Nine months into Biden's first term, all U.S. eyes on Virginia governor's race

·5 min read

WASHINGTON — Voters in Virginia are choosing their next governor Tuesday, a vote that could have wide-reaching implications for the sitting U.S. president, his ever-present predecessor and the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump each have a lot riding on whether former Democrat governor Terry McAuliffe or Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin emerges as the victor — as do countless members of Congress who will face voters in their own states next year.

For Biden, a convincing win for Youngkin, a Trump acolyte, could terrify moderate Democrat lawmakers who fear the electoral consequences of voting in favour of the divisive, big-ticket infrastructure and spending package that comprises a cornerstone of the president's agenda.

A big victory for McAuliffe, on the other hand, could be a pointed reminder for Republicans that Trump, despite his own sky-high levels of support in the party, would bring a steamer trunk's worth of baggage to their own re-election efforts.

Neither is likely, polls suggest: the website FiveThirtyEight.com, which aggregates polling results, put the race squarely within the margin of error Monday, showing Youngkin with visible momentum and a narrow one-point edge over his Democratic rival.

"This is a moment for Virginians to push back on this left, liberal progressive agenda and take our commonwealth back," Youngkin said Monday during a campaign event in Richmond, the state capital.

His strategy has been to focus on education, assailing McAuliffe relentlessly with his own words to portray the Democratic candidate as a progressive ideologue who doesn't want parents involved in Virginia's school system. He's also deftly dodged McAuliffe's attempts to depict him as a Trump stooge.

Youngkin has promised to ban schools in Virginia from teaching critical race theory, a doctrine that explores the impact of systemic, institutional racism on the evolution of society, even though it's not taught now.

And one of his campaign ads features a mother who wanted schools to ban "Beloved," the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel by Toni Morrison. As governor, McAuliffe vetoed the ensuing Republican legislation, which would have allowed parents to exempt their children from certain educational material.

"He's created hatred and division, just like Donald Trump," McAuliffe said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"All you're doing is pitting parents against parents, parents against teachers, and they're using children as political pawns."

McAuliffe is seeking a return engagement after he was first elected to the post in 2013 — Virginia's term limits prohibit governors from running for back-to-back terms. A loss for Democrats will be widely seen as a repudiation of Biden, who is nursing dismal approval numbers, and a clear sign that control of Congress is likely to land in Republican hands after next year's midterms.

Ironically, McAuliffe's constant branding of Youngkin as Trump in a "fleece vest," as Biden himself put it at a campaign event last week, has given the Republican hopeful the latitude to focus on swing voters, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Alexandria, Va.

"Terry McAuliffe has singularly focused on the theme that Glenn Youngkin equals Donald Trump, playing on what drove Democratic base voters to the polls in Virginia in big numbers the previous four years," Rozell said.

"What has happened? Glenn Youngkin doesn't have to make the case to Trump voters that he's their guy. He can talk to independent and swing voters, while Terry McAuliffe keeps reminding everybody Glenn Youngkin equals Donald Trump. Hugely ironic."

At the same time, McAuliffe's gambit has proven more difficult than expected, in part because Youngkin doesn't look or sound the part of a Trump lackey, Rozell added: "Rhetorically, temperamentally, he comes across as non-threatening, very reasonable — not at all Trump-like."

Trump — who was scheduled to hold a "tele-rally" with supporters later Monday, an event in which Youngkin pointedly said over the weekend he's not involved in — issued not one but two statements heaping praise on the Republican hopeful, and scorn on foils like the Democrats and the media.

"We get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies," Trump said of Youngkin.

"The reason the Fake News and perverts are working overtime is to try and convince people that we do not like each other, and therefore, my great and unprecedented Make America Great Again base will not show up to vote."

Clearly, Trump wants to take credit for a Youngkin victory, Rozell said.

"The fascinating thing to me is that voters in Virginia perceive that Youngkin's policy priorities and Trump's are not all that different. And yet, it doesn't seem to matter."

Indeed, Youngkin's managed to do something few Republicans in the Trump era have ever managed, Rozell added: distancing himself from the former president without alienating his famously vindictive base.

Both candidates were scheduled to attend last-minute campaign events in northern Virginia late Monday, with Youngkin headed to Loudoun County, a wealthy suburb of the D.C. area where the Republican's messaging about school curriculums has found particular resonance.

Virginia's not the only state headed to the polls Tuesday. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is trying to become the first Democrat to be re-elected as governor in nearly half a century. His Republican challenger is Jack Ciattarelli, a former member of the state assembly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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