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Virginia is entering the last stretch of the governor's race; early voting starts Sept. 17

Virginia is entering the last stretch of the governor's race; early voting starts Sept. 17

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Republican Glenn Youngkin had come to Tysons Corner talk about tax cuts and job creation, but the news about an abortion ban in Texas also amplified the pressure to discuss a topic he’s mostly avoided during the campaign.

“I am pro-life,” Youngkin said, after being repeatedly pressed by reporters following an appearance alongside his opponent at a luncheon with business and political leaders last week. He listed exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s health is at risk.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe seized on the issue, warning that “Virginia could go the way of Texas.” He managed to avoid much attention on his unwillingness to take a position on the state’s right-to-work policy on Wednesday — an issue that could turn away progressives or business-minded independents.

Virginia’s gubernatorial election this November is the highest-profile political contest in the nation, one that will test each candidate’s competing vision for Virginia and their sway on the issues preoccupying voters nationwide — like COVID-19, and suddenly, abortion access.

Early voting in Virginia starts Sept. 17, so, in a way, the election is already here. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Heading into the fall, a Texas law banning abortions in pregnancies as early as six weeks is likely to center Youngkin’s socially conservative views on abortion access, a challenge to winning over moderate voters, particularly women — a necessity for a GOP victory.

“It puts him on the spot,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political commentator in Richmond who said abortion could become a bigger issue in this governor’s race than it was in 1989, when Democrat Doug Wilder used it to defeat Republican Marshall Coleman.

“He won’t be able to dodge and duck on it any longer,” Holsworth said, because the Texas situation will force Youngkin to say “exactly what he would do on executive orders and legislation he would support on the issue.”

Youngkin, who throughout the summer had been elusive about how exactly he would wield the power of the governor’s office, is now headlining his campaign with an ambitious plan for tax cuts, including a tax rebate of $300 per person and $600 per couple. It’s unclear if the plan is politically or financially feasible, but it could nevertheless prove attractive to middle-class voters.

He also has pitched a proposal to limit local real estate property tax increases that Holsworth said could have the same appeal to suburban voters as Republican Jim Gilmore’s “no car tax” pledge did in 1997, when he defeated Lt. Gov. Don Beyer in the governor’s race.

“It’s the no car tax pledge of 2021,” Holsworth said, “and he is hoping to appeal to suburbanites who are ticked off about rising [property] assessments.”

McAuliffe heads into election season with the momentum of years of Democratic victories that have reshaped the state. President Joe Biden won Virginia handily last year. The year before, Democrats took control of both legislative chambers.

McAuliffe has promised to expand on those gains, including accelerating the state’s minimum wage increase and pushing for a ban on assault weapons. McAuliffe also vowed to hail more companies and jobs to Virginia, and substantially boost teacher pay.

McAuliffe, too, will have to fight voters’ reactions to what is going on at the federal level — including how voters perceive Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Virginia is home to more than 700,000 veterans, seventh most in the nation.

McAuliffe ahead, for now

Polls in the Virginia governor’s race heading into early voting show McAuliffe ahead overall but suggest Youngkin has a formidable chance if he can sway enough independents.

A poll from Monmouth University out Tuesday showed McAuliffe with a 5-point edge over Youngkin, 47% to 42% among registered voters. McAuliffe had a significant advantage among voters of color, a growing swath of Virginia’s population, and voters with a college degree.

Youngkin, meanwhile, held an edge when it came to voters who identify as independent, 44% to McAuliffe’s 38%. Turnout in Virginia’s off-off-year elections tends to be low; Monmouth analysts said Youngkin’s margins improve when voters who are less likely to have voted in recent elections are added to the mix.

Karen Hult, a political analyst at Virginia Tech, said that even with early voting starting soon, it’s too early to gauge voter mobilization and turnout — a key factor in this election.

Hult said Democrats are more likely to suffer from an “enthusiasm gap,” after years of Democratic mobilization galvanized by then-President Donald Trump’s presence in the White House.

“It could be voter fatigue, but I’m not seeing the level of attention there was in 2019 or even 2017,” when outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam was elected. “That could bode well for the out party, the Republicans. But there is still plenty of time.”

Two visions on economy

McAuliffe says the state’s economy is booming under eight years with a Democrat in the governor’s office, reminding voters that CNBC named Virginia the “best state for business” this year for the second consecutive time.

But Youngkin said the state’s economy hasn’t earned the accolade, citing a lackluster record on creating jobs and recovering jobs lost during the recession. He says the high cost of living, over-regulation of business and high taxes are driving people out of the state.

He replaced a poorly received suggestion to eliminate the state’s income tax entirely with an arsenal of tax relief proposals that would cost the state at least $3.2 billion.

Youngkin says the state has plenty of money to pay for the plan because of a $2.6 billion surplus, but McAuliffe counters that the surplus is almost entirely committed, primarily for constitutionally mandated deposits to Virginia’s financial reserves.

Youngkin also promises to be the “jobs governor of Virginia,” echoing the “Bob’s for Jobs” slogan that Bob McDonnell used to be elected governor in 2009, the last time the GOP won a statewide race in Virginia.

McAuliffe is running on his record as an economic development deal-maker, reminding voters that he was the architect of Virginia’s successful bid to win the Amazon HQ2 sweepstakes, even though Northam sealed the deal for the $2.5 billion project in Arlington County in 2018.

Not all of the deals he sealed turned out well, including a $2 billion paper products plant proposed by Tranlin Inc. in Chesterfield County at the beginning of his term. The deal, inherited from McDonnell, left the state scrambling to recover a $5 million grant paid to the Chinese company on the promise of creating 2,000 jobs.

The state didn’t recover any of a $1.4 million grant it made in 2014 to Lindenburg Industry, a fraudulent Chinese company, for a factory in Appomattox County that was supposed to create 349 jobs.

However, McAuliffe worked with the Republican-led General Assembly in 2017 to make sweeping economic development reforms, including an end to upfront grants to companies for promises to create jobs and invest capital in the state.

He also reminded business leaders last week of the challenges that McDonnell left with the state’s transportation system, mentioning a failed attempt to build a new expressway along U.S. 460 that cost the state $260 million without turning a shovelful of dirt.

In contrast, McAuliffe reached a public-private partnership deal to expand more than 22 miles of Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway that saved Virginia $2.5 billion and required no state money. That deal, too, came after major reforms that he and assembly Republicans made to Virginia’s public-private transportation act.

However, he has stumbled on the issue of protecting Virginia’s right-to-work law, which prevents workers in unionized workplaces from having to pay union dues.

A longtime friend of the business community, McAuliffe previously has promised to protect the law. But under pressure from unions and other allies on the left, he changed his position to say he would sign a bill to repeal the law if it reaches his desk, which he says it won’t.

COVID still dominates

Cases of COVID-19 have been steadily rising for weeks in Virginia, overwhelmingly among people who are unvaccinated, though not entirely. Over the last week, Virginia reported an average of about 3,300 new cases per day.

Young children remain ineligible for the vaccine as school resumes, and the possibility of a new, stronger variant continues to loom. The fate of the pandemic is in many ways a wildcard, and so is the impact it will have on the state’s politics as the gubernatorial candidates take vastly different positions on pandemic policy.

McAuliffe has strongly urged employers to require vaccinations from their employees as a way to boost vaccinations. McAuliffe also threw his support behind Northam’s mask requirement in schools.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has criticized the mask guidance and told reporters he doesn’t think vaccination should be required of any Virginian who doesn’t want it.

“It’s not a decision that I will impose on people,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin urged Virginians to get vaccinated, but said he would do away with the vaccine mandate Northam levied on state employees. Youngkin also said that if he’s elected governor, Virginia schools will remain open five days a week and the state won’t face another lockdown — whatever the pandemic has in store.

Trump’s influence

Heading into the fall, Trump continues to loom over the Virginia governor’s race.

Unlike Biden, who campaigned with McAuliffe in July, Trump appears only on the sidelines of the Youngkin campaign, issuing statements in support of the candidate with little acknowledgement.

Still, Trump, whose presidential appointments yielded the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed the Texas law to take effect, remains a central figure in the race, with the power to potentially energize liberals and the moderates who swung for Biden in 2020.

Last week, Trump weighed in on the governor’s race, warning against election fraud.

“Be careful, you know the election is coming up. You know they cheat in elections,” Trump said without evidence in an interview Wednesday with John Fredericks, the conservative radio show host and close Trump ally. “The Virginia governor’s election — you better watch it.”

Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s warning. In Early August, Youngkin participated in an “election integrity” rally skipped by his two ticketmates.

Biden, who won Virginia by 10 points over Trump, presents a more favorable ally to McAuliffe. But, Hult warned, Virginia’s election will be significantly affected by the state of affairs at the federal level and Biden’s job approval ratings.

Dissatisfaction with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic, for example, could galvanize Republicans or deflate Democrats.

“In this off-off-year election, those national forces do have in effect in the Virginia vote. Biden’s approval levels will provide the Democrats with some headwinds,” Hult said.

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