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Republican Glenn Youngkin wins Virginia's governor race, dealing Democrats a blow

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Tuesday is the final day for Virginians to cast a vote in the closer-than-close race for governor between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and first-time candidate Glenn Youngkin, a Republican.

Virginia's off-year elections are often seen as a proxy for the national political mood. This year's race has the interest of political watchers across the country who say it could tell us what kind of environment might be ahead for both parties in the 2022 midterm elections. More than 1.1 million Virginians have cast early ballots under expanded voting rules pushed by Democrats in the state legislature.

It's a challenging place for Republicans, who gave up control of the state legislature and three Congressional seats during former President Donald Trump's time in office. Democrats have held the governor's mansion in the state for the last eight years. They control both chambers of the state legislature, both of the U.S. Senate seats and the majority of the state's Congressional delegation.

Recent poll numbers, though, show an extremely tight race in a state President Biden won by ten points. Youngkin — an energetic first-time candidate and wealthy former private equity CEO — has drawn large crowds who cheer loudest for his calls to ban "critical race theory," which is not taught in Virginia's K-12 schools.

"We will not teach our children to view everything through a lens of race," Youngkin said to cheers at a rally outside Richmond on Monday.

McAuliffe has tried to paint Youngkin as an extremist who is using "racist dog whistles" to rally voters in a mode he says evokes Trump, who has repeatedly endorsed Youngkin.

McAuliffe called Youngkin, "Donald Trump in khakis or sweater vests," at his own rally at a Richmond brewery on Monday. "He's using your children as pawns in his campaign."

Trump's GOP and Youngkin

Youngkin's climb has tracked alongside a steep decline in Biden's approval rating, which has dropped to the lowest point so far in his presidency.

Despite Biden's ratings, McAuliffe has embraced campaigning alongside the president. Youngkin, on the other hand, has publicly tried to keep his distance from former President Trump. He didn't attend a Monday night "tele-rally" Trump held for him.

And Youngkin was also a no-show at a so-called "Take Back Virginia" rally last month in suburban Richmond — a kind of reunion for the Trump faithful. Former presidential adviser Steve Bannon hosted the event, and conservative political commentator Martha Boneta led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance using a flag that was carried at the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

When Trump called in, he slammed McAuliffe, repeated false allegations of election fraud, and praised Youngkin, who later called the Pledge of Allegiance, "weird and wrong."

The day before the election for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin supporters gather inside an airplane hanger in Chesterfield County to show their enthusiasm for the Republican candidate.
Crixell Matthews / VPM
The day before the election for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin supporters gather inside an airplane hanger in Chesterfield County to show their enthusiasm for the Republican candidate.

Youngkin embraced Trump early in his campaign before pivoting to win over more moderate voters. Youngkin has also campaigned alongside some of his supporters like Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who regularly repeats misinformation about the last election and has made similar unsubstantiated claims in this race.

Wearing his signature fleece vest and cowboy boots, Youngkin has continued to make nods toward the MAGA faithful, even if he isn't mentioning the former president by name. He's called for audits of voting machines, something Virginia already does, and campaigned alongside 2020 election deniers.

Democrats say Youngkin is just putting a suburban-dad sheen on Trump's policies. "Extremism can come in many forms," Biden said at a rally for McAuliffe last week. "It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile in a fleece vest."

McAuliffe has hammered home the message that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump. Youngkin has rejected that idea saying, "If you look at the ballot today, what it says on it is 'Glenn Youngkin' and 'Terry McAuliffe.' " (A third-party candidate, activist Princess Blanding, is also on the ballot.)

Youngkin has ambitious plans for a first day in office, including banning the teaching of "critical race theory," firing Virginia's parole board, eliminating a slew of taxes, and increasing teacher pay. Most of those plans, however, require approval from the state legislature, including a state Senate that will remain in Democrats' hands regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's election.

Democrats have everything to lose

For Democrats, the stakes are high. The party hasn't lost a statewide election in the commonwealth since 2009. McAuliffe says he always knew it would be close.

"I remind you, for 44 straight years, the party that wins the White House, the other party wins the governor's mansion," McAuliffe said in an interview. "I'm the only guy to break it."

Supporters of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat in gubernatorial election in Virginia, gather on Mon. Nov. 1, the eve of the election, at the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Va.
Crixell Matthews / VPM
Supporters of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat in gubernatorial election in Virginia, gather on Mon. Nov. 1, the eve of the election, at the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Va.

McAuliffe was also a wealthy businessman and first-time politician when he won the governor's race in 2013 after a failed attempt in 2009. He had found success as a well-connected Democratic fundraiser known for backslapping and showy gestures, like wrestling an alligator to win a donation for President Jimmy Carter's 1980 reelection campaign.

This time, he's running on his record, touting experience he said voters want to see in a pandemic: "I was governor before, got us out of a horrible financial mess, created a record amount of 200,000 new jobs and made the state open and welcoming," he says.

McAuliffe has also vowed to build on the slew of laws passed by Democrats in their two years in power by speeding up the timeline for a minimum wage hike, expediting a push toward clean energy and passing mandatory paid sick leave. To realize those goals, Democrats will need to hold on to their majority in Virginia's lower legislative chamber, the House of Delegates, which is also on the ballot.

"Drive out that vote"

With a race this close, it's all going to come down to turnout. Odd-year elections in Virginia are tough for voters, though. In the last gubernatorial race in 2017, turnout was 47.6%. It was more than 75% in 2020, a presidential election year.

"Tomorrow, we gotta show up and take it. We aren't going to be given it, but we gotta take it," Youngkin said at a rally on the eve of the election. "This race is neck-and-neck."

With expanded voting this year, the turnout could be much higher, though. As of Monday morning, more than 1.1 million voters had cast early ballots. In 2017, that number was less than 190,000.

"I need you to drive out that vote tomorrow," said McAuliffe on Monday. "I got a big lead on the early vote, but I have to have a big lead tomorrow on the in-person day. Are you going to deliver that for me?"

With Trump out of office, there are worries among Democrats that members of their party won't actually cast a ballot. Democratic voter Kelly Hebron told Weekend Edition Sunday she has been hearing about that.

"Some folks are like, 'Oh, I'm not even going to vote.' And we don't want to hear that because whether or not you're happy or not with a party, this is what we have to work with," she said. "And I think too many people don't feel like they're having a voice, and I think that is why this race is close."

And there is election fatigue, especially as the 2020 election seems to still be with us. Holly Young, who voted early in Richmond, says she's worried about that.

"I don't love the Democratic nominee, but I felt like we really have to vote. It's very important."

Young says she's noticed a lack of McAuliffe signs around the state. That bothers her. She says Republicans have often held power in Virginia, so this isn't the time for Democrats to take recent victories for granted.

Ben Paviour is VPM's state political reporter and Jahd Khalil is a reporter with WVTF in Richmond.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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