Abortion, Donald Trump and COVID-19: Virginia governor's race emerges as a bellwether

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When Virginia voters pick the commonwealth's next governor on Nov. 2, they'll be choosing between a Donald Trump-aligned Republican who has criticized President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and a longtime moderate Democrat who supports a bigger safety net and higher pay for teachers.

For Democrats, any early indication of voter sentiment is a crucial gauge, looking ahead to the midterm elections in 2022.

Democrats have a narrow 220-212 majority in the House of Representatives. Elections experts say Republicans are favored to take back the House on redistricting efforts alone. Republicans only need to win one seat next year to retake the Senate. The Virginia race will be seen as an indication of how voters are reacting to Biden.

Terry McAuliffe, a past Virginia governor and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is the de facto incumbent in the race. (Virginia does not allow a governor to serve consecutive terms, so current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is term limited.) If elected McAuliffe will be the second governor to serve two terms since Virginia started electing governors. Segregationist Mills Godwin was the first popularly elected governor to serve two terms – first in 1966 as a Democrat and then in 1974 as a Republican.

Glenn Youngkin is a former CEO of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, and a political newcomer. Upon securing the Republican nomination, he called himself "a political outsider" who will bring "real change to Richmond."

While Virginia has become an increasingly blue state – Democrats control the office of the governor, as well as the state House and Senate – the commonwealth is not a Democratic stronghold. The Old Dominion backed Republican candidates for president from 1968 through 2004 until it backed Barack Obama in 2008. From 1970 until 2018, Virginia went back and forth between Republican and Democrat governors.

McAuliffe and Youngkin will hold their first general election debate on Thursday. It will be moderated by USA TODAY Washington Bureau chief Susan Page. Early voting in Virginia starts Friday.

Recent polling on Virginia's gubernatorial race shows McAuliffe with an average 5.2% lead over Youngkin, according to RealClearPolitics.

However, a mid-August poll from Virginia Commonwealth University showed the candidates in a virtual tie. The survey showed 40% of voters supported McAuliffe compared to 37% of voters favoring Youngkin. The margin of error was 5.23%.

“I think it's a close race. And I think it's going to stay close until people hear from the candidates as to where they stand on the issues," former Gov. Doug Wilder told USA TODAY. "We’ve not heard that at all yet.”

Where McAuliffe and Youngkin stand

Wilder, a Democrat who became the first African American governor in U.S. history in 1990, stressed that both candidates needed to clarify to voters who they are and what their positions are on the issues.

“In this election, you’ve got the pandemic, you’ve got the effects of the pandemic, you've got monies that have not been appropriated relative to evictions," he said. "Then you've also got the issue of disparity in education.”

McAuliffe has called for increases in both the minimum wage and teacher pay. He's also supported abortion rights and has pushed campaign ads tying Youngkin to Trump.

When he ran for the GOP nomination, Youngkin emphasized his pro-gun and pro-life stances. But the National Rifle Association did not endorse him in July when it backed his running mate, Winsome Sears, and GOP attorney general nominee Del. Jason Miyares.

Youngkin has also criticized portions of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. In a May interview with the conservative website the Daily Caller, Youngkin said, "We, in fact, have unnecessary stimulus being pounded through our economy, both from a monetary standpoint coupled with the fact that we have a lot of fiscal stimulus right now."

While McAuliffe has supported COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, Youngkinopposes mandates, arguing they infringe on individual rights and parental liberties. But Youngkin has encouraged Virginians to get a COVID-19 vaccine. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed 67% of Virginian voters and 64% of parents support a mask mandate in schools.

McAuliffe also supported Biden's COVID-19 announcement Thursday ordering employers with 100 or more workers to ensure their workforce is entirely vaccinated or face weekly COVID-19 testing. Youngkin said he doesn't agree with the government "imposing" a mandate at a town hall that same day.

Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told USA TODAY that explaining the issues to voters is critical, especially for Youngkin.

“Youngkin has unlimited money to spend, no question. And he projects an attractive image," Sabato said. “But before a campaign is over, you have to get into the nitty-gritty of your positions and the issues that people care about. And that's where Youngkin has a big problem. That and Trump.”

The former president endorsed Youngkin and has issued statements both praising Youngkin and attacking McAuliffe.

“Trump has endorsed (Youngkin) enthusiastically three times, which is at least twice too many,” said Sabato.

Sabato said Virginia is an anti-Trump state, singling out Trump's double-digit loss during the 2020 presidential election.

Trump lost Virginia to Biden by about 10 percentage points in 2020. Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 percentage points in 2016.

Will abortion be a game changer?

The Supreme Court's recent decision to decline to block a controversial Texas law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy has injected new fervor into the campaign.

Sabato said abortion could be a huge advantage for McAuliffe.

“This is something that really is going to matter in the campaign because way back in 1989 when Virginia was a very different state, much more conservative," said Sabato, "... the abortion issue literally elected Doug Wilder."

A study by the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in 1990 showed abortion had a direct impact on the race because of Wilder's assertive support of an individual's right to have an abortion.

“If abortion had that kind of effect in 1989, imagine the effect it could have if McAuliffe uses it well in 2021," said Sabato.

Wilder, though, is cautious of a repeat of his 1989 campaign.

“Abortion is something that will be what I would call a marginal issue. I don’t think it’s been made front and center as it was when I ran for governor,” he said. “And the reason I say that, look at where the nation was 30-plus years ago as related to the issue of abortion. It was highly debatable. There were any number of persons on both sides of the aisle who had differing views on it.”

McAuliffe seized upon the abortion ban, saying Youngkin wants to bring the Texas law to Virginia. McAuliffe cut two ads against Youngkin's abortion stance. He's also issued press statements, held press calls and called out Youngkinin social media posts for attempting to ban abortion and "defunding Planned Parenthood."

In July, before the Supreme Court's Texas decision, Youngkin was secretly recorded by Lauren Windsor, creator of the YouTube show the Undercurrent and a liberal activist, saying he couldn't comment on his abortion views until after the election for fear of repelling independent voters.

Windsor shared the footage with MSNBC and the American Independent, a liberal news organization. A Youngkin spokesperson defended the candidate in a statement to the Washington Post.

“Glenn Youngkin tells everyone he meets the same thing: He can’t wait to go on offense for the people of Virginia by building a rip-roaring economy, creating more jobs with bigger paychecks, restoring excellence in education, prioritizing public safety, and making Virginia the best place in America to live, work, and raise a family,” Matt Wolking said.

“This deceptively recorded audio demonstrates that Glenn Youngkin says the same thing no matter who he is talking to, unlike (Democrat) Terry McAuliffe who knowingly makes false allegations and decides what to say based on whatever poll is in front of him."

In the wake of the Texas law, Youngkin first avoided commenting on the issue before his campaign clarified his anti-abortion views.

“Glenn Youngkin has been clear from the beginning of the campaign that he is pro-life. He believes in exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and when the mother’s life is in jeopardy," said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter in a statement to USA TODAY.

McAuliffe said he supports enshrining the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion in Virginia's constitution.

Trump's presence in the race

Northam won his 2017 race against Republican Ed Gillespie in part because of anti-Trump fervor.

Now that Trump is out of office, Virginia Democrats could face low voter turnout in a non-presidential election year. During the 2017 race, 47.6% of registered Virginians voted. In the 2016 presidential election, turnout was at a little over 72%. During the 2020 presidential election, turnout was at a little over 75%.

Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker says Trump's influence is still part of the campaign.

"We're making sure that voters all across the Commonwealth understand who his (Youngkin's) loyalties and his allegiance and his values lie with," she said. "So while Trump is not on the ballot, he's still around. He's still ever-present."

Wilder is not as convinced Trump will make a difference on the campaign trail. “Donald Trump is gone. He’s not on the ballot," Wilder said.

“I don't think people are waiting to see what Donald Trump's got to say about it. They’re waiting to hear what these candidates themselves have got to say about it."

Another factor that could impact voter enthusiasm is that McAuliffe's Democratic primary win blocked two Black women, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan, from potentially making history in the commonwealth as the first Black female major-party gubernatorial nominee. It also prevented Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second Black person in the commonwealth to win statewide election, from landing the nomination.

Wilder criticized McAuliffe's decision to enter the race without giving voters a clear reason for running.

"He ran against three people who are of color. You have to have a good reason and all three of those persons had far more experience than he had in elected office when he ran the first time," Wilder said.

More: Lack of party support and money, plus racism and sexism, mean Black women often lose statewide elections

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia governor's race: Trump, abortion, COVID-19 shaping election