Neither Mr. McAuliffe nor Mr. Youngkin has mentioned Mr. Biden in his ads, according to AdImpact, which tracks campaign commercials, underscoring how little he motivates voters in either party — a striking change after many years in which sitting presidents routinely played starring roles in advertisements by candidates in both parties.
In the closing weeks of the race, Mr. McAuliffe, who served a term as governor from 2014 to 2018 but was barred from a second consecutive term by Virginia law, has tried to put some daylight between his campaign and Mr. Biden’s administration. Though he never directly criticizes the president, Mr. McAuliffe has repeatedly highlighted the political risk posed by congressional inaction on the president’s legislative agenda. In private conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House, allies of Mr. McAuliffe say he has argued that the souring national environment is hurting his chances.
“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” Mr. McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said during a virtual call with supporters this month. “As you know, the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through.”
Mr. McAuliffe downplayed the remark, saying he was referring to a general sense of frustration with inaction in Washington. But it was a sharp departure from earlier in the race when Mr. McAuliffe predicted his state would “take off like a booster rocket” if he was elected governor and could work with Mr. Biden.
The tonal shift is particularly striking, given the long friendship between the two men and the similarities in their political brands as experienced party insiders with centrist leanings. Mr. McAuliffe declined to run for president in April 2019 after a three-hour dinner with Mr. Biden during which the future president laid out his path to victory — one based on the same kind of consensus-oriented platform that Mr. McAuliffe had envisioned for himself.
“I love the guy,” Mr. McAuliffe said of Mr. Biden at the time. “I’m a big fan.”
Mr. Biden’s promises to move past polarizing politics helped him win the White House, offering a refuge for voters tired of the turbulence of the Trump era. Now, however, at a moment when Democrats need to marshal their forces, the prospect of calm leadership and a diminished agenda may not be so enticing to his Democratic base.
Wes Bellamy, a co-chair of Our Black Party, which promotes the political priorities of Black voters, said Mr. Biden was not inspiring the same sort of loyalty from Black voters that Mr. Obama did.