'A real lag': Dems fret over Black votes in Virginia

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Mailers attacking Democrat Terry McAuliffe for being “on the side of abusive police officers” are popping up in Virginia voters’ mailboxes, urging support for third-party hopeful Princess Blanding — and highlighting a fierce battle for Black votes in the final days of the tight governor’s race.

In interviews with POLITICO, more than a dozen top Democrats involved in the Virginia campaign — from strategists on the ground to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — expressed concern that Black support for McAuliffe is weaker and less enthusiastic than it could be in a razor-thin race in a blue-trending state. Against that backdrop, McAuliffe and Black Democratic surrogates are racing across Virginia before Tuesday’s election to drive up Black turnout and support.

It appears Republicans are trying to take advantage. The anti-McAuliffe mailers — featuring an image of a Black man’s face, pushed into the pavement — are paid for by Our First Principles Fund, a nonprofit group whose only previous known spending came during the fight for the Virginia GOP’s gubernatorial nomination, when the group spent six figures attacking one of eventual nominee Glenn Youngkin’s primary opponents. The group — one of several on both sides trying to dampen base enthusiasm for the other party — did not respond to a request for comment.

The focus on Black voters in the final stretch of the campaign illustrates the critical role they’ll play on Tuesday. Not only did McAuliffe win a prior term as governor with the overwhelming support of Black voters, especially Black women, every national election since then has proved how critical they are to Democratic chances of victory in close races. While some involved in Virginia have taken heart in a late upswing in energy, others stressed that Black voters are exhausted from the fight against Donald Trump and frustrated with a lack of progress in Washington.

“We have seen an uptick in the last couple of weeks, but I’ve had some concerns about what has felt like a real lag” among Black voters in Virginia, said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which invested $1.6 million into turning out voters of color through field operations and digital ads. “People are still struggling with all kinds of things right now — burying family members because of Covid, getting back to work, getting back to school. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still anxiety-producing that there’s this feeling that people aren’t paying attention, aren’t as engaged as we’d hope.”

David Aldridge, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Progressive Values, an umbrella organization that coordinates field efforts across several Democratic groups, described the survey responses they collect from knocking on doors of likely Democratic voters. “When you look at them in aggregate, you see some softness among communities of color, especially with Black women,” he said.

“That’s a data point that makes us very concerned,” he added.

The Working Families Party honed in on activating Black women in Virginia, but “the level of enthusiasm is at a level that gives us great pause, great concern,” said Delvone Michael, senior political strategist for the group.

“On a scale from one to 10, I’m a 12,” in terms of fear around whether Black voters turnout for Democrats, Michael added.

That anxiety was on display this weekend, when Clyburn, a close ally of President Joe Biden’s who stumped for McAuliffe in Hampton Roads, acknowledged that he had concerns about a lack of enthusiasm within the Democratic base — “that’s why I’m going,” he said in an interview before his trip.

Clyburn added that he expects McAuliffe to get “the lion's share of the African American vote. My problem is, what will that vote be? Will it be big enough of a vote … to be determinative?”

That’s very much an open question, given the spate of recent public polling showing McAuliffe and Youngkin locked in a tight race. McAuliffe, too, is weighed down by Biden’s deteriorating favorability ratings in the state and nationally. Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020.

An early-voting analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, has given Democrats some hope by noting Black voter turnout exceeding its 2017 levels, though not quite matching their 2020, presidential-year performance. However, comparing 2021 participation to 2017 is a flawed exercise, as the Virginia legislature vastly expanded their early voting access in 2020.

And as polls tighten, Black turnout will be a deciding factor in Tuesday’s result. Terrance Woodbury, a pollster who measures Black voting behavior, pointed to Black voters’ growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party — and Youngkin’s heavy-handed appeals to race in his campaign’s message on education — as possible deterrents to participation for Black voters.

“If that is successful, if [Youngkin]’s able to cut away at the margins of white voters that Joe Biden was able to win, then it's gonna make Terry McAuliffe even more dependent on Black voters,” Woodbury said.

Prioritizing Black voters can be seen plainly in who is coming to Virginia for McAuliffe before Election Day — and where they’re going.

Former President Barack Obama rallied in Richmond, where Black residents make up nearly half the city’s population, and then cut a direct-to-camera plea that’s airing on TV stations across the state. McAuliffe appeared with Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams several times, including multiple visits to Black churches together. Vice President Kamala Harris called the Virginia race a “very, very important election” in Norfolk — where she appeared alongside Grammy-winning artist Pharrell Williams last week — and recorded a video distributed to 300 Black churches in Hampton Roads. DNC Chair Jaime Harrison and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have shown up, too.

McAuliffe’s campaign also noted that it has invested resources into digital and radio ads targeting Black voters. The former governor has also hosted campaign events at Black churches since January, seeking to build up his support.

“I don't think that the base, whether you're talking about Black voters, or whether you're talking about workers across Virginia, or progressives in general, need any more energy to see what Glenn Younkin has said and what Terry McAuliffe has done,” said Virginia state Del. Jeff Bourne, a Democrat.

In June, McAuliffe handily bettered a primary field that included three Black candidates, including two Black women, a lingering issue that some Democrats raised as a potential reason for dampened enthusiasm among a collection of progressives and Black voters. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy have both since campaigned with McAuliffe, making the case that if elected, McAuliffe would prioritize issues important to Black Virginians. The former governor has tallied nearly 90 percent support among likely Black voters in the last four statewide polls of the race.

“You’d be dishonest not to say that seeing two Black women come in second and third in the primary didn’t cause a hangover,” said Marques Jones, chair of the Henrico County Democratic Party. “But I’ve seen, as we’ve gotten through the summer, folks have come back to the table. …The rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated [and] I think Black folks are going to be out.”

Those worried about soft support among Black voters identified several challenges, including Democrats’ failure to push through key campaign promises, particularly on voting rights.

“With young voters of color, you can’t just say, ‘we’re Democrats, show up,’ when you’re not fulfilling or doing anything you said you’d do to earn their votes,” said Michael, the Working Families Party strategist, who singled out voting rights as an area of major concern.

Still others identified “voter fatigue” following the Donald Trump era. Jarvis Houston, director of organizing and political operations at Sister District, a progressive group focused on flipping state legislative seats, said he’s talked with Black voters who said “we can sit back now” that Trump is out of office.

“People are starting to pay more attention now, especially in the last week and especially to the possibility that we may lose Virginia, which would have a domino effect on the 2022 midterms,” Houston added.

That rippling effect on the midterms also raises concerns among Democratic activists, focused on mobilizing voters of color, that the party isn’t treating them with the same attention and resources as non-white voters, even as they remain a core part of the coalition.

“We were raising red flags around support level and enthusiasm this summer,” said Shropshire, the BlackPAC director. “But there’s this sense with Black voters, this continuing characterization as just turnout voters, that you can wait until the last minute to talk to them.

“The idea that we can wait until the last three weeks, dump a bunch of money and surrogates on them to get them to show up, is a relic of some other political era,” she continued. “The kinds of engagement, the kinds of resources that needed to move should’ve happened months ago.”

Meanwhile, as McAuliffe and Youngkin saturated the airwaves in their campaigns' final weeks, radio ads with the same message as the pro-Blanding mailers aired in a handful of Virginia markets, according to her campaign. Blanding, a Black woman whose brother was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018, is running on a platform largely focused on overhauling Virginia’s criminal justice system.

Notably, the Blanding campaign didn’t run the ads itself — in fact, Blanding wasn’t aware of their existence until Blanding herself started receiving angry calls from voters. (One of the mailers listed her phone number.)

“It appears that their goal is to call themselves trying to help us so that it will shave away votes from Terry,” Blanding said. “The reality is that we're earning — not taking — votes from both Democrats and Republicans.”

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released last week found that 3 percent of Black likely voters, and 1 percent of likely voters overall, say they plan to support Blanding.

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