Even though Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not on the ballot this November, they might as well be. Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the first competitive statewide race since 2020, will likely serve as an endorsement or indictment of the Biden administration and as a bellwether for the upcoming midterm elections. Joe Biden won Virginia by ten points in 2020, solidifying Virginia’s status as a “blue” state. However, polling in the Commonwealth’s gubernatorial race is calling that confidence into question. Because Virginia is one of only two states with gubernatorial elections this year, all eyes are on Virginia voters as they elect the Commonwealth’s 74th governor on November 2.
One year after President Joe Biden decisively defeated former president Donald Trump in Virginia, polls show that former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D) and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin (R) are virtually tied in the race to determine who will be Virginia’s next governor. The final pre-election Monmouth University poll recorded 46 percent support each among registered voters, closer than anticipated given that McAuliffe maintained a 5-point lead in September and August polls and Democrats have won every statewide race for more than a decade. According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregate, McAuliffe leads by an average of 2.3 percent, a significant drop in support after he was favored to win by eight percent in early August.
McAuliffe served as Virginia’s 72nd governor from 2013-2017, but Virginia’s rule against consecutive terms prevented him from running again. He is the insider in the race, whereas Youngkin presents himself as a political outsider in his bid for governor, having never held elected office.
As governor, McAuliffe created over 200,000 jobs, cut unemployment from 5.7 to 3.3 percent with unemployment decreases in all cities and counties across the Commonwealth, raised personal income by 14%, and wrote the bid that led Amazon to build their second headquarters (“HQ2”) in Arlington, Virginia, though the company didn’t reach that decision until after his term ended. Under the leadership of Governor Ralph Northam (D), Virginia has been ranked as the #1 state for business for two consecutive years. Northam also passed Medicaid expansion in Virginia, after McAuliffe failed in one of the major priorities of his first term: convincing the Republican-controlled legislature to vote to expand Medicaid.
Until September 2020, Youngkin served as the co-CEO of the global private equity firm the Carlyle Group after playing a number of significant management roles since joining the company in 1995. His management experience extended to leading the Carlyle buyout teams in some of the world’s leading markets, including the US and the UK. Youngkin was later named co-chief operating officer in 2014, and ultimately, co-chief executive officer of Carlyle in 2018. However, his record has come under scrutiny for Carlyle’s recommendations to move jobs overseas, increase rent for seniors on fixed incomes, and cut corners on healthcare treatment for kids and nursing home residents, including some in Virginia. Youngkin’s campaign has denied that he was involved in those decisions. Youngkin has won support for his pro-business rhetoric and policy proposals among voters in rural areas, winning in western Virginia with 66 percent to McAuliffe’s 27 percent.
On The Issues
Youngkin and McAuliffe both have a history supporting economic development, but elsewhere their policy proposals diverge. McAuliffe supports vaccine mandates by employers; Youngkin does not. McAuliffe argues that progressive social policies, like encoding Roe v. Wade in the Virginia Constitution to preserve access to abortion and vaccination mandates, will attract skilled workers and boost Virginia’s economy, in accordance with Biden’s Build Back Better plan. At a debate last month, when Youngkin was asked whether a hospital could require a nurse treating immunocompromised cancer patients to get vaccinated, he said no. Youngkin argues that vaccine mandates could inhibit economic development by discouraging employees from staying in the workforce, citing the fact that Virginia ranks 44th in the nation in job recovery. Youngkin is not actually anti-vaccine, however - he has urged Virginians to choose vaccination. Whether a vaccine-focused narrative will help or hinder either campaign, however, is up in the air: while most Virginians support vaccination mandates for workers and teachers, this support is concentrated in metropolitan areas across the state.
Similar to Biden in the 2020 race, McAuliffe has painted himself as an experienced governor prepared to lead Virginia’s COVID-19 recovery, whereas Youngkin did not release his first official policy proposal until the summer, and sourced many of his economic proposals from Trump economic advisor Stephen Moore. McAuliffe has released more than 130 pages of detailed policy proposals since his campaign launch in December 2020, totaling 20 plans for COVID-19 economic recovery, a record $2 billion investment in education, and affordable healthcare.
In Youngkin’s Day One plan, he outlines plans to build at least 20 new charter schools across the Commonwealth, expanding school choice statewide. Youngkin’s education agenda also included banning critical race theory in public schools; in early October, he criticized McAuliffe for his statement that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” following tensions over critical race theory, treatment of transgender students, and school mask mandates that arose in Loudoun County. In contrast, McAuliffe opposes creating more charter schools, of which there are seven currently in the state. His stance against charter schools is longstanding: as governor in 2016, McAuliffe vetoed three school choice bills that would have facilitated transfers for students in poorly-performing schools, set up education funds for parents of disabled students, and established a statewide virtual school. Instead, public education is a priority of McAuliffe’s - he has promised to invest a record $2 billion in education, raise teacher pay above the national average for the first time in Virginia history, expand pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds in need, and implement cost-effective post-secondary education opportunities in high-demand fields like computer science. Despite claiming public education to be a priority, however, McAuliffe has sent four of his five children to private school.
Youngkin has also floated the idea of eliminating Virginia’s income tax, a policy that would eliminate 72 percent of Virginia’s general fund budget with drastic cuts to education and public safety. McAuliffe has not discussed his tax plan at length, but both Youngkin and McAuliffe are in favor of eliminating the grocery tax. Neither has plans to supplement lost income from the grocery tax. Youngkin also plans to suspend increases to the gas tax and double the standard deduction for income tax.
This is the first competitive statewide race since the 2020 presidential election, which makes it a litmus test for the 2022 midterms. Though Virginia has been a solidly blue state for the past decade, polls are slipping nationwide. A McAuliffe victory would signal continued support for the Democrats’ national agenda, whereas his loss could mean sweeping Republican victories in the 2022 midterms.
Hoping to energize voters, McAuliffe has framed the race as a referendum on Donald Trump. Youngkin has been endorsed by Trump three times since the end of the Republican primary in May and embraced Trump’s focus on election integrity, promising an “election integrity task force” and saying during the initial stages of the campaign that election integrity was one of the most pressing issues Virginia faces. He has advocated for reinstating restrictive voter ID laws “making it easy to vote and harder to cheat.”
At a recent rally for Youngkin, which he did not attend, attendees said the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag hung at a Capitol insurrection rally on January 6. Youngkin later released a statement calling the rally “weird and wrong.” The statement also thanked the event organizer, a former Trump campaign manager, for supporting his campaign.
Youngkin’s campaign has wavered on whether to capitalize on Youngkin’s ties to Trump. In July, Youngkin’s campaign released an advertisement connecting McAuliffe to Trump, arguing that McAuliffe “spends all his time attacking Donald Trump, but here’s the truth...McAuliffe did anything to get Trump’s money,” referring to a $25,000 donation McAuliffe received from Trump in 2009.
As Election Day draws closer, Democrats are betting on support from national political figures to pull McAuliffe and local candidates through in Virginia. In the lead-up to Election Day, McAuliffe has campaigned with President Biden, Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former president Barack Obama, Georgia voting rights leader Stacey Abrams, and the Dave Matthews Band. Youngkin has campaigned with former UN Ambassador and Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former President Donald Trump, and Steve Bannon.
McAuliffe is looking to extend Democrats’ winning streak, but Biden’s national popularity is plummeting after failures with inflation and the Afghanistan withdrawal. In this critical race, an indicator for the 2022 midterms, all eyes are on Virginia—and this referendum on Trump and Biden.
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