RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin were locked in a fierce battle for Virginia governor Tuesday night, the most closely watched contest in an off-year election that could prove a referendum on President Joe Biden’s first year in office.
The race was too early to call.
The bruising campaign pitted McAuliffe, a prominent figure in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, against Youngkin, a political newcomer and former business executive. The two have spent months fighting about everything from Youngkin’s ties to former President Donald Trump to abortion rights and culture war battles over schools.
But voters saw the economy as the top issue, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of statewide voters. Some 34% of Virginia voters ranked the economy as their No. 1 priority, compared to 17% saying COVID-19 and 14% choosing education. Those issues outranked health care, climate change, racism and abortion in the survey.
The final results, though, may ultimately be interpreted as an early judgment of Biden, who captured Virginia last year by a comfortable 10-point margin. The closeness of the governor’s race indicated just how much his party’s political fortunes have changed in a short period. 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. But Biden expressed optimism going into the evening while acknowledging that “the off-year is always unpredictable.”
“I think we’re going to win in Virginia,” Biden said at a news conference in Scotland, where he was attending an international climate summit. “I don’t believe — and I’ve not seen any evidence that — whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not, is gonna have any real impact on winning or losing.”
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.
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 received the level of attention of the Virginia governor’s campaign. That’s in part because such contests in many states have sometimes shown voter frustration with a party newly in power, foreshadowing significant turnover in Congress the following year.
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.
This year, both Virginia candidates said the implications of the first major election since Biden moved into the White House would be felt well beyond their state.
At one of his final events of the campaign, McAuliffe insisted “the stakes are huge.” Youngkin said the election would send a “statement that will be heard across this country.”
Voting proceeded largely without incident across Virginia on Tuesday. McAuliffe and Youngkin were mostly out of sight ahead of election night parties planned in the critical northern Virginia suburbs that each campaign was counting on.
VoteCast showed about half of Virginians had favorable opinions of Youngkin, compared to a 55% unfavorability rating for Trump, suggesting that the Republican gubernatorial candidate had successfully distanced himself from the former president. Youngkin was endorsed by Trump but didn’t personally appear with him, though the party is still dominated by the former president.
McAuliffe, by contrast, campaigned with his party’s top national stars, including Biden, whose last visit to Virginia came a week before Election Day. VoteCast found Biden underwater, with 48% of Virginia’s voters approving of his job performance compared to 52% disapproving — especially stark in a state he had won so handily.
In Norfolk, along the state’s Atlantic coast, 29-year-old Cassandra Ogren said she voted for McAuliffe in part because of his support for abortion rights and her concern about restrictions recently enacted in Texas, where a new law mostly bans the procedure. But she was also motivated by Youngkin’s ties to Trump.
“Anyone endorsed by President Trump is not someone I want representing me,” Ogren said.
The significance many voters placed on school issues, meanwhile, could be good news for Youngkin. His pledge to ensure parents have greater say in what their kids are taught was a centerpiece of his campaign — possibly foreshadowing similar arguments GOP candidates will use across the country next year.
Youngkin has decried “critical race theory,” an academic framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people. In recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
The issue took on greater weight after McAuliffe said during a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Bennett White, 24, a Youngkin voter in Norfolk, said he didn’t want “our next generation of leaders to be looking at their peers in the lens of race.”
“I just want to make sure that my mom is safe in the classroom,” said White whose mother is a teacher, “and that her ideals and everyone’s ideals are protected, and we’re not turning into brainwashing academies.”
Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.