The first major test of how voters feel about Joe Biden’s presidency is unfolding in Virginia, where a governor’s race that was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats is instead ending in suspense.
Terry McAuliffe, one of the most prominent figures in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, is in a tight race Tuesday for his old job against Republican rival and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin. The bruising, costly campaign has centered on issues including Youngkin’s ties to former President Donald Trump, the future of abortion rights and culture war battles over schools.
But the results may ultimately be interpreted as an early judgment of Biden. A year after he captured Virginia by 10 percentage points, the competitive nature of the governor’s race is a sign of how his political fortunes have changed. The White House has been shaken in recent months by the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a sometimes sluggish economic recovery amid the pandemic and a legislative agenda at risk of stalling on Capitol Hill.
A loss in a state that has trended toward Democrats for more than a decade would deepen the sense of alarm inside the party heading into next year’s midterm elections, when control of Congress is at stake.
“Tomorrow will be a statement. A statement that will be heard across this country,” Youngkin told a large crowd that chanted “USA! USA!” during his final rally Monday night. “The future of this commonwealth, the future of this country is going to be decided.”
McAuliffe countered that a GOP win would roll back all the progress his own party had made and would buoy Trump and his talk of 2024. “Folks, the stakes are huge,” McAuliffe said, adding of Youngkin, “He doesn’t know anything about governance.”
At the polls on Tuesday morning, Cassandra Ogren, 29, of Norfolk, said she had voted for McAuliffe in part because of his support for abortion rights and her concern about restrictions recently enacted in Texas.
“I’m definitely a little scared of those particular rights being restricted for women like myself and those that I work with and serve in my business every day,” said Ogren, an esthetician.
Ogren said she was also motivated by Younkin’s ties to Trump.
“Anyone endorsed by President Trump is not someone I want representing me,” she said.
Bennett White, 24, of Norfolk, said he’d voted for Youngkin because of his approach to education and because the Republican candidate is a “change-up from the status quo.”
White said he’s concerned about McAuliffe’s education policies, especially after the Democratic candidate said he doesn’t believe “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” He also said he doesn’t want “our next generation of leaders to be looking at their peers in the lens of race.”
“My mom’s a teacher,” White said. “I just want to make sure that my mom is safe in the classroom and that her ideals and everyone’s ideals are protected, and we’re not turning into brainwashing academies.”
Elsewhere on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was trying to win reelection against Republican former State Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli. If successful, Murphy would be the first Democrat reelected as the state’s governor in 44 years, though New Jersey hasn’t voted Republican for president since 1988.
Mayor’s offices in many of the nation’s largest cities were also up for grabs. And a ballot question in Minneapolis could reshape policing in that city, where the killing of George Floyd last year touched off sweeping demonstrations for racial justice across the nation.
But no other race in this off-year election season received the level of attention of the governor’s campaign in Virginia. That’s in part because previous races in many states have sometimes foreshadowed voter frustration with a party newly in power.
In 2009, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, Republican Bob McDonnell’s victory in Virginia previewed a disastrous midterm cycle for Democrats, who lost more than 60 House seats the following year.
Heading into Tuesday, some voters similarly said they wanted to send a powerful message to Washington.
Dan Maloy, a 53-year-old small-business owner and Youngkin supporter, said he would grade Biden’s performance as worse than an F.
“Unfortunately, everything he touches has turned to stone,” Maloy said, adding he was particularly worried about securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Brooke Hall-Ewell, a 50-year-old nurse who lives in Richmond and attended a McAuliffe event in the campaign’s final hours, acknowledged, “It’s scary to see things so close.”
“We have a huge opportunity to take advantage of right now with Biden’s presidency,” she said, adding that she wished the Democratic-controlled Congress would move with more urgency. “I just wish we could come together as a unit.”
Both candidates ended their campaigns with Monday evening rallies in northern Virginia, where they hope fast-growing suburbs can propel them to victory.
Youngkin drew a large crowd in Loudoun County, which encompasses Washington suburbs that have become the epicenter of parent activist groups who object to classroom curricula that include instruction about institutional racism. His pledge to ensure parents have greater say in what their kids are taught has become a centerpiece of his campaign — possibly foreshadowing similar arguments GOP candidates will use across the country next year.
“This is a moment, a defining moment,” Youngkin declared, “where we get to stand up and say no to this left, liberal, progressive agenda.”
McAuliffe has accused his opponent of using children “as pawns.”
The Democrat has spent months trying to put Youngkin on defense by casting him as an ally of Trump, who remains unpopular in parts of Virginia. Youngkin has responded by delicately trying to appeal to the former president’s most ardent supporters without moving so close to Trump that he might alienate moderates.
Youngkin says he supports “election integrity,” a nod at Trump’s lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while also focusing on education and business-friendly policies. But the GOP candidate has never campaigned in person with Trump. The former president instead called into a tele-rally late Monday, without Youngkin’s participation.
Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.
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