FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA (REUTERS) – Virginians voted on Tuesday (Nov 2) in an unexpectedly close race for governor that carries national implications for both Republicans and Democrats ahead of US congressional elections next year.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a party fixture who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has seen his lead over Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin in opinion polls evaporate in recent weeks.
A Mr McAuliffe loss in Virginia, which Democratic President Joe Biden won by a double-digit margin over Republican then-President Donald Trump last year, would sound alarm bells for national Democrats.
Cultural issues have dominated the gubernatorial race, with Mr Youngkin promising to give parents more control over how public schools handle race, gender and Covid-19 protocols, and Mr McAuliffe vowing to protect abortion access and voting rights.
Polls leading up to Election Day showed that Mr Youngkin closed the gap with Mr McAuliffe by appealing to independent voters, a group that was alienated in 2020 by Mr Trump’s firebrand style of politics but was more drawn to Mr Youngkin’s congenial manner.
“I don’t think Youngkin is a mini-Trump, which I think is a good thing,” Mr James Feather, 66, said after casting his vote for the Republican candidate in Fairfax, just outside Washington.
The retired engineer said he reluctantly voted for Mr Trump last year but sees Mr Youngkin as more capable administrator.
Mr Youngkin’s strategy could offer a road map for Republicans trying to woo back suburban moderates in the 2022 elections, where control of Congress and the fate of Mr Biden’s agenda will be at stake, without alienating the hardliners who backed Mr Trump.
Democrats said they were energised by Mr Trump’s role in the race after the former president endorsed Mr Youngkin.
“A vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump,” said Ms Madeline McDermott, 30, who manages a bridal boutique and cast her ballot for Mr McAuliffe in Fairfax.
The winner will succeed Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who is barred by Virginia’s term limits law from serving two consecutive terms.
The race is one of numerous contests and issues before American voters on Tuesday as they grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic, racial injustice and rising consumer prices.
In the other governor’s race, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is favoured to win a second term against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state lawmaker.
Dozens of major US cities will also choose mayors, including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston, Miami, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle.
In New York, Brooklyn Borough President and former police Captain Eric Adams, a Democrat, is expected to become the city’s second Black mayor, unless Republican Curtis Sliwa, who runs the Guardian Angels civilian street patrol, can pull off a shocking upset.
A year and a half after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white policeman, Minneapolis voters will decide whether to approve a measure that would replace the police department with a new public safety agency.
Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which always takes place one year after the quadrennial US presidential election, has long been viewed as a crucial barometer of the president’s national standing – and a preview of the following year’s midterm elections.
Mr Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, conducted last Wednesday and Thursday.
Mr Youngkin, 54, a political newcomer and former private equity executive, focused on hot-button social issues such as how racial issues are taught in schools, as well as Covid-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
He campaigned as an advocate for parents who want more say in their children’s education, capitalising on anger among some conservatives who believe schools are imposing divisive curricula in the name of diversity.
Speaking in the state capital, Richmond, on Monday, Mr Youngkin promised he would usher in “a Virginia where our government stops telling us what to do all the time.”
Mr McAuliffe, 64, has sought to tie Mr Youngkin to Mr Trump at every turn, attacking the Republican for initially hesitating to say whether Mr Biden won the election legitimately.
While Mr Youngkin has acknowledged Mr Biden’s victory, he called for an audit of Virginia’s voting machines, a move that prompted Democrats to accuse him of validating Mr Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories.
Mr Trump reiterated his support for Mr Youngkin in a statement on Monday, saying: “He has had my complete and total endorsement for many months!”
Mr McAuliffe responded to Mr Trump’s statement on Twitter.
“He’s pulling out all the stops to win this race because he knows Glenn will advance his MAGA agenda here in VA,” Mr McAuliffe wrote of Mr Trump, referring to his slogan, Make America Great Again. “Tomorrow, VA will choose a better way.”
But without Mr Trump at the top of the ballot, it is unclear whether invoking his name will be as effective for Democrats.
Mr Youngkin has walked a fine line on Mr Trump, mostly avoiding much discussion of the former president while campaigning on issues like public safety and education that appeal both to moderates and Mr Trump supporters.
Mr Trump has not visited the state to campaign, but participated in a pro-Youngkin tele-rally on Monday, telling voters that Mr Youngkin would protect suburbs. In his brief call, he made no mention of his past warnings that Virginia’s election could be marred by fraud.
Both Mr Biden and former President Barack Obama hit the campaign trail with Mr McAuliffe.
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