Five things to watch in the final Virginia governor's debate

Five things to watch in the final Virginia governor's debate
© Clara longo de Freitas/Greg Nash

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) will face off on the debate stage for the final time before Election Day on Tuesday amid a tightening battle for the governor’s mansion.

The debate comes just over a month before Election Day in the commonwealth and as both candidates are looking to rally their bases to the polls with early voting already underway. While McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor, was initially viewed as the front-runner, Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, has gained traction in the polls in recent weeks. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report switched the race’s rating from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up” last week.

Tuesday’s showdown in Alexandria will present the last opportunity for the two candidates to go on the attack in person. Here are five things to watch in the debate:


Does McAuliffe go on offense amid tightening polls?

McAuliffe entered the general election in June as the clear front-runner after skating through a relatively crowded Democratic primary. Most polls over the summer showed the former governor leading the former private equity CEO. However, recent findings show a much closer race.

“It’s a critically important debate for McAuliffe because he needs to do something to stoke the Democratic base, to give them a reason to be really excited about this election the way Democrats in Virginia have been excited the past several years,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

A University of Mary Washington survey released Wednesday found Youngkin leading McAuliffe 48 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, while McAuliffe led Youngkin 43 percent to 38 percent among all registered voters. 

Youngkin’s lead among likely voters could be a sign of growing enthusiasm among Virginia’s Republican base, which he would need to succeed in an off-year election in the state where Democratic-leaning voters make up the majority of the population.

McAuliffe will need to rally his own base to offset Republican enthusiasm while at the same time appealing to independent and swing voters. The strategy will likely involve McAuliffe continuing to hit Youngkin over abortion and vaccine and mask mandates, as well as tying him to former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE, who is deeply unpopular in Virginia.


Will Youngkin tie McAuliffe to President BidenJoe BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE’s dwindling approval ratings?

McAuliffe has frequently touted Biden’s Build Back Better Plan and the American Rescue Plan on the campaign trail, and the president headlined a rally for McAuliffe in July. 

But numerous polls since then have shown Biden’s approval ratings dipping into the 40s nationwide and in Virginia.

A Washington Post-Schar School poll released last week showed Biden’s approval rating among registered Virginia voters at 46 percent, while his disapproval rating sits at 51 percent.

“When Joe Biden is on stage with Terry McAuliffe, there’s a series of easily connective potential risks for the Biden agenda being directly tied to the most obvious and current test case of is it working or is it not,” said Virginia-based GOP strategist Zack Roday.

The former governor’s allies maintain that Biden’s agenda remains popular in Virginia and nationwide. The White House circulated a memo on Monday highlighting public support for Biden’s economic agenda.

Still, national Republicans have begun working to tie vulnerable House Democrats running in 2022 to the president. While the strategy could stick at the national level, given Biden’s push to pass his agenda through the House and Senate, it’s unclear whether it will work at the state level in Virginia.

How often does Trump come up?

Despite Trump not being on the ballot or holding elected office, McAuliffe and Democrats have leaned into the strategy of tying Youngkin to the former Republican president.

Democrats cite comments from Youngkin earlier this year in which he said he was “honored” to have the former president’s endorsement. And while there are no plans for Trump to hit the campaign trail with Youngkin, the former president has made a number of comments about the race. Last week, Trump blasted out a poll showing Youngkin leading with likely voters with the statement, “Terry McAuliffe was a badly failed Governor—owned by Crooked Hillary.”

On top of that, Trump appeared to send a signal to Youngkin last week during an appearance on a Virginia-based conservative talk show, saying, “The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement.”

Trump did not come up during the early part of the first Virginia governor’s debate this month, with both candidates initially focusing on state issues. But when asked about his strategy of tying Trump and Youngkin together, McAuliffe said it was Youngkin who was inserting the former president into the race by accepting his endorsement.

“We know the damage that Donald Trump has done to this country,” McAuliffe said.

But during the same debate, Youngkin notably broke with Trump on whether he believes Democrats will cheat in the upcoming election, saying, “I think we’re going to have a clean, fair election and I fully expect to win.”


“That’s all a part of the nationalizing of these campaigns,” Rozell said. “State and local issues are going to dominate the agenda of the next governor, but much of the framework for the campaign, including this debate, is the national context.”

Do abortion and vaccine mandates remain major issues for both candidates?

Two national issues that have become inserted into this state race: abortion rights and vaccine mandates.

Virginia Democrats have tied the issues together under the health care umbrella, pointing to Democrats’ past successes in campaigning on health care. McAuliffe has hit Youngkin over both, saying his views against vaccine mandates are unsafe and accusing him of supporting stringent anti-abortion efforts, like the new abortion ban in Texas.

A Monmouth University poll released on Monday found that 23 percent of Virginia voters said they want the candidates to talk about the coronavirus pandemic, followed by education and public schools at 18 percent, the economy at 16 percent and health care at 14 percent.

Youngkin, on the other hand, has accused McAuliffe of being too radical on both issues. On vaccine mandates, Youngkin has said that while he believes individuals should get vaccinated, he is not in favor of mandates. On abortion, Youngkin has said he is in favor of the procedure in the cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. The Republican also called the Texas law “unworkable.”

But Youngkin went on the offense on the abortion issue at the last debate, saying McAuliffe was striving to be the “abortion governor.”


Will McAuliffe press Youngkin on the Republican issue of “election integrity?

Youngkin has repeatedly been questioned on the issue of “election integrity,” and efforts like the Republican-led audit of the presidential election results in Arizona are likely to come up again in Tuesday’s debate.

Democrats have repeatedly hammered Youngkin over the issue, citing the “Election Integrity Task Force” he launched in February prior to winning the Republican convention.

But Youngkin has walked a fine line, working to appeal to the base on the issue while also reaching out to moderate and swing voters.

In an interview with Axios on Friday, Youngkin did not say whether he would have voted to certify the 2020 election on Jan. 6 if he were a member of Congress but said there’s “no room for violence in America.” Youngkin clarified those remarks on Monday, telling WTKR-TV "Yeah, absolutely I would have" certified the results if he was in Congress. 

“The strategy is go right to get the nomination, move more into the mainstream to win the election,” Rozell said. “He was more openly embracing the Trump endorsements and Trump’s position on issues to get the GOP nomination, since then there has been something of a pivot and some of his positions where he has softened.”

“The fact that the polls have moved so close suggest that Youngkin’s strategy is working,” he added.