a third party candidate is in the audience and she was not allowed to be on the debate stage, how do you not prepare for that? OF COURSE she’s was going to disrupt the debate. That’s why she was there.
Overall, Chuck Todd was Chuck Todd. He’s good at what he does – he’s comfortable on TV and the debate stage. He makes things go smoothly and he’s not afraid to follow up with questions without lingering. As I noted in my preview, the issues were largely national in scope, but the last one took the cake. The candidates were asked what they would tell the Virginia congressional how to vote on federal legislation this week.
(If only my mother was alive to watch that. Her eye rolls were legendary, but she might have sprained her neck on that one.)
As I have written in the past, I don’t think that’s the moderator’s job. Given how biased and partisan the media has become, it’s best if they just ask tough questions and let the candidates battle it out. Let THEM do the follow up questions. Today’s debates are now very heavily scripted and, as a result, we are left with test poll/focus grouped answers – unless a candidate is too glib in a moment and gives the other campaign an opening. Which happened. I’ll get to that shortly.
So, ALL ten of my Drinking Word Game words were used; however, I was sans adult beverages. THANK GOD. Can you imagine???
Terry McAuliffe went heavy on trying to tie Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump and got an assist from Todd who asked if Trump was the GOP nominee in 2024 would Youngkin support him. Youngkin humorously counted off the number of times McAuliffe said Trump. That seemed to put an end to it.
COVID and vaccine mandates were, again, an early focus and Youngkin could have answered the follow up from Todd better. Todd asked if Youngkin, since he opposes certain vaccine mandates, would he keep mandates on MMR (Mumps, Measles, and Rubella) for school children. Youngkin stumbled there, but didn’t fall.
Here’s how the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac answered why he has chosen not get a COVID vaccine. You’ll not hear a more thought out, articulate answer anywhere. All while smiling. This young man has a wide career path outside of basketball.
I wrote a column about this very thing: “What’s the goal – Vaccination or Immunization?”
Anyway, Jonathan Isaac nailed it. Glenn Youngkin didn’t. I don’t know if that moves many votes as a result, but I’m also not doing the campaign polling.
Terry McAuliffe twice tried to get Youngkin to respond to the challenge that he didn’t support gay marriage, but Youngkin is far too disciplined of a candidate to take that bait. That’s the first I’ve heard of gay marriage being used in this campaign since it is a largely settled general election issue.
I did think that Youngkin performed better on the abortion issue than the first debate. Whereas McAuliffe said he supported putting Roe v. Wade in Virginia’s constitution, Youngkin opposed that while also calling McAuliffe’s position supporting Virginia’s current restrictions “shameful.” Youngkin won points with his base there and I thought McAuliffe left some on the table with his. Again…we’ll see, but heretofore abortion rights have not been an economic development issue.
Youngkin did score points ahead of today’s Northern Virginia Chamber PAC deliberations when McAuliffe, once again, declined to oppose efforts to repeal Virginia’s Right to Work statute.
In 2013, McAuliffe said he would veto a bill to repeal RTW, but has said in this campaign that it would never reach his desk because the General Assembly will never pass it.
I’ve not heard any business leader take comfort in that response. Nor should they.
We’ll see how the NOVA Chamber PAC views that answer later today. As I have written in the past, the NOVA Chamber PAC changed its endorsement vote from 50%+ to now 66%. That means a candidate must have 2/3rds majority in order to get their endorsement. Those voting must have been present for both candidate’s interviews in order to be eligible. Eighteen did so which means a candidate must get twelve votes.
It’s hard to see 2/3rds in any political decision these days and this one is more likely than not to be a Non Endorsement. Since McAuliffe won this endorsement in 2013, the Youngkin camp can say, rightly, that McAuliffe lost this endorsement but they can’t say their candidate won it either.
Republicans are trying to make a lot of hay from McAuliffe’s line that came about during one of the candidate dust ups on education:
I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.
In fact, the Youngkin campaign already had an ad up and running this morning focusing on that moment. It’s moments like those that can tip an election. While too early to tell if it’s that explosive, Youngkin’s clearly going to find out soon enough.
Imagine being a parent who had to teach remotely last year and hearing that line. Maybe that’s why this video on Twitter already has over one million views of that moment:
Terry McAuliffe: "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." pic.twitter.com/7S15pTv1gY
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) September 28, 2021
We’ll see how it plays out, but clearly people are paying attention to it. Coupled with his remark to the sheriff in which he said, “I don’t care what you believe…” ?
How are devastating narratives are built? One mistake at a time.
Winning campaigns are the ones with the fewest mistakes. They all make mistakes, but last night’s moment could feed an existing below-the-surface narrative or it could start its own.
So, let’s get to the Winners and Losers not named Terry McAuliffe or Glenn Youngkin. I called it a tie on points, but the Youngkin ads might prove otherwise.
1. Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce – all eyes are on them for their endorsement. They put on a good show last night.
2. Business and economic issues. Those were front and center in both candidate’s remarks. They know their internal polling. People are concerned about the economy and it showed last night.
3. Princess Blanding. She helped her campaign more than the others in that she finally got some press. The problem for her is that she is still unknown — going from 2 to 4 points would be a big jump — and could be devastating to McAuliffe. Blanding claims that she was kept off the stage because she is black and female. Neither are true. Just ask white male Robert Sarvis in 2013 why he, too, was not included in the debates — poor standing in the polls. #BinaryPolitics. But her charges will be damaging to McAuliffe and the Democratic House majority if they are heard by enough people.
4. NBC4/Telemundo/George Mason’s Schar School — good branding moments for them and the panelists, Julie Carey and Alberto Pimienta, did well. They asked their questions and got out of the way.
5. Chuck Todd. Look, I know conservatives love to come down on Todd, but as I noted above the guy’s good on TV. He’s comfortable and keeps things moving which is no small feat given the live and relatively short format. Todd found the balance between letting the candidates duke it out and prodding with tight follow ups when appropriate. Like I said earlier, he didn’t linger and make it the Chuck Todd Show. He already has one of those.
1. Virginia’s newspapers and the Capitol press corps. They have been shut out of the debates and it’s a real disservice to the public. Most reporters do a credible job and should be able to muster some direct public engagement with candidates for office.
2. House Democrats. For the life of me, I have no idea what their collective vision for Virginia is. They’ve been in the majority for two years now. Last night’s debate did absolutely nothing to help them keep their majority. When I talk to Democrats about the elections this year, this is the common answer, “Well, I think Terry still wins…” Nothing near to what they said in 2017 and 2019.
3. Donald Trump. Every time he’s mentioned these days it’s with the reality that he continues to gradually lose his status within the Republican Party. More and more you can just feel Republicans looking for candidates like Youngkin who can be a better brand ambassador for America First policies or simply winning. You know, getting more votes than Democrats. A lot of people begrudgingly voted for Trump’s policies over his persona. Now, they can have good candidates, the policies, and no Trump baggage. Recent reports on the Arizona and Michigan election audits only accelerate that. McAuliffe’s trying to tie Youngkin to Trump seems desperate at times, but it also reinforces to Republicans that Trump is an electoral problem going forward.
4. Gubernatorial debates. Speaking of going forward…. With the campaign season starting earlier and being compressed with early voting, the window for debates is going to be Labor Day to the middle of September. It’s going to be harder and harder to get folks to pay attention to those in future cycles. Eventually, televised debates might just go away due to a lack of public interest and with the potential downside to candidates… Well, let’s hope not.
5. Adult Beverages. 7pm? For under an hour? That just doesn’t work for me. Let’s kick this thing to prime time!
6. Hey, what about the wrong poll I mentioned ? Yeah, Roanoke College has it 48-41 McAuliffe over Youngkin. There’s only one problem with that: Weighting was done to match the modeled general and race demographics of the 2017 Virginia Gubernatorial Election.
Chris Saxman is executive director of Virginia FREE. This column is republished with permission from The Intersection found on Substack.