Tight Virginia governor’s race tests Biden’s strength

Washington-DC

A voter scans their ballot at a polling place in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — 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, a prominent figure 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.

Voters are making “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 progress his own party has 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.

Joseph Gary, 44, a butcher who lives in Norfolk, said his vote, too, has been influenced by Trump’s term in office, particularly the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington.

He said he voted for Democrat McAuliffe “basically just to make sure that the stuff that happened while Donald Trump was president doesn’t happen again.”

Also in Norfolk, Bennett White, 24, said he was 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.”

At Robious Middle School in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, Jason and Beverly Ivey, both 48, also cited education as a reason why they’d voted Republican.

A mother of seven children, the youngest in sixth grade, she said, “parents deserve and need to have knowledge of what’s going on” inside the classroom. “You should have a say in the curriculum of the school.”

In a campaign debate, McAuliffe had said, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,. … I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin ran TV ads of that second sentence hundreds of times in the campaign’s closing days.

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 at stake.. 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.

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.

The GOP candidate never campaigned in person with Trump.

___

Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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