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Oct. 22, 2021, 2:43 p.m. EDT

McAuliffe-Youngkin race for Virginia governor emerges as early test of Black turnout ahead of midterms

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At nearly every campaign stop, McAuliffe, who is white, mentions how he was recruited by leading members of the statehouse Black caucus to run again, and that helped him top three Black candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, two of them woman.

This week he released an ad focusing on the violent 2017 clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in the college town of Charlottesville, part of an ongoing effort to keep former President Donald Trump front of mind for Virginia voters. The ad contrasted Trump saying there were “very fine people on both sides” against McAuliffe’s own reaction as governor, when he implored the “white supremacists and the Nazis that came into Charlottesville today: Go home. You are not wanted.”

From the archives (August 2017): ‘Fire and fury,’ pronounces banner headline of Charlottesville, Va., newspaper ahead of Unite the Right rally; Gov. Terry McAuliffe declares state of emergency

Youngkin’s message to Black voters promotes his economic plans. “Terry McAuliffe failed to deliver for the Black community as governor — losing their support — and now he is desperately trying to regain their trust,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.

Bellamy, of Our Black Party, spent recent weeks driving around Virginia and was surprised at the number of Youngkin yard signs he saw. He said McAuliffe has a “very strong record” that will help him with the Black community, but national Democrats present potential hurdles.

“When you look at national politics, when you look at some of the things that the Biden campaign promised but not quite delivered on yet, I think there will be some trickle-down effect,” he said.

Bellamy singled out Congress’s failure to pass federal voting-rights legislation and policing reform. He said many Black voters have been troubled that some top Democrats haven’t endorsed changing Senate rules to get such legislation passed over unified Republican opposition — but have said they might be willing to change chamber rules to move major spending bills.

Indeed, the Senate took up a voting-rights package Wednesday only to have it blocked by Republican opposition — the kind of maneuver changing chamber rules might prevent.

McAuliffe counters that Black voters know his record from his first tenure as governor, when he restored voting rights for many former Virginia felons and others who had been removed from the state’s voting rolls, and pushed state lawmakers to expand Medicare coverage under the Obama administration’s signature health law.

He’s also released a campaign plan to “Lift Up Black Virginians,” which includes pledges to accelerate the pathway to a $15 per hour minimum wage while working to ensure state government better supports Black-owned banks and promotes diversity in financial fields.

Jenkins Zardee, 62, a retired Navy sailor who attended a recent McAuliffe rally with Abrams in Norfolk, said he believes “there’s enough enthusiasm.”

“It’s all about turnout,” said Zardee. “But people know, if you didn’t like the last four years we just came out of, you have to come and vote for Terry McAuliffe.”

That message hasn’t reached everyone, though. Regina Scheithauer, a singer and part-time school volunteer, attended the same rally and said of Abrams, “That’s how you get the people to pay attention.”

But Scheithauer said she knew little about McAuliffe — despite the fact that he’s already been governor — and said she hadn’t yet decided whether to vote for him.

Another potential wildcard is Princess Blanding, the sister of a Black man who was killed by Richmond police in 2018. She is running for governor as a third-party candidate. At McAuliffe’s rally with Abrams, some attendees hoisted Blanding campaign signs, and though their ranks were small, they outnumbered the few protesters present waving Youngkin signs.

The Democratic National Committee has announced a campaign featuring ads on Spanish-language and Black radio, and in print outlets targeting the Asian American community. That’s in addition to spending $5 million in Virginia boosting campaign staff and organizing and training capacity.

But Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Democratic outreach efforts in Virginia have generally been late and underfunded and have relied too heavily on things like ads instead of on-the-ground outreach. Bringing in Democratic standouts likely wouldn’t be enough to correct that, he predicted.

“Pulling in new, infrequent voters, it’s going to take more than a couple of visits. It’s really going to take creating some type of excitement at the grassroots level, and ideally some excitement that’s around policy that people feel passionate about and feel like is really on the line,” Albright said. “I just don’t know if McAuliffe has really specified to folks about what the urgency is in order to get some of the new voters that they need.”

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