Campaign

Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins

NEWPORT NEWS, Va.-Virginia's gubernatorial race kicked into high gear this week with the start of early voting and the first general election debate ahead of what is expected to be one of the most watched off-year elections. 

Democratic candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) came face to face with his Republican opponent and former businessman Glenn Youngkin on Thursday in the southwestern Virginia town of Grundy, where the two traded barbs on a number of issues, including coronavirus restrictions, abortion and the economy.

On Friday, early voting kicked off in the commonwealth, where turnout will most certainly play a defining role in the race's outcome.

The off-year election is being viewed by many as a bellwether ahead of next year's midterm elections, which are likely to be an uphill climb for Democrats looking to retain control of the House and the Senate during the first midterm election of President Biden's administration.

But Youngkin and his Republican allies face an uphill battle in the commonwealth, which has increasingly trended blue. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as "lean Democratic."

The 2021 election comes two years after Virginia Democrats took full control of the state House, giving the party control of both state legislatures and the governorship. The party's candidates are acutely aware of the potential consequences of a lack of enthusiasm from the state's strong Democratic base in an off-year election, with the governor's mansion and House of Delegates are up for grabs.

"Everything is on the line this November," said lieutenant gubernatorial nominee and Del. Hala Ayala (D) at an early voting event in Norfolk on Friday. "The progresses that we have made in the Democratic majority have moved this commonwealth light years."

Youngkin will need to poach support from Virginia's conservative, pro-Trump base, while appealing to the state's moderate voters in the suburbs.

"Republicans are united like I have rarely ever seen them," said Youngkin ally and Virginia state Sen. Stephen Newman (R).

"He doesn't have to get anywhere near Bob McDonnell numbers," Newman added, referring to the last Republican governor of Virginia. "If Glenn can just connect with the suburbs in Northern Virginia in a reasonable way and then look to the Henricos and Chesterfields and counties around Richmond and pull a good number where I think his excitement is way up...I think the rest of the state is going to push Glenn Youngkin over the edge."

But McAuliffe and his Democratic allies have employed the strategy of tying Youngkin to Trump with the hope that voters who rejected Trump in 2016 and 2020 will do the same to Youngkin in November.

Youngkin's supporters say McAuliffe's attacks have no legs to stand on during the Biden administration.

"We have transferred into the Biden world," Newman said. "Do you say I'm going to be just like Biden? Or are you going to say I'm going to be like Northam? I don't think so. Instead, I think he has to kind of make a Hail Mary trying to tie Glenn to the former president."

Most public opinion polls show McAuliffe leading Youngkin. An 8News/Emerson College survey released on Thursday showed the former governor with 49 percent support, while Youngkin trailed at 45 percent support.

However, recent internal polling from Youngkin's campaign showed him tied with McAuliffe in a head-to-head matchup, and then two points ahead McAuliffe when third party candidate Princess Blanding was included.

When asked about the polls earlier this week, McAuliffe suggested he wasn't taking anything for granted.

"I'm running like I always do - like I'm 20 points down," McAuliffe said on a press call. "It's always going to be a tight race."

Both candidates reported record July and August fundraising hauls on Thursday, illustrating how expensive the race has become.

Youngkin raised $15.7 million during the period, while McAuliffe raked in $11.5 million. For comparisons, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) raised $7.2 million during the same period four years ago.

But McAuliffe leads in the cash-on-hand advantage with $12.6 million compared to Youngkin's $6 million in the bank.

McAuliffe did not loan himself any personal loans during the period, while Youngkin loaned himself $4.5 million. Youngkin's allies are quick to point out that McAuliffe has participated in out-of-state fundraising. Former President Bill Clinton fundraised for McAuliffe at an event in Skaneateles, N.Y., earlier this month.

Clinton is not the only big political name who has gotten involved in the race recently. Vice President Harris fundraised for McAuliffe in Virginia on Tuesday, while former Attorney General William Barr is set to appear at a fundraiser for Youngkin later this month.

While access to most of the fundraisers has been limited to the public, voters got to see the candidates in a debate-style forum for the first on Thursday after a number of heated back-and-forths between the two campaigns on previously scheduled debates earlier this year.

Thursday's forum was not without one-liners from the candidates. McAuliffe took aim at Youngkin's coronavirus vaccine PSA, saying "the people don't even know who you are on TV," while Youngkin said McAuliffe "has racked up so many Pinocchios he can barely get in the building."

Some of the campaign's leading issues, including coronavirus vaccines, abortion, election integrity and the economy, took center stage.

Youngkin notably broke with Trump when asked whether he believes Democrats will cheat in the upcoming election. The Republican, who is pro-life, also said he would not sign an abortion bill like the one in Texas, calling the legislation "unworkable." However, Youngkin did jab at McAuliffe's abortion rights rhetoric, saying his Democratic opponent wants to be "the abortion governor."

McAuliffe took aim at Youngkin's stance on vaccine mandates, calling his stance "life-threatening." Youngkin said he supports taking the vaccine but said the choice should be left up to the individual.

Both Republicans and Democrats have stressed the importance of early voting in the race, citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the potential role it could play.

"There's something that clicks inside Republicans that says they have to vote on Election Day probably because that's the traditional way to do it," Newman said. "I've been very much encouraging Republicans not to think about early voting as anything other than an opportunity to vote and book your vote early."

Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker warned that turnout will likely look different compared to last year's presidential election, but brushed off concerns surrounding enthusiasm.

"You're not going to see the long lines this time on the first day," Swecker said, referring to in-person voting. "But it would be wrong to say enthusiasm is down if you don't see long lines." 

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