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Virginia’s bellwether elections could reshape the commonwealth – and its governor’s political future

By Arit John, CNN

(CNN) — The crowd of Democrats gathered on the sweltering tiki-themed deck of Kilroy’s, a sports bar in deep-blue Northern Virginia, knew better than most people what’s at stake in their state’s November elections. But Tim Kaine, one of their party’s two US senators, reminded them anyway.

“I would argue that it’s the Virginia races – all 140 – that are going to send the most powerful message about where America is,” Kaine said Sunday of the contests for the state House and Senate while speaking before about 50 candidates and party activists at a fundraiser.

In two months, Virginia voters will cast the final ballots in the state’s odd-year legislative races, deciding whether Republicans will gain unilateral control of state government or be forced to share power with Democrats for two more years. The election results will offer both parties the clearest signs yet of where voters stand on issues such as abortion, crime, voting rights and the economy. They could also dramatically reshape the political future of the commonwealth and the rising Republican star who leads it, Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Youngkin, who rose to national prominence after winning the 2021 gubernatorial race by uniting moderate Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump, has leveraged his popularity into prolific fundraising for Spirit of Virginia, his state political action committee.

When asked about his political future, Youngkin and his team have insisted he is only interested in talking about the November 7 elections.

“What he has said is his focus is solely on the House and Senate races this year,” said David Rexrode, a senior adviser to Youngkin and chairman of the Spirit of Virginia PAC. “He’s doing town halls in Loudoun and Prince William and Stafford, not Manchester and Charleston.”

Despite that insistence, Youngkin has hinted at what 2024 could hold for him: He released a national campaign-style video earlier this year and has courted out-of-state donations with great success. His staggering fundraising haul – $12 million raised in the six months from March to August, Spirit of Virginia PAC announced Wednesday – has raised alarms with state Democrats.

Last week, President Joe Biden cleared the Democratic National Committee to send $1.2 million to Virginia to fund staff for the coordinated campaign and get-out-the-vote efforts, bringing the national party’s total contribution to $1.5 million. The funds follow months of outreach by Kaine and Virginia’s other Democratic senator, Mark Warner.

“The White House’s decision to allocate this to Virginia is a big deal,” Kaine told CNN on Sunday, referring to Biden and his political apparatus. “It gives [Warner] and I the ability to go to other groups nationally and say: ‘The White House is in big. Please be in big too.’”

Setting the 2024 narrative

All 140 seats in the state’s Democratic-led Senate and GOP-held House of Delegates will be up for election in November, following a dramatic round of redistricting that pitted incumbents against each other and forced a wave of retirements. Control of both chambers will likely come down to a handful of competitive races.

“If Glenn Youngkin’s able to get his party full control of the legislature, that will completely undo years of major gains by the Democrats that led many people – before his election in 2021 – to declare Virginia a blue state,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

But both parties will also look to Virginia to help set the narrative heading into the 2024 presidential election.

“This is not just the last election of 2023,” Virginia Democratic Chairwoman Susan Swecker said. “It’s the first election of 2024.”

“Everything” is at stake this November, said Virginia Rep. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat who served in the state legislature for 17 years before being elected to Congress in February.

McClellan sponsored several of the bills Democrats passed to expand voting rights and other policy priorities while in the state Senate. Now, she’s attended 24 campaign events for about 50 candidates up and down the ticket.

“In 2020 and 2021, Virginia made generational progress on just about every issue, from access to abortion, to addressing climate change to expanding our nondiscrimination laws to protecting workers. All of that progress is at stake,” she said.

Though Youngkin is not on the ballot this year, the election will be a referendum on many of the policies the former Carlyle Group executive has championed, from expanding school choice programs to a 15-week limit on abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Youngkin has been out on the campaign trail and is making a big push for early voting, which begins September 22. The governor helped promote the “Secure Your Vote Virginia” initiative by kicking off a bus tour Monday.

His fundraising is aimed at helping Republicans close the gap with Democrats in individual races, where GOP candidates, as a whole, are falling behind, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In the last fundraising reporting period, from June 9 to June 30, Democratic candidates raised $2.3 million to Republicans’ $1.5 million in the House and $3.1 million to Republicans’ $1.4 million in the Senate.

“They will outspend us again this year, but it certainly won’t be at the levels that it has been in years past,” Rexrode said.

The challenge for both parties will be getting voters to show up for what’s expected to be a low-turnout election. With no federal or gubernatorial races on the ballot, drawing out loyal party members will likely make the difference in key races. That’s where Youngkin’s political organization could be instrumental, said Tucker Martin, a former GOP political strategist who has worked in Virginia politics .

“He’s got a good organization. He’s raised a lot of money. And he will have, and his team will have, the ability to turn out their voters,” Martin said. “If anything, that’s probably the biggest factor – I think it’s why you see the Democratic panic coming out of Washington, DC.”

Youngkin’s ambitions

Youngkin’s fundraising haul has been boosted by major donations from people who would also like to see him run for president.

“I don’t know if we can talk him into entering the race, but I think it would be very, very important that we try,” billionaire Republican megadonor Thomas Peterffy told Fox Business the day after last month’s first Republican presidential primary debate. Peterffy gave $2 million to Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC.

Former Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida said Youngkin reminds him of past Republican Presidents George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Rooney donated $100,000 to Spirit of Virginia PAC and held a networking event for Youngkin at the former congressman’s Naples, Florida, home in April.

“I really think it’s important to have people in politics that have built businesses, bought businesses, run businesses,” said Rooney, who also served as the US ambassador to the Vatican under the younger President Bush. “Glenn Youngkin certainly fits that bill. He’s refreshing from that point of view.”

Under Virginia law, Youngkin cannot run for reelection when his term ends in January 2026. If he did enter the 2024 race after the November elections, he’d face considerable hurdles in terms of staffing, fundraising and getting on the ballot in key states. The filing deadlines in two of the four early-nominating states, Nevada and South Carolina, will have passed, with several more approaching.

Whatever political ambitions he may have – whether it’s an 11th-hour entry into the 2024 race, Senate runs in 2024 or 2026, or something else – they would be aided by electoral success in November or deeply hurt by a loss.

Youngkin’s core issues have been public safety and crime, education and parental rights, and the economy. He has managed to score several policy wins despite opposition from the Democratic Senate, including $4 billion in tax cuts and major funding for schools in his 2022 budget.

Other efforts have failed. Senate Democrats blocked Republicans’ push to advance Youngkin’s “parental rights” agenda, repeal climate change policies that tie Virginia emission standards to those of California, and restrict abortion access.

Democrats also blocked efforts to undo their party’s overhaul of the state’s election laws – which allowed for no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration, introduced 45 days of early voting, created a permanent absentee ballot request list and expanded access to ballot drop boxes.

Democrats have been critical of the Youngkin administration for undoing a bipartisan tradition of automatically restoring voting rights to people who have completed felony sentences and for pulling out of ERIC, a nonpartisan multi-state voter registration database designed to prevent voter fraud.

While abortion has been the leading issue in Democratic ads in Virginia and across the country, Kaine said he’s focused on voting access in his appeals to national donors. A Republican sweep in November could lead to new voting laws next year, when Biden and Kaine will be on the ballot.

“My main argument to the White House was: ‘How much do you think Joe Biden benefited in 2020 by Virginia making it easier for people to vote?’” Kaine said at Sunday’s event.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Eva McKend contributed to this report.

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