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Polls close in tight Virginia governor race, count underway

Sean Luke, Giacomo Luke, Matteo Luke
Posted at 8:13 PM, Nov 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 20:16:26-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Polls were closing Tuesday night in the nation’s most closely watched off-year election as Virginia voters chose between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin in a campaign that became partly a referendum on President Joe Biden’s first year in office.

Barely 12 months after Biden captured the state by 10 points, the governor's race was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats. Instead, McAuliffe, a prominent figure in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, was locked in a dead heat with former business executive Youngkin as he tried to reclaim the post.

The bruising campaign centered on issues including Youngkin's ties to former President Donald Trump, the future of 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. The closeness of the race indicated just how much his 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."

Tuesday’s voting also featured a governor’s race in New Jersey, mayoral offices around the country and a major policing question in Minneapolis. Still, 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. 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.

School issues being important to many voters, 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 school efforts to teach about institutional racism in society. That push intensified 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.”

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 previous contests 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.

But McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013, a year after Obama was reelected, marking the only time the state has picked a governor from the sitting president’s party since 1976. He’s trying to repeat that feat on Tuesday.