Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) spent the first day of the commonwealth’s 45-day early voting period Friday at rallies around the state, encouraging voters to cast their ballots early. Democrats have long favored early voting — but now Republicans are turning to it, too.

Early voting was one of the biggest conversations of the 2020 election. Pandemic shutdowns meant people were wary of going to the polls on Election Day, making early voting a popular option — albeit one marked by concern about Postal Service delays for mail-in ballots and President Donald Trump making allegations of fraud about the handling of early votes. The theme that emerged for the GOP was clear: Republicans should save their vote for Election Day.

But this year, as Youngkin faces former governor McAuliffe in a tight race, Republicans have a new message: vote early.

“The Youngkin campaign has a groundswell of support and all Virginians that want a change should get out and vote early for Glenn Youngkin,” spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a written statement. Youngkin will continue to attend early voting events and rallies while polls are open. Democrats have also continued their push for early voting, launching the “Virginia Turnout Project,” a coordinated campaign effort to bring voters to the polls.

​​Widespread early voting is still relatively new to Virginia. Last year, amid pandemic safety concerns, Democrats who control the Senate and House of Delegates passed legislation to loosen early voting restrictions. The law, signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), eliminated a requirement for a qualifying excuse — such as travel — to get an absentee ballot or vote early in person.

That, along with other loosened restrictions, led millions of voters to skip crowded polling places and long lines on Election Day by casting their ballot beforehand. Easier access helped reach record-breaking levels of early turnout. In several states, early ballots exceeded the total number of votes cast in 2016. In the 2020 election, 40 percent of all ballots in Virginia were cast on Election Day.

Republicans identified the shift toward early voting, and this year are trying to seize the opportunity to turn out more voters. This week, the Middle Resolution, a Republican PAC based in Virginia, sent an email out with the subject line: “Vote Early — Let’s Beat the Democrats at their Own Game.”

If Republicans want to win, the PAC went on, that means voting early and encouraged all Republicans to cast their ballot before early voting ends next month.

The email noted how massive early turnout in 2020 gave Democrats an advantage counting ballots on election night. The PAC said the early votes allowed Democrats to identify how many more they needed to win, giving them an advantage.

“As long as these laws are in place, the Democrats will always have this advantage unless Republicans change the way they vote,” the email read. “We must beat them at their own game! And we can!”

John Couvillon, a pollster and political strategist in Louisiana who’s been following the Virginia race, said the shift in support for early voting from Republicans is an “recognition of reality” of what they need to do to win, especially in an off year when turnout likely will already be down.

“You kind of have a recognition, in my opinion, of not only the reality of people’s voting choices changing, but the fact that in an off year, you want to get every single vote you can,” Couvillon said. “And some of that necessarily means banking some of your vote before Election Day.”

He said as he watched the Democrat early votes flow in during last year’s election, he kept waiting for the Republicans to catch up, but they never did. He added that the expansion of early voting could cause a behavior shift for voters.

“People would rather just get voting out of the way instead of dealing with Election Day lines,” Couvillon said. “As a party you’re foolish if you ignore that consumer behavior.”

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Friday finds Virginia voters much more interested in voting on Election Day than they were last year. Among those who said they will certainly or probably vote in the election, 67 percent plan to vote in person on Election Day, while 27 percent plan to vote before Election Day in person or by mail.

A 77 percent majority of Republican voters plan to vote on Election Day, up from 54 percent according to last year’s exit polls. Also more Democrats and independents plan to vote in person this year than did last year: 55 percent of Democrats plan to vote on Election Day, up from 31 percent who did last year. And 70 percent of independents plan to cast ballots on Nov. 2, up from 44 percent who did in 2020.

Robert Fisher, 79, and his wife, who live in Gainesville, Va., both voted early for Trump in 2020 and plan to vote early for Youngkin this year.

Last year, Fisher and his wife went to their local library to drop off their ballots. The process was smooth and quick, he said. They had to show identification, which gave them a sense of security, and they felt confident their votes would be counted.

“Early voting works well for us at our age. It gives us a convenient time and place,” Fisher said. “I’m a big fan of it.”

While Youngkin’s campaign is urging early voting, the candidate has stepped carefully around the issue of voter fraud throughout the campaign, wanting to hold onto both his Trump-loyal base while also appealing to independents. He was initially slow to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Biden’s election, made “election integrity” one of his early campaign themes, and has called for Republicans to sign up to become poll watchers.

At the first debate of the race on Thursday night, Youngkin settled into his clearest stance on the issue. When asked if he thought Democrats would cheat in the election, he answered: “No.”

State Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who has repeatedly invoked claims of fraud in the 2020 election and has called for a forensic audit of the results, encouraged people to vote early at an antiabortion rally in August where she said she was officially representing Youngkin as a campaign surrogate.

“Because the Democrats like to cheat, you have to cast your vote before they do,” Chase told the crowd at a Bikers for Babies gathering in Henry County.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.