It is no accident that Oct. 31 is the new deadline set by congressional Democrats to pass infrastructure and reconciliation legislation. Just two days after that, there is a chance that the statewide elections in Virginia will bring the entire federal Democratic legislative agenda to a dead stop.
For years, election results in Virginia and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey have been indicative of the political strength of the recently elected president. This is because these elections are the first time since the preceding November that large, heterogeneous groups of voters have a chance to communicate their sentiments to elected officials through voting.
Most of the value of and interest in the results from New Jersey have eroded as that state has become reliably Democratic in its voting patterns. Virginia, however, leans very slightly Democratic, so its off-year elections tend to be viewed with more interest. Virginia also leans contrarian. Since 1973, Virginia has voted for a governor of the party not occupying the White House every time, with one exception (2013).
This cycle, Republican Glenn Youngkin, former CEO of the Carlyle Group, is running against Terry McAuliffe, who ran and won for governor in 2013. The race is very close, with almost all public and private polling indicating a contest within the margin of error, although tilting slightly toward Mr. McAuliffe. At the same time, survey data also suggest that Mr. Youngkin has a slight advantage concerning intensity among likely voters.
Mr. Youngkin is a bit of a throwback candidate: Able to raise and spend money, cordial, non-ideological, and willing to talk about a bunch of issues rather than just one or two. Mr. McAuliffe has not yet been able to demonize him. Mr. McAuliffe is a known commodity: A former Clinton operative and reliable client of the national Democratic machine.
The statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general are also within the margin of error. Additionally, a dozen or so seats in the House of Delegates are competitive. (Democrats currently have a 55-45 majority in the House.)
For good or ill, federal elected officials tend to view the results in Virginia as an early referendum on a new administration. If Mr. McAuliffe, who has deep and numerous ties to the Biden administration, wins, it would be viewed as a validation of the administration.
If Mr. Youngkin wins, it would send a shock through the Democratic ecosystem. If Republicans win the lieutenant governor race and/or the attorney general races, the effect would be magnified. If they retake the House (lost during two successive electoral disasters during the Trump years), it would be widely viewed (correctly or not) as a repudiation of President Biden and his policies.
For context, Mr. Biden won Virginia by 10 points. The last time the Republicans won any statewide office in Virginia was in 2009.
Magnitude is also important. It is reasonable to expect close races up and down the ballot; 50,000 or fewer votes will probably decide the governor’s race. If the margins are more significant, that, too, would send a message to elected officials in Washington.
The risk this year is all on the Democrats. If Mr. McAuliffe and the remainder of the ticket win narrowly, it would simply be a ratification of the status quo in Virginia.
But if the Republicans can win, the message would be clear: It’s time for the Democrats in competitive districts and states to trim their sails a bit and think very carefully about how tightly they should tie their fate to Mr. Biden. National polling suggests that independent voters are falling away from Mr. Biden and his agenda. He won that segment of the voters by 13 points in 2020 and is currently 13 points underwater with them.
It is telling that Mr. McAuliffe noted in a recent debate that the $3.5 trillion reconciliation is too generous. He sees risk in being too close to the administration.
Thirty or so Democrats nationwide are sitting in House seats that had been Republican until 2018. Some Democratic senators barely squeaked by in 2016 (Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada) or in 2020 special elections (Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Mark Kelly in Arizona).
All of these people will watch Virginia’s results carefully. Without President Trump on the ticket, they will have to run on their own votes, including the pending votes on the defective infrastructure legislation and the reckless reconciliation legislation. Depending on what happens in Virginia, that could be a very scary thought.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.