Trump steps up ground game in Virginia after Biden's shaky debate

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Former President Trump is ramping up his efforts in Virginia in a sign that Republicans are viewing the state as winnable in November.

While President Biden headed to battleground North Carolina for his post-debate rally, Trump traveled to Chesapeake, Va., to share the stage for the first time with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

The governor notably avoided appearing with Trump when he ran in 2021 due to the political implications. However, recent polling shows the Old Dominion could be a favorable environment for Republicans going into 2024 despite recent down-ballot Democratic victories.

“We’re not talking about Florida and Texas or other fringe states that the left would like to target, we’re talking about a state that Biden won by 10.2 [points],” said Zack Roday, a Virginia-based Republican strategist who formerly worked with Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC. 

“Gravity could still come home for Virginia but it doesn’t mean there’s not a shift that clearly has happened in polling,” he continued. 

Recent polls suggest the president could be facing a close race five months out from Election Day. A Roanoke College poll released in May showed Trump and Biden tied at 42 percent in the state with a 4.2 percent margin of error. Other polls have shown Biden with a small lead over Trump. The Hill’s Decision Desk HQ polling average shows Trump narrowly leading Biden by 0.2 percent. 

Adding to the Republican enthusiasm in Virginia is Thursday night’s debate. While Trump faced criticism for airing falsehoods during the forum, coverage of the debate has been dominated by what Democrats and Republicans have called a disastrous performance by Biden. Biden’s voice sounded hoarse and weak on stage, and at times, he appeared to struggle to form coherent sentences. 

“If it’s still Biden vs. Trump after what occurred last night, then yeah, Virginia is in play,” said Tucker Martin, a Virginia-based GOP strategist and former communications director to former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). 

“You’ve got to remember the average voter probably watched the first 20 minutes of that and turned it off,” he added. “That’s the most they’re going to dial into this race until maybe post-Labor Day. How you get past a performance like that? I don’t know.” 

Trump took the stage in Virginia on Friday afternoon, wasting no time in hitting Biden over his debate performance. 

“He studied so hard that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” Trump quipped in front of a crowd of his supporters. “He got the rules he wanted, he got the date he wanted, he got the network he wanted, with the moderators he wanted. No amount of rest or rigging could help.”

While Biden’s supporters argue his debate performance was not perfect and he got off to a slow start, they say the debate does not change what is a consequential choice between Trump and Biden. 

“Virginia has been a brick wall to Trump’s MAGA politics,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) said in a statement. “We know democracy is on the line, and the choice between President Biden and the twice impeached, convicted felon couldn’t be clearer. We aren’t tired of winning and won’t turn back the progress Democrats have delivered. We will win Virginia.”

The Biden campaign also brushed off the notion that the state is in play for Republicans. 

“If Trump wants to spend his time and money trying to campaign in blue states, be our guest,” said a Biden campaign spokesperson. 

The Biden campaign did seek to take advantage of Trump’s Chesapeake rally, which is in the greater Hampton Roads metropolitan area, by zeroing in on the area’s large military population. The campaign zeroed in on remarks Trump reportedly made about deceased U.S. soldiers, comments Biden also seized on during the debate. 

“Today, Donald Trump thinks he can travel to Virginia, the home of over half a million former and active-duty service members and their families, after calling veterans ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’” said VoteVets senior adviser and retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton in a statement released by the Biden campaign. 

Trump denied that he ever made those remarks during Thursday’s debate.

Republicans still face an uphill climb in Virginia. Biden defeated Trump in Virginia by 10 points in 2020, and former President George W. Bush was the last Republican to win the state in 2004. On top of that, Democrats have seen numerous down-ballot wins in the state during the 2022 midterms and the 2023 state legislative races. 

A number of factors would have to be in place for the state to be fertile ground for the former president’s campaign. Trump would need to majorly run up the score in deep-red, rural parts of the state that came out for Youngkin in 2021. Additionally, he would have to win over swing, suburban voters in the greater Hampton Roads and Richmond areas. The densely populated Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia could prove to be the biggest obstacle to the former president. Republicans say Democratic turnout and enthusiasm would have to be down and Trump would need to peel away suburban voters in the region. 

“If Trump is to win Virginia, it looks nothing like 2021,” Martin said. “The turnout is just so different, so much bigger because the electorate is just so much larger and people do tend to revert to their camps so it won’t be a blowout.”

“I just think that based on the performance by Biden last night a lot of voters who were in the category of ‘I don’t like either’ probably got shoved into the Trump camp,” he said. 

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell noted that Trump’s presence in Virginia on Friday is also a show of strength, saying it’s evidence of “the map expanding.”

“This is lining up perfectly for Trump because you don’t want to take your foot off the gas,” O’Connell said. “As long as the map is expanding, you’re in a great position to win position to win the election in November.”

Democrats say the map is expanding for them, pointing to their recent focus on North Carolina. Raleigh was the site of Biden’s first post-debate rally Friday. 

But Republicans are painting a picture with a greater sense of urgency. 

“The question on the minds of a lot of voters isn’t can Biden serve another four years, it’s can he serve another four months,” O’Connell said. 

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