On May 8, the former Speaker of the House and a delegate for three decades, Kirk Cox arrived at a satellite convention location in Colonial Heights to vote for himself to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee. As he arrived, he passed a large life-sized sign with a picture of the eventual lieutenant governor nominee, Winsome Sears, holding an assault rifle. He walked from his car to a gaggle with the press, who all want to talk to the Republican who has decades of experience in Virginia politics. Republicans this year chose to use the less inclusive process of a convention to nominate their statewide candidates, a process that should have benefitted a lifelong Virginia Republican insider like Cox. Instead, it benefitted a first-time candidate and unknown figure in Virginia politics with a lot of money: Glenn Youngkin.
On June 8, a very underwhelming Democratic primary resulted in former governor Terry McAuliffe winning every locality across Virginia against four other candidates seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In a commanding statement from Democratic voters, the Associated Press called the race 45 minutes after the polls closed. McAuliffe first served as governor from 2014-2018 but was limited to one term due to Virginia’s constitution forbidding consecutive gubernatorial terms.
The stage was set for a matchup between McAuliffe, a politico with a lifetime of experience in Democratic politics, and Youngkin, a former finance executive with The Carlyle Group and no former political experience.
The Republicans were immediately hit with a blow when former President Donald Trump announced his endorsement of Youngkin the morning after he earned the nomination. McAuliffe and Democrats immediately seized on the endorsement and have not let it go seeing as Joe Biden won the commonwealth by 10 points last year. Youngkin at the time said he was honored to receive the endorsement. “I’m totally honored and I appreciate it this morning,” Youngkin said after Trump’s endorsement. “And it’s reflective of the fact that we’ve received a lot of endorsements, and those endorsements reflect the Republican Party coming together around an outsider.”
He has since distanced himself from the former president at every opportunity in his campaign to unite Virginia behind mostly large ideals, not specific policy.
It took months for Youngkin to put forth any sort of policy proposals after earning the nomination. He instead has run a campaign on inspiring voters to support his vision of a safer Virginia where Critical Race Theory is banned and the grocery tax is eliminated.
Often walking out to ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum, Youngkin is treated like a celebrity by Republicans that continuously show up in droves to see their gubernatorial nominee. “Are you ready to win? Come on now,” he said on Monday as he greeted a crowd at a mostly-full airplane hanger in Chesterfield County. “Well I thought we might get a few people to show up,” he continued, sarcastically.
Youngkin events on the campaign trail resemble an atmosphere similar to being at a concert or county fair, with merchandise, t-shirt cannons, and loud music. His speeches boast grandiose statements of broad generalities and comradery amongst Republicans who oppose the new laws put in place under the two-year Democratic majority.
“We have a defining moment in front of us,” he told the crowd Monday. “To redirect the trajectory of this great commonwealth. A moment where we get to come together and do something spectacular.”
Democratic events in contrast have been smaller and based around opposing Trump. McAuliffe does also boast about his long list of “big plans” and what would be his opposition to the policies that Democrats believe Youngkin would impose upon Virginians if elected.
McAuliffe calls himself a brick wall for women’s rights protection and touts the hundreds of pieces of legislation that he vetoed from the Republican-held legislature during his first term as a reason to elect him again. “We had the most anti-women, anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-immigrant, anti-environment legislation in the United States of America,” McAuliffe said of the legislation from the early 2010s during his campaign event in Henrico Sunday.
Another big stumping point for the former governor has been the move during his first term of restoring the voting rights for 173,000 felons. “It was more than any other governor in history,” he said Sunday. “It’s about lifting people up, it’s about giving everybody an opportunity.”
McAuliffe also vows to raise teacher pay if elected. Youngkin’s campaign has criticized Democrats and McAuliffe for campaigning on raising teacher pay since 2009 but failing to do so during the last two legislative sessions when they had the majority in both chambers
“I promise all of you, and I have got all these cameras here: as your governor, I will raise teacher pay above the national average for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said Monday.
Youngkin has also prioritized education, but his focus has been on giving parents more control over the curriculum being taught in schools. The key topic of his education platform since this race began was Critical Race Theory (CRT) and ensuring it is never taught in Virginia schools.
CRT is an academic approach that is centered around the idea that the United States was built on systemic racism. In general, CRT aims to show that racism is the result of complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, instead of explicit and intentional prejudices.
Republicans across the country assert that CRT is being implemented into school curriculums, but school districts in Virginia deny that claim.
Republicans activists across Virginia, however, have made this their top issue. After he tells his supporters at any event of his intention to ban CRT on day one, Youngkin has to pause for several seconds as the crowd cheers and claps in a standing ovation — every time.
Providing material for Republicans in what may have been McAuliffe’s biggest mistake in this campaign was a comment during the second debate about parents and schools. “I am not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,“ McAuliffe responded to Youngkin after it was brought up that he vetoed a bill during his first term that would have allowed parents to remove books from their child’s education if they believed it contained sexually explicit content. “So yeah I stopped the bill that I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Youngkin has since mobilized parents in the Republican Party by accusing Democrats of wanting to remove them from having any involvement in their child’s education. McAuliffe eventually responded with an ad, saying his words were being taken by context.
“As parents, Dorothy and I have always been involved in our kid’s education, we know good schools depend on involved parents,” McAuliffe says in the ad. “That’s why I want you to hear this from me — Glenn Youngkin is taking my words out of context.”
The response was released weeks after the debate and the damage was already done. Youngkin had closed the gap in the polls.
Youngkin’s campaign may have hit its stride in September and October according to polls showing the race tightening during that timeframe, but he spent the summer responding to attacks and a communications barrage from the Democrats as they tried to define him as a far-right Trumpster.
The worst moment for Youngkin during the summer was when he was recorded on a secret video in July saying he cannot run on his abortion views and win in Virginia. “When I’m governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” Youngkin said in response to a question being posed to him by undercover activists. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that, in fact, won’t win my Independent votes that I have to get. So you’ll never hear me support Planned Parenthood — what you’ll hear me talk about is actually taking back the radical abortion policies that Virginians don’t want. And in fact, they’re the radicals.”
Youngkin has tried to dodge abortion questions ever since, similar to his actions when asked about Trump. At events, Youngkin staffers keep a distance between the candidate and his supporters, and the press — often stopping reporters if they try to walk from the press area into the crowd.
Another tough hit for Youngkin, which happened late in the cycle, had nothing to do with him or his campaign — though it involved his party and prominent supporters.
The event was in mid-October with former Trump official Steve Bannon, state Sen. Amanda Chase, and other Republican figures. In addition to advancing unproven election conspiracy theories, the attendees pledged allegiance to a flag that they believed was present at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C. That event caused a week of bad press for Youngkin, who called it “weird and wrong.”
Trump is also virtually attending an event Monday night with Virginia-MAGA supporters, according to former Trump campaign official John Fredericks. The phone call will allegedly be with MAGA fans from across the state, according to Fredericks, who said the press will not be allowed on the call.
A visit from Trump would be a gift for McAuliffe, who is looking for another boost to get him over the finish line. McAuliffe has brought in the big names in recent weeks; Biden, Obama, Harris, Abrams, Harrison, and Pharrell to all stump for him across the state in an attempt to drive turnout.
Youngkin has largely headline each event on his own, still bringing out large crowds.
The polls show a dead heat in the race — a surprise for some, but not McAuliffe, who has often referred to Virginia as a purple state, not a blue one. That makes the nationalization of this race more complicated. While voters in the commonwealth voted for him by 10 points last year, Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40’s now. Additionally, Democrats in Congress have been unable to find an agreement on a large infrastructure or spending package, providing no help for McAuliffe in the final days.
For Youngkin in Virginia, historically a bellwether state for the president, he hopes the trend stays true of electing a governor opposite of the party controlling the White House. The only candidate to break that trend in decades was McAuliffe in 2013 when he won his first term.
Tuesday will be the test of whether Trump is still on the ballot in Virginia or if middle-of-the-road voters have moved on. McAuliffe has tied Youngkin to Trump in nearly every ad, speech, and comment. Meanwhile, hundreds of Republicans in Chesterfield on Monday chanted “let’s go, Brandon,” which is a child-friendly translation of “f*ck Joe Biden.”
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