RICHMOND — First it was doubts about “election integrity.” Then the state’s economy was “in the ditch.” Along the way Republican candidate for governor Glenn Youngkin criticized coronavirus mask and vaccination mandates, decried high taxes and thundered about rising crime rates.
Now, in the final week of the campaign, Youngkin is harnessing that angry energy in his closing argument to Virginia voters. His ad featuring a Fairfax mother who wanted to shield her son from reading “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s prizewinning but sexually explicit novel about slavery, in high school has gone viral.
McAuliffe counters that Youngkin’s approach is tinged with racism and smacks of book-banning. His own strategy for the waning days of the campaign involves highlighting Democratic policies that he says make Virginia more inclusive, such as expanding access to voting and health care. He’s using big-name surrogates such as President Biden and former president Barack Obama to urge voters to keep the momentum going — and to taunt former president Donald Trump into making an appearance in Virginia, where he has been deeply disliked by urban and suburban voters.
The nation is watching the competing approaches in what polls show is a neck-and-neck race in this year’s only competitive gubernatorial contest. A Youngkin win might suggest a way forward for Republicans nationwide in the wake of Trump’s divisive presidency, raising GOP hopes for next year’s congressional elections. A victory for McAuliffe could boost Democrats at a time of gridlock and sagging approval in Washington.
“Virginia is in the national crosshairs,” said Ravi Perry, chairman of the political science department at Howard University. Republicans “have been buoyed by the rise in attention at the national and local level on school politics. . . . The culture wars of ethnic studies or critical race theory being part of our schools bring out a significant part of their base.”
National Democrats, meanwhile, have put everything on the line for McAuliffe, who is testing voters’ appetite for policy “from these kinds of people who have been the face of the party for a decade or more,” Perry said. “I don’t know if that will be effective for him or not.”
A turning point in Virginia
One thing both major-party candidates agree on is that next week’s election is a turning point for the state.
McAuliffe says the outcome can cement the changes his party has wrought in recent years, including securing access to abortions, outlawing the death penalty, protecting civil rights and more. Youngkin argues that Democrats have gone too far, passing laws that coddle criminals, bleed taxpayers and cater to special interests at the expense of the majority.
A Republican win in newly blue Virginia, he likes to say, will send “shock waves” around the country.
The contest is by far the state’s most expensive. McAuliffe and Youngkin have raised a combined $115 million, dwarfing the combined $64.7 million of the 2017 governor’s race, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has long been known for his national fundraising prowess, and Youngkin, who built a fortune as a private-equity executive, has loaned his own campaign some $20 million.
Also on the ballot are lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Control of the House is at stake, with Democrats defending a 55-45 advantage that hinged on close wins two years ago in suburban swing districts.
With early voting wrapping up Saturday and polls opening for Election Day on Tuesday, the two men are traveling across Virginia to make their closing arguments. Both have armies of surrogates out knocking on thousands of doors around the state, canvassing for votes.
Youngkin embarked this week on a 50-stop bus tour, starting in blue Northern Virginia and heading to the red, western part of the state, where enthusiastic crowds gathered to sign their names across the side of his bus.
In stump speeches, Youngkin often invokes Virginia’s roster of Founding Fathers to pledge a return to traditional values that empower individuals to succeed.
He charges that schools in Virginia — and across the country — are in the grip of liberals who are catering to teachers’ unions, indoctrinating students on matters of race, and exposing them to sexually explicit books in the classroom and sexual predators in bathrooms.
“Friends, America needs us right now,” Youngkin told a cheering crowd in suburban Richmond as he wrapped up the first day of his bus tour Saturday. “I get more texts and phone calls and emails from parents all over this great nation who say, ‘Glenn, stand up for our children, too.’ ”
Youngkin has promised to let parents decide if their children should wear masks in school and teachers choose whether to get vaccinated. To keep schools open for five days a week, in-person teaching, no matter what the pandemic brings. To ban the teaching of critical race theory and give parents the power to opt their children out of reading assignments they consider objectionable.
“Democrats had a lot of growth in the suburbs, but you bring in education issues, and that’s definitely a suburban kind of issue, and that’s playing well to at least some suburbanites,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, research director for the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University.
The race was tied in a CNU poll released Wednesday that also found men were gravitating toward the Republican while women were turning toward the Democrat.
Youngkin launched his bid for the GOP nomination in January, casting himself as an apolitical outsider who wanted to pull his home state out of an economic “ditch.”
At the same time, he indulged Trump’s false claim that Biden stole the White House — refusing to acknowledge for the first four months of his campaign that Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election, and making “election integrity” his marquee issue.
After winning the nod in May, Youngkin briefly pivoted, acknowledging Biden’s legitimacy and refusing to discuss plans for expanding gun rights and restricting abortion, two other issues he played up during the nomination battle. He said he would focus on kitchen table issues such as schools, the economy and public safety.
But he never fully turned away from hard-right messaging. He offered up a plan to cut taxes, most notably on groceries, but continued to stoke fears about election security. His promise to pull Virginia out of the ditch seemed to fade as CNBC ranked it the best state for business for a second straight year, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent in September, below the national average of 4.8 percent.
Youngkin’s education agenda has gravitated toward visceral appeals that Virginia’s schools — consistently ranked among the nation’s best — are in “chaos.” There’s no question that chaos has come to school board meetings, most notably in vote-rich Loudoun County in the Northern Virginia exurbs. Parents already inflamed over long pandemic-era shutdowns have pushed back against the county’s efforts to incorporate racial equity into teacher training.
In the final weeks, Youngkin has also demanded an investigation into two alleged sexual assaults in Loudoun schools that critics link to Democrats’ support for allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice and for giving school officials discretion not to report certain misdemeanors to police, including misdemeanor sexual battery.
Those policies were not in play in the case of either alleged assault. The first occurred before the bathroom policy took effect, and both alleged assaults were immediately reported to police. But the episodes have raised alarms about giving school authorities, who allowed the alleged perpetrator to enroll in a new school after the teen was charged in the first case, greater discretion over reporting school incidents to police. On Monday, a judge rendered the juvenile court equivalent of a guilty verdict on the teen in the first case. Charges remain pending in the second.
In the second and final gubernatorial debate last month, Youngkin slammed McAuliffe for vetoing a bill while governor that would have required schools to let parents opt their children out of “sexually explicit” reading material.
“Yeah, I stopped the bill that — I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said.
Youngkin has used the latter half of that quote for the past month to suggest that McAuliffe was broadly opposed to parental input in schools. It forms the basis of his viral ad featuring Laura Murphy of Fairfax, whose crusade against “Beloved” inspired the vetoed bill.
McAuliffe responded with an ad that said Youngkin had taken his remark out of context, showcasing a collection of his five children’s first-day-of-school photos and claiming he and his wife, Dorothy, have always been involved in their education. “We know good schools depend on involved parents,” he said.
But by then, “Parents for Youngkin” signs were already sprouting on suburban lawns.
All watching Virginia
McAuliffe has also launched a bus tour, but his wife served as his stand-in for the first few days as the former governor continued to campaign with some of his party’s biggest names.
In his recent appearances with Obama and Biden, McAuliffe distilled the pitch that he has made all year.
McAuliffe started both rallies by touting the “tremendous progress” of the past eight years — his term plus that of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who had been McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor. Northam had the advantage of two years of Democratic majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, while McAuliffe faced Republican control.
The pandemic was a setback for everyone, McAuliffe said. The next governor will have to complete the recovery from both the public health emergency and the economic crisis that went with it.
“I want Virginia to be the first state in the United States of America that calls an end to the covid pandemic,” McAuliffe said Saturday at the Obama rally in Richmond. Once that’s done, he said, “our agenda is clear: We’ve got to create good-paying jobs, make health care more affordable, invest in education. And I promise you as I did before, I will keep Virginia open and welcoming to everyone no matter whom you love, the color of your skin or who you pray to.”
That last line is key to McAuliffe’s vision for how to generate jobs. He often tells the story of how the CoStar Group — a real estate data firm — was deciding where to locate a huge research center in 2016. It initially picked North Carolina, McAuliffe says, until that state passed a controversial bill requiring people to use public restrooms that conform to their gender at birth. The company’s CEO has said that the bathroom bill was a factor in the ultimate decision to instead locate in Richmond.
McAuliffe has long touted policies — 20, to be exact, totaling 166 pages — that he says would make the state better for residents, workers and businesses alike. He has promised to raise teacher pay above the national average, raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 (it’s currently set to get there in 2026), pass paid sick leave and family medical leave, expand broadband so every student can be online within two years, make health care more affordable, invest billions in schools and protect a woman’s right to an abortion.
He argues that more conservative Republican social policies would be bad for Virginia’s economy, invoking voter restrictions in Texas and Georgia and the new Texas law that essentially bans abortions.
And on Tuesday, as he appeared in Arlington with Biden, McAuliffe added Youngkin’s ad about parental concern over “Beloved” to the list.
“Glenn Youngkin is promoting banning books by one of America’s most prominent Black authors,” he said. “Just the fact that he’s even discussing this brings shame right here to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
As it has been all year, a crucial part of McAuliffe’s message is tying Youngkin to Trump, who has endorsed the candidate several times. A cryptic hint from Trump on Wednesday that he might visit Virginia to campaign for Youngkin was catnip for McAuliffe, who immediately began fundraising on the possibility even though insiders said an appearance was unlikely.
Trump also called into a rally on Youngkin’s behalf this month. Youngkin did not attend, but those who did pledged allegiance to an American flag that hosts said had been flown in D.C. on Jan. 6, before rioters descended on the U.S. Capitol.
When pressed, Youngkin said later that pledging allegiance to that flag was “weird,” though he had thanked organizers for the event.
“Virginia, we have a choice, a path that promotes conspiracies, hate and division,” McAuliffe said Tuesday, “or a path focused on lifting up every single Virginian.”
Many of his proposals seem to be popular with Virginians in opinion polls, but the question for McAuliffe is whether he can excite voters to come out and cast ballots. He won the nomination in June after a five-way primary campaign in which three of his opponents were African American, and two of those were women. Some in the party had hoped that Virginia could make history by becoming the first state in the country to elect a Black woman as governor.
Instead, Democrats in every jurisdiction in the state selected McAuliffe as their choice. Since then, McAuliffe has had to walk a fine line to avoid alienating the more liberal wing of the party. It has been awkward at times; his campaign initially suggested McAuliffe favored ending qualified immunity for police officers, which protects them from lawsuits while on duty, but he later said he does not. And though organized labor is one of his top contributors, McAuliffe has been hard to pin down on the issue of Virginia’s right-to-work law, which prohibits requiring union membership as a condition of employment.
Unions and many Democrats would like to repeal that law. Most business leaders want to preserve it. McAuliffe has said only that he would sign a repeal if it got to his desk but that he knows the General Assembly would never pass such a bill.
At campaign stops, he emphasizes his work to restore voting rights for nearly 200,000 people who were disenfranchised because they served time for felonies — a situation that disproportionately affected African Americans.
And in the closing days of the campaign, McAuliffe casts the election in grand terms, urging voters who might be tired of politics to go out and vote.
“This election is about the next chapter of Virginia and our country. And what’s it going to look like? That’s what this is about,” McAuliffe said Saturday. “It’s about leading us out of this pandemic, keeping our economy strong, protection voting rights, protecting abortion rights and so much more. We cannot afford to return to the division, the culture wars and the conspiracy theories. We’ve come too far to go back.”
That’s the same message Democrats around the country will be carrying into congressional elections next year. They’re all watching Virginia to see whether it works, said Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Virginia is this sort of ‘tell’ about what’s to come,” Wrighten said. “If Terry McAuliffe can’t win in Virginia, people are going to start wondering, what does this mean for Democrats in general?”