In tight Virginia governor’s race, policy takes backseat to culture wars

By: - October 28, 2021 12:05 am

Gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Donald Hillard, a 49-year-old retired military veteran, says he identifies as a Republican and voted for George W. Bush twice. But he was never on board with the “madness” of former President Donald Trump. And it’s the lingering specter of Trumpism on the right that led him to vote for Virginia’s Democratic ticket this year. 

“I disagree with how they’re allowing this stuff with Trump to just fester and keep going on. The whole election fraud stuff. It’s garbage. It’s over with,” Hillard said. “The people that are running that are Republicans still want to institute his policies. And they want to find a way to get this guy back in there.”

Wes Williams, a 44-year-old truck driver who said he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 but switched to Trump in 2020, said he voted for the Republican ticket this year out of opposition to a “crazy” Democratic agenda he sees as increasingly detached from common sense. He pointed specifically to a recent controversy in Loudoun County, where school officials are under fire for allegedly mishandling a female student’s report of a sexual assault in a high-school bathroom during a politically contentious local debate over transgender-inclusive bathroom policies.

“Screw safety. We’re worried about feelings,” Williams said of the mindset he sees in Loudoun. “Life doesn’t work that way.”

The two men were echoing both major parties’ closing arguments as they cast ballots early in Chesterfield County outside Richmond, the type of suburban battleground that could decide the closely watched gubernatorial contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor and prodigious political fundraiser, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy former private equity executive making his first run for office.

Recent polls have shown the race in a statistical dead heat, giving Republicans hope Youngkin could be the candidate to break their decade-long losing streak and flip the state red, despite the party’s steep numerical disadvantages in deep-blue Northern Virginia.

‘Trump in khakis’

The Trump era brought an electoral bloodbath for Virginia Republicans as Democrats rode suburban backlash against the GOP to sweeping gains in the General Assembly and lopsided victories in statewide races.

If Virginia’s elections four years ago were a national indicator of how strong the anti-Trump reaction would be, this year’s contests are widely seen as an early sign of how far things could swing in the other direction.

“The dilemma is that the Democrats are perceived as the incumbents now and not Trump,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “Trump is a looming presence. But he’s not located in Washington. And the Republicans benefit from the fact that he’s not on Twitter every 15 minutes.”

Though Trump has endorsed Youngkin, he has not campaigned with him in Virginia, a state Trump lost to President Joe Biden by 10 percentage points. On Wednesday, Trump released a cryptic statement saying he would be in Virginia “soon.” It was unclear what that meant.

To some extent, this year’s elections are a referendum on how Democrats have used their newfound power in both Richmond and Washington. At the state level, Virginia Democrats pushed Republicans into helping them expand Medicaid in 2018, won majorities in 2019, then passed legislation to make voting easier, restrict access to guns, raise the minimum wage, broaden anti-discrimination laws, abolish the death penalty, legalize marijuana and begin tackling climate change.

Democrats have controlled Virginia government for two years. Here’s what they’ve done.

But in campaign messaging this year, state policy issues have mostly taken a backseat to more incendiary national topics like Trump’s false election fraud claims and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, abortion bans, COVID-19 mandates, book banning and conservative furor over thorny discussions of race and equity in K-12 education.

To close out the campaign, Youngkin seems to be going “all in” on culture-war messaging around education, Holsworth said, and an argument parents have been shut out of decisions about how public schools should be run.

“I think what it does effectively for him is that it speaks to the Trump base while at the same time being somewhat persuasive with independent suburbanites,” Holsworth said. “This has been the conundrum that Republicans haven’t been able to solve in the Trump era.”

Youngkin was helped in that effort by a comment McAuliffe made during a debate exchange over parental involvement in school reading material. The former governor said: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.”

Though Youngkin’s education emphasis seemed to catch the McAuliffe campaign “flat-footed,” Holsworth said, Democrats recently hit on a potent counter-message, arguing Youngkin’s push for parental control will lead to book banning and conservative censorship of K-12 curriculum.

For Democrats, a major challenge is combating voter fatigue and convincing their base to come out for a former governor seeking a rare second term after being term-limited out of office in early 2018. (Virginia law does not permit governors to stand for consecutive terms.)

“You’ve had four years of the world being on fire for a lot of these voters,” said Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist who worked on Gov. Ralph Northam’s winning 2017 campaign. “You had a year of COVID. They’re kind of exhausted by politics and elections.”

To try to juice turnout close to Trump-era levels, Democrats are pushing out constant reminders of the conspiracy theories and violence at the Capitol that marked the end of Trump’s term, portraying Youngkin’s candidacy as an attempt to put a friendlier face on a party that’s taken a radical turn against democracy itself. 

“I call him Donald Trump in khakis,” McAuliffe said last weekend at a rally in Richmond with former President Barack Obama, one of several high-profile surrogates brought in to excite Democrats.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns with Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at Virginia Commonwealth University Oct. 23, 2021, in Richmond. The Virginia gubernatorial election, pitting McAuliffe against Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, is Nov. 2. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

‘If you’re a Democrat, you control Richmond and you control Washington‘

A Youngkin governorship, Democrats contend, would mean a Texas-style abortion ban and Florida-style nonchalance when it comes to keeping people safe from COVID-19. Youngkin has said he’s pro-life but would not sign a near-total ban on abortion like the one in Texas, and he has encouraged Virginians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while opposing mask and vaccine mandates.

Republicans, buoyed by Biden’s slipping approval ratings and gridlock in D.C., are trying to exploit what they see as Democratic blind spots over more lenient criminal-justice policies and the state of public schools, tapping into what they believe are widespread  frustrations among parents over the effects of school shutdowns and the hotly disputed influence of critical race theory in education.

“Terry McAuliffe wants government to stand between parents and their children,” Youngkin said at a rally in Henrico County Saturday night.

Republican strategist Tucker Martin, who advised Republican Ed Gillespie’s 2017 gubernatorial campaign, said the competitive race should come as no surprise given the favorable national environment and the GOP’s nomination of a “center-right candidate” with the financial means to take advantage of it.

“There’s just a lot of frustration after the pandemic and what people have been through over the last 18 months,” Martin said. “And unfortunately, if you’re a Democrat, you control Richmond and you control Washington. You have all the levers of power. If people are frustrated, they’re going to be frustrated with you.”

Beneath the culture-war issues is fairly conventional campaign fodder, with Youngkin running on promises to lower taxes, cut regulations and expand charter schools. McAuliffe is vowing to ensure every worker has access to paid sick days and family medical leave, speed up the implementation of a planned $15 minimum wage and boost funding for public education. But those aren’t the topics dominating the final month of the campaign.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigns in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Since Youngkin won his party’s nominating convention in May, Democrats have worked feverishly to convince Virginians he’s not the moderate, Mitt Romney-style Republican he might appear to be.

While trying to win the Republican nomination, Youngkin would not acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s victory and heavily emphasized his plan for “election integrity,” playing into Trump supporters’ unfounded claims the 2020 contest was invalid. Youngkin softened that stance in the general election, saying Biden was the rightful winner and insisting his calls for election audits are only meant to convey support for the routine election audits Virginia already does.

Youngkin, McAuliffe spar over election audits

When a group of hard-right Virginia Republicans recently pledged allegiance to an American flag used in the pro-Trump rally on Jan. 6, Youngkin called it “weird and wrong.” Still, Democrats say any flirtation with the types of conspiracy theories that led a mob of Trump supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol should be disqualifying.

“You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular old hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama said as he rallied with Virginia Democrats in Richmond.

Biden delivered a similar attack line at a rally with McAuliffe this week in Arlington County.

Extremism can come in many forms.  It can come in the rage of a mob… driven to assault the Capitol,” Biden said. “It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.”

Though Trump continues to be top of mind for many voters, others say they’d like to move on from the former president and what he stands for.

“That is no longer on the ballot,” said Cathy Williams-Sledge, a health-care worker in her 50s who cast a Democratic ballot in Chesterfield. “I think we need not concern ourselves with that at this time. However, that doesn’t seem to be the majority view. It comes up all the time.”

Williams-Sledge said she’s more interested in which party is more focused on diversity, equity and issues that are important to people of color. As someone who recently visited Monticello and appreciated the historical site’s efforts to tell a more truthful story about the experiences of Black people enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, Williams-Sledge, who is Black, said she sees the backlash over critical race theory, and the idea White children should be shielded from history they might find upsetting, as “absolutely absurd.”

“The country was built on a lie,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we have to continue living the lie.”

Culture wars take center stage

Youngkin has said he thinks all history, including the “abhorrent” parts, should be taught in public schools. But he has made promises to ban critical race theory a centerpiece of his campaign, prompting debate over a loosely defined term that arose from academic theories about systemic racism but has informed many elements of anti-racist activism and the push for greater educational equity. State and local school officials say critical race theory is not part of K-12 curriculum, and Democrats have largely dismissed the topic as a fictitious issue meant to stoke White fear and usher in a wave of conservative censorship in public education. 

Though Republicans haven’t produced concrete examples of the type of teaching they’d ban from classrooms, they’ve pointed to several diversity and equity-themed trainings for educators as examples of what they oppose. For instance, an “Anti racism 101” seminar hosted on the Virginia Department of Education’s YouTube page as part of a state equity summit includes a slide titled “interrogating whiteness.” Academics from the VCU School of Education making the presentation explained that to mean recognizing the country is “founded on White supremacy” and that combating systemic racism requires confronting White privilege and “White fragility.” At other points in the seminar, presenters implored education leaders to “force yourself to always see race, especially if you’re White” and suggested educators who don’t work to dismantle institutional racism are complicit in the “spirit murdering of our Black and Brown students.”

To proponents, those are essential equity concepts meant to make educators more aware of how past injustices shape present-day disparities and how White perspectives are too often treated as the norm or default. To critics, the trainings promote a divisive ideology that encourages sweeping generalizations about racial groups.

Jason Miyares, a Republican delegate running for attorney general against Democrat Mark Herring, has incorporated his family’s story of immigrating from Cuba into his stump speech critiquing critical race theory. Though oppressed people from all over the world are eager to be part of the “American miracle,” he said in Henrico, polls show American young people are significantly less proud of their country than their parents and grandparents.

“Folks, you cannot survive as a nation if you’re raising an entire generation of children to learn to hate their country,” Miyares said. “And that is exactly what critical race theory is.”

Leaning into culture-war issues surrounding schools proved complicated for Youngkin this week, when his campaign released an ad featuring a Fairfax County mother who sought to have Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” which deals with the trauma of slavery, temporarily banned because its depictions of bestiality and rape disturbed her son after he read it in an AP English class during his senior year in high school. That mother, Republican activist Laura Murphy, launched a years-long advocacy campaign for stronger parental notification policies for sexually explicit reading assignments. When the Republican-led General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 to empower parents to opt their own children out of explicit reading assignments, McAuliffe vetoed the proposal.

Though Youngkin’s ad was meant to convey McAuliffe’s alleged indifference to parental concerns, the McAuliffe campaign seized on it to accuse Youngkin of a “racist dog whistle” by seeking to ban a celebrated Black writer’s book.

In the final week of this race, Glenn Youngkin has doubled down on the same divisive culture wars that have fueled his campaign from the very beginning,” McAuliffe spokesman Renzo Olivari said in a statement suggesting the ad was about whipping up support among the Trump faithful, not suburban parents.

The Youngkin campaign responded by pointing out the parental notification bill McAuliffe vetoed had substantial support from Democrats, including several members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

“Does their vote equate to ‘silencing esteemed Black authors,’ as McAuliffe so ridiculously charged?,” the Youngkin campaign said in a statement.

“‘Vote blue no matter who’ is some major propaganda”

In interviews at the Chesterfield early voting site, Republicans who were enthusiastic fans of Trump said they were equally enthusiastic about Youngkin. Republicans who felt Trump behaved disgracefully at the end said they felt the same way.

Mark Wilhite, a 58-year-old military veteran who recently stepped back from his paramedic job due to spinal surgery, said Trump was a “disaster” and Biden is an “absolute disaster.” Rising gas prices and food costs have been tough on people, he said, but Democrats “don’t represent the working class anymore.” A family member who works as a nurse, he said, might lose her job because she doesn’t want to get vaccinated.

“Last year’s heroes, this year’s unemployed?” said Wilhite, who voted Republican. “That’s something I really don’t agree with.”

As polls have tightened, more attention has been paid to the role of third-party candidate Princess Blanding, a social-justice activist running as a progressive alternative under the Liberation Party banner. 

In an interview, Blanding said she’s unconcerned about her potential role as a spoiler for Democrats.

“This whole ‘vote blue no matter who’ is some major propaganda and brainwashing that keeps us in a very oppressive state,” she said. “If Democrats are scared, their best bet is to tell Terry McAuliffe to step down and throw their support behind me.”

Gubernatorial candidate Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by Richmond Police in 2018, has been at the forefront of protests regarding police reform. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Blanding said she was inspired to run by what she views as a weak reaction to social-justice protests last year, which included legislation in response to the death of her brother, Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer during a mental health crisis.

The resulting bill created the “Marcus Alert,” which takes steps toward creating an alternative to dispatching police to mental health emergencies. Blanding, however, has been intensely critical of the law, including at a ceremonial bill signing last year, where she blasted it as “a watered down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence.”  

As governor, she said she would put an immediate halt to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and pursue legislation rolling back qualified immunity for police accused of misconduct.

“Police officers absolutely will be held accountable for excessive use of force,” she said

Richmond-area Democrats had varying levels of enthusiasm for McAuliffe, 

“I love McAuliffe, who did a beautiful job when he was there before,” said Barbara Turner, a 75-year-old retiree who voted early in Henrico. “And I’m hoping and praying he’ll get in again so we can continue to go forward and not backwards.”

For others, the threat of the GOP gaining power seemed to be all the motivation they needed.

David Murdock, a 50-year-old, unemployed Richmond resident, said he didn’t really care for any of the Democrats and just wanted to keep Republicans out of office. 

“Republicans are a little too far gone for me,” he said.

Andrew Linscott, a 32-year-old transportation supervisor who cast an early ballot for McAuliffe in Chesterfield, said he found it ironic that Youngkin was promoting early voting since, if Republicans had their way, Virginia would still be requiring people to give an excuse to cast an absentee ballot.

“He was an OK governor last time,” Linscott said of McAuliffe. “I don’t really have too much faith in the Republicans.”

Mercury reporters Jackie Llanos Hernandez and Ned Oliver contributed. 

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.