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Democrats lean into vaccine mandates, coronavirus response in Virginia governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, debates his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Thursday, Sept. 16. (Steve Helber/AP)

As the November general election draws closer and the coronavirus pandemic continues its surge in Virginia, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe is hoping his approval of vaccine mandates — and Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin’s opposition to them — will be enough to put him over the edge in a tight race for governor.

This month, McAuliffe launched a campaign, “Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers,” outlining a plan to get every Virginian vaccinated against the coronavirus and criticizing Youngkin’s opposition to mandates. During the first debate earlier this month, the former governor tied Youngkin to “anti-vaccine rhetoric” and has dedicated airtime to positioning Youngkin with other Republican pandemic responses in states like Florida.

Youngkin, who is vaccinated, has repeatedly voiced support for vaccines and encouraged others to get immunized but remains firm on the stance of personal choice and outspoken against any kind of mandate.

The two candidates are wagering on their respective positions as a key to winning in November. A Washington Post-Schar School poll this month found that vaccine mandates are popular with Virginia voters — although that support is sharply divided by party, with Democrats heavily favoring them for schools and businesses, followed by a smaller majority of independents, who are being heavily wooed by both sides. A majority of Republicans oppose such mandates.

A Monmouth University poll released Monday showed McAuliffe with a slim lead over Youngkin. While there’s been little change in the race over the past month, McAuliffe has maintained approval on issues that voters identified as important, like the coronavirus. The poll showed McAuliffe has a clear advantage on being trusted to handle the pandemic, which ranked as a top issue for voters.

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The coronavirus has reemerged as an overarching theme after a quiet summer in which cases ebbed to their lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. As the delta variant of the coronavirus started surging in the state and across the country in late summer, vaccine mandates emerged as the latest partisan issue.

California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, survived this month’s recall election, for example, buoyed largely by his support for pandemic measures that drove Democratic voters to the polls. Seeing voter enthusiasm for the pandemic response there, Democratic strategists tried to give vaccine mandates a central role in the Virginia race.

McAuliffe has come out in support of universal vaccine mandates among employers, including for health-care workers, teachers and other school staff members. On Wednesday, McAuliffe’s campaign put out a call for child-care providers to also require staffers to be fully vaccinated.

“As poll after poll makes clear, Virginians trust Terry McAuliffe’s leadership on the pandemic and agree with his plans to get Virginians vaccinated, maintain a strong economy, and keep kids safely in school,” McAuliffe spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said in a written statement. “Glenn Youngkin has been doing the complete opposite — spreading anti-vaccine rhetoric and opposing common-sense safety measures, including requiring vaccines for nurses treating cancer patients.”

McAuliffe, Youngkin locked in tight race for Virginia governor, Post-Schar School poll finds

Cook Political Report analyst Jessica Taylor said it makes sense for McAuliffe to lean into mandates because the coronavirus is still one of the top issues on voters’ minds. Pushing for tighter mandates as a way to get past the pandemic could energize the Democratic base in the increasingly close race.

On Friday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted the status of the race to a toss-up from leaning blue.

“Covid is still the driving force behind everything,” Taylor said. “It completely makes sense that this is something that McAuliffe is pushing.”

On Friday, the seven-day average of coronavirus cases in Virginia was at 3,238, compared with 1,379 at the beginning of August, and 59.8 percent of the population was fully vaccinated, the highest rate in the South.

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Taylor said mandates could pose a challenge for Youngkin. As is the case for many of the issues in his campaign, he has to walk a fine line on mandates to appeal to both his party’s Trump-loyal base and voters in the swing-district suburbs where vaccination is popular.

“It’s a delicate dance Youngkin has to do, and it’s one that could cost him,” Taylor said.

In the first debate of the race, McAuliffe attacked Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine mandates, even dedicating his one question to ask Youngkin whether he thought a nurse treating a cancer patient should be vaccinated.

Youngkin had released a PSA-style ad, encouraging Virginians to get vaccinated. “It’s your right to make your own choice, and I respect that,” Youngkin said in the ad. “I do hope you’ll choose to join me in getting the vaccine. We can protect lives, and livelihoods, here in Virginia. And together we can keep our communities, our schools and our businesses open.”

McAuliffe, Youngkin spar in first debate of Virginia’s governor’s race

After the debate, Youngkin released another ad in response to McAuliffe calling him “anti-vaccine.” The TV spot features doctors praising Youngkin’s support of vaccination and his encouragement of other Virginians to get the shots. Youngkin has also criticized McAuliffe for flipping stances after McAuliffe said in May — before the delta variant was surging — that he supported leaving vaccine mandates up to school districts and businesses.

“Glenn Youngkin is doing what leaders do: setting an example, spreading the word about the COVID vaccine’s benefits, and encouraging others to join him in getting vaccinated,” Youngkin spokesperson Christian Martinez said in a written statement. “Terry McAuliffe is doing what power-hungry rulers do: threatening to ‘make life difficult’ for anyone who refuses to comply with the rules he has been caught ignoring.”

The question that remains is whether McAuliffe’s hammering on vaccine mandates will be enough to energize and turn out Democrats in the tight contest. Traditionally, the Virginia governor’s race is a barometer for national trends — and often reflects the national sentiment toward a new president. When McAuliffe was elected in 2013, it was the first time a governor of the same party as the president won in the state since 1973.

Youngkin and McAuliffe debate coronavirus vaccines on Twitter ahead of Thursday’s actual gubernatorial debate

Longtime Virginia political analyst Robert Holsworth noted that the drop in President Biden’s approval rating in Virginia poses a hurdle for McAuliffe. He said it makes sense for Democrats to push vaccine mandates as a platform point but wondered whether it will prove fruitful. While polls are showing McAuliffe as the popular choice when it comes to coronavirus issues, and it continues to rank among the top issues for voters, his overall margins with Youngkin don’t reflect that, Holsworth said.

Democrats say voters will respond well to McAuliffe’s strong stances for pandemic-related mandates, seeing how much is at stake in the race. And there’s no sign they will let up on the issue of vaccine requirements. On Thursday, the Democratic Party of Virginia hosted a call with doctors who endorsed McAuliffe as a way to emphasize “the stakes of this governor’s race as relates to COVID-19 and keeping Virginians safe and healthy.”

But Holsworth said he remains skeptical that it will be enough to overcome outside factors like the national mood.

“The public votes on things other than just issues,” he said.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.