RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin were campaigning in many of the same, highly competitive parts of Virginia on Monday, trying to secure last minute support in a governor's race that has captured national attention as the first major referendum on Joe Biden's presidency.
McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, is scrambling to stave off disaster after polling has shifted in Youngkin’s direction in recent weeks. Republicans are optimistic about their chances in the commonwealth, where they haven’t won a statewide race since 2009, and where Biden won by a comfortable 10 points just last year.
Elsewhere, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is trying to secure reelection against Republican former State Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli. Mayor's offices in many of the nation's largest cities are up for grabs. And a ballot question in Minneapolis could reshape policing in that community, where the killing of George Floyd last year touched off sweeping demonstrations for racial justice across the nation.
But what happens in Virginia — onetime Republican-leaning territory that has gotten bluer in recent years — promised to have repercussions that could shake both parties.
A McAuliffe win could reassure Democrats heading into next year's midterm elections, when control of Congress is at stake. An upset by Youngkin, however, would let Republicans say they've seized political momentum and don't plan to relinquish it during the midterms.
Biden's approval ratings have fallen in recent weeks. And the Democratic-controlled Congress has yet to approve a major public works bill or a sweeping spending package that would dramatically increase government support for the social safety net.
Both McAuliffe and Youngkin were campaigning Monday in greater Richmond, the state capital, whose fast-growing suburbs could swing the race. They also planned stops in Virginia Beach, which flipped blue in a presidential race for the fist time since 1964 in backing Biden last year, and the Blue Ridge Mountain city of Roanoke.
Youngkin was also headed to a night rally in Loudoun County, encompassing Washington suburbs that have become the epicenter of parent activist groups who object to school curriculums that include instruction about institutional racism as un-American. The Republican has made pledges to ensure parents have greater say in what their kids are taught a centerpiece of his campaign — possibly foreshadowing similar arguments GOP candidates will use across the country in races next year.
McAuliffe has his own northern Virginia swing set for Monday night.
The largely overlapping campaigning stops followed each side working to ensure their most ardent supporters were fired up over the weekend. Youngkin spent Sunday in the far southwest tip of the state, a Republican stronghold.
McAuliffe, who preceded Democrat Ralph Northam as governor in the only state that doesn’t allow its executive to serve consecutive terms, hit suburban Richmond and northern Virginia, both areas that keyed Biden's win a year ago.
In the backyard of a home in a well-to-do pocket of Henrico County, outside Richmond, McAuliffe told supporters that “the stakes are huge.”
“I’ve done this job before. I was the most pro-business pro-progressive. I made this state open and welcoming, created a lot of jobs," he said of his first gubernatorial tenure. “We do not want to go back.”
Speaking at a rally in Abingdon, Youngkin predicted Republicans would sweep all three statewide races and take back control of the House of Delegates, where all 100 seats are on the ballot.
“This is a moment for us to make a statement that big government control is going to lose and liberty and freedom in Virginia are going to win,” he said.
McAuliffe has brought in a series of high-profile supporters including President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and celebrity musicians Pharrell Williams and Dave Matthews in the final stretch. Youngkin, meanwhile, has eschewed virtually all public campaign visits from well-known party allies who would typically flock to a hot race.
That includes former President Donald Trump, who is holding a telerally for Youngkin on Monday. Youngkin has said he will not be participating.
Youngkin more fully embraced Trump during the Republican primary, but since becoming the nominee has walked a fine line as he tries to court moderate voters.
Early voting in Virginia, which has been dramatically expanded during the past two years of unified Democratic control of state government, ended this weekend. Legislation passed in 2020 eliminated the need to provide one of a certain number of limited excuses to vote absentee — allowing any qualified voter to cast a ballot starting 45 days before the election.
More than 1.1 million out of the state’s approximately 5.9 million registered voters cast early ballots. That’s down sharply from the 2.8 million early votes in last year’s presidential election but marks a dramatic increase compared with the only about 195,000 early votes during the last gubernatorial cycle, before the voting reforms were instituted.
McAuliffe's campaign has said it expects many Democrats to revert to their pre-coronavirus pandemic voting habits this year, preferring to cast in-person, Election Day ballots.
Voters don’t register by party in Virginia, so the partisan split of the early vote wasn’t immediately clear. But McAuliffe’s campaign pointed to what they considered “strong” numbers in blue-leaning localities in northern Virginia as a sign momentum was on their side.
Republicans, despite generally opposing the Democrats’ election reforms, have also encouraged their supporters to vote early this year, though, meaning a solid showing for Youngkin was also possible.