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Virginia voters weigh in on a neck-and-neck governor's race

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Sept. 16, 2021. (Steve Helber/AP)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Sept. 16, 2021. (Steve Helber/AP)

Virginians elect a new Governor on Tuesday.

The race is a neck-and-neck sprint between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, with recent polls showing that McAuliffe has only a 1% edge on his opponent. Both candidates piled into busses for whistle-stop tours of the state in the final days.

McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, enjoyed a substantial lead in the polls over the summer. But as the race tightened, he made a comment in a September debate that Youngkin’s campaign seized on.

While responding to a question about educational policy, McAuliffe declared, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The comment is now featured in numerous Youngkin ads and taps into a heated debate over who should influence educational curriculum. Youngkin supporters Sean Lasick and Amy Lutz, who spoke to us at a campaign event in Great Falls, both cited concerns over so-called critical race theory in classrooms.

“When it comes to the school board, he’s trying to get rid of the critical race theory, which is a big problem,” Lasick says.

Amy Lutz, a mother of seven, said that Zoom school exposed parents to ideas they don’t want taught to their children.

“Whoa, wait a minute, this is not what I’m paying my tax dollars for. This is not why I’m sending my children here,” she says of her realizations. “We know a lot of people that decided to come home and homeschool them.”

For his part, McAuliffe’s campaign said that he misspoke, but polling by Roanoke College does indicate that Democrats and Republicans are divided on who should have the final say in the classroom.

“We saw there was a big difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of who they thought should be controlling curriculum,” said political analyst Harry Wilson. “Democrats [are] much more likely to say teachers and administrators and Republicans [are] much more likely right now to say parents.”

McAuliffe pins Youngkin to Trump

Meanwhile, McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in Virginia. That’s a sentiment shared by his supporter Miro Korenha.

“There’s a real sense that Glenn Youngkin is just Trump, but, you know, not as harsh, not as vulgar,” Korenha says.

The former president lost the state in both 2016 and 2020, and while Youngkin received his endorsement, he’s kept Trump at a distance.

“Glenn Youngkin has done everything he can to try to bring in Trump supporters, without embracing Trump,” said Wilson. “That’s a very fine line to walk.”

But if Youngkin wins, or even comes close to winning, it may vindicate a new strategy for Republicans to win back suburbs in other contested elections.

“Trump lost a lot of Republicans due to his demeanor, I think, not due necessarily to his policies. And again, those are the people that Youngkin and other Republicans have to get back, and if they don’t get those people back, they don’t win elections,” Wilson says. “So they have to find a way to do that without fully embracing Trump, which is difficult to do when Trump is injecting himself into politics on a daily basis.”

Democrats fret about turnout

Despite going to Biden by 10 points in the 2020 election, Democrats worry that they may not turn out enough votes to retain control of state government.

“I’m worried about the Democratic turnout because this is a turnout race. Whoever turns out the most people, is going to win,” McAullife supporter Rebbecca Leet says. “We did great last year in the presidential election, but if people don’t turn out, you now, we’re not going to win”

Republicans, for their part, have an enthusiasm advantage.

“Republicans are highly motivated because of Democrats having control of not just the governor’s mansion in Virginia, but the General Assembly and the fact that the Democratic Party in Virginia and policy has moved pretty far to the left in the past four years,” Wilson says. “So I think what we’re seeing here is Republicans really motivated, and we saw that in our poll they had a 17 point gap in terms of being very or extremely enthusiastic about voting.”

If Democrats can approach the turnout they saw last year, McAuliffe should win in a landslide. But Youngkin supporter Lutz says in all her years living in the state, she’s never witnessed such excitement over a governor’s race.

“I will tell you, I’ve never seen so many, especially Republican signs. Never, never — and I think people are feeling like, you know what? We’ve got to make a change,” Lutz says.

Youngkin and down-ballot Republicans running for the Virginia State Assembly hope all those yard signs translate to a majority on Tuesday.


 James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Scott Tong. Perkins Mastromarino also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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