Why the Virginia governor's race matters.

And what it means for the rest of the country.
Isaac Saul Oct 27, 2021

Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the Virginia governor's race and why it matters for everyone. Plus, a question about what happened in at a Virginia school.

Democratic candidate and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.
Democratic candidate and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo: Flickr

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Quick hits.

  1. Senate Democrats revealed a new tax plan that will impose a minimum 15% tax on public and privately owned companies with more than $1 billion in annual profits, as well as a new tax on unrealized capital gains of individuals with over $1 billion in assets. (The plan)
  2. The FCC revoked China Telecom's right to operate in the U.S., citing national security concerns. (The decision)
  3. Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill banning transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports in schools. (The bill)
  4. Former White House Covid-19 coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx told Congress that Trump and White House officials were "distracted" from addressing Covid-19 by the 2020 election. (The allegation)
  5. Hertz announced it was planning to buy 100,000 electric vehicles from Tesla, and followed up with news it intended to make 50,000 of those cars available to be rented by Uber drivers. (The deal)

Today's topic.

The Virginia governor's race. The latest polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are in a dead heat at about 45% each, with around 5% of voters still undecided (the election is Tuesday, November 2).

Why it matters: Virginia is considered a bellwether state, one that has been reliably blue in presidential elections over the last few cycles but can still tell us a lot about the mood of the country. Because its governor's races are in off-years, it is often the only major state race before the midterms and can shed light on how voters nationally might be feeling. Democrats have won the last two governor's races, and in 2013, McAuliffe became the first candidate of the same party in the White House to win the Virginia gubernatorial race since 1973. Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points over Donald Trump last year, so Democrats had hoped it would be a lock — but it's not.

Terry McAuliffe: McAuliffe is the Democrat in the race and the former governor of the state, having served from 2014 to 2018. He has done his best to make the race about former President Donald Trump, who he has repeatedly tied to Youngkin, and has spoken very little about President Biden, whose approval ratings are falling in the state.

Glenn Youngkin: Youngkin is the Republican in the race, the former CEO of the global investment giant Carlyle Group, and has no political background. Youngkin has spent $17.5 million of his own dollars on the race, and has made his business experience central to his pitch to voters. Trump endorsed Youngkin in May, but Youngkin has kept his distance since then, declining to appear at Trump rallies in the state while avoiding criticising the former president, and also not endorsing the election fraud narrative or otherwise tying his fate to Trump’s.

Top issues: Education has come to the forefront. One of the biggest moments in the race came during the second debate, when McAuliffe responded to recent school board protests by saying he wasn't "going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision... I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” he said. That clip became a big moment, and Youngkin quickly countered by saying he believed parents should be the ones deciding what their kids learn in school.

The comments got so much air time McAuliffe released an ad campaign trying to clarify what he meant. He's also since re-focused his campaign on education, telling voters Youngkin's economic plan would cut 43,000 teachers from the state, something he says should be a much bigger issue than critical race theory and other curriculum battles.

Vaccine mandates are also a top issue. Both candidates are vaccinated, but McAuliffe has endorsed mandates for teachers, students and health care workers, and said he'd support businesses who impose mandates. Youngkin has taken the opposite tack. “I’ve gotten the vaccine; my family has gotten the vaccine. It’s the best way for people to keep themselves safe. And I in fact have asked everyone in Virginia to please get the vaccine,” Youngkin said in the first debate. “But I don’t think we should mandate it.”

The other top issue has been abortion. While there is no legislation in Virginia to change the law, McAuliffe has poured resources into an ad campaign where Youngkin is seen promising to go on offense and restrict abortion in Virginia if Republicans win the statehouse.

Each candidate has also tried to tie the other to their party's leader (Biden and Trump, respectively).

Wildcards: The third party candidate and the big names. Princess Blanding, a progressive who is the Liberation Party candidate, is pulling in 2% of the vote right now in some polls. She is an activist and educator who is polling well among independents and young voters. She made headlines after interrupting the second debate by entering the room and demanding she be allowed to join the stage. Blanding, who is a Black woman, accused the press of racism and sexism for not giving her candidacy more attention. Also tied to the race are Biden, former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, who are all campaigning in Virginia for McAuliffe.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from the right and left on the Virginia race.


What the right is saying.

The right says Virginia is a harbinger of what's to come for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, and points to education as the primary issue in the race.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Glenn Youngkin is putting the suburbs back in play for Republicans.

“Suburban voters swung away from the GOP in a reaction against Mr. Trump. They kept swinging as Democrats took the House in 2018 (Virginia Republicans lost three competitive seats). And they swung again in 2020 to send Mr. Trump to Mar-a-Lago. Now Mr. Biden is in the White House, and he’s taking his cues from progressives in Congress,” the board said. “They’re promising to supersize taxes and government spending, even as inflation is running at its highest level in 13 years, while businesses can’t find workers, and retailers can’t stock goods. High gas prices and empty shelves do not a happy suburbia make.

“Mr. Youngkin is no Trumpkin. He’s a Harvard M.B.A. and a former private-equity executive who wears fleece vests and talks of killing the state’s 2.5% grocery tax. He caught the political wind with anger at Virginia’s public schools. ‘What we’ve seen over the course of the last 20 months,’ Mr. Youngkin said in a debate, ‘is our school systems refusing to engage with parents.’ The unhappiness runs from Covid-19 school closures and mask mandates, to diluted admission standards at a magnet campus, to arguments about critical-race theory and curriculum.”

In The New York Post, Deroy Murdock said McAuliffe "has converted parents enraged by Democratic educational malpractice into the core of Youngkin’s broadening base."

"White mothers and fathers hate critical race theory teaching their sons and daughters that they are genetic racists who must apologize for being born Caucasian," Murdock wrote. "Some black parents loathe CRT for deeming their children eternally oppressed by Whitey and, thus, doomed to failure. These parents have packed school-board meetings to excoriate CRT, counterproductive mask and vax mandates, gender studies and more. All of this has driven parents and other voters into the streets.

"An overflow crowd of some 1,000 people lined up to see Youngkin on Tuesday night in suburban Burke, in Fairfax County," Murdock added. "This once conservative northern-Virginia locale lately has slithered left, thanks to incoming Democrats. Youngkin’s crowded rally saw him rising at just the right time. Glenn Youngkin is the new face surging in the Old Dominion. As he told Fox News: 'This is no longer a campaign. It’s a movement.'"

In The Washington Examiner, Salena Zito said McAuliffe is misreading what matters to voters.

"If voters here back Youngkin, it won't be because they woke up and decided that they love Republicans again. It will be because the Democrats have pissed them off," Zito said. "Parents realized they weren’t alone in their thinking that schools had become too indoctrinated in leftist cultural programs. Schools were obsessing over "equity" and promulgating critical race theory. They were exposing students to sexually explicit reading material and ramming policies down parents' throats that allowed gender-fluid students, including at least one alleged male rapist, to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their claimed gender identity. There were also diktats requiring teachers to refer to students by their preferred pronouns.

"More importantly, McAuliffe didn’t get that what Biden was doing, or not doing, wasn’t what voters had expected of him," Zito said. "Biden's behavior is making it impossible for the former governor to scoop up enough Republicans and independents to sail to victory as Democrats have done here for the past 20 years."


What the left is saying.

The left is worried about a loss in Virginia, but believes it's more about lack of enthusiasm on the left and faux rage on the right than anything else.

In The New York Times, Michelle Cottle wrote about why the Virginia race is freaking Democrats out.

"Compounding concerns are findings from a series of focus groups conducted this year by the Democratic firm Lake Research Partners, targeting Democrats considered less likely to turn out at the polls," she said. "It found a couple of reasons that some Virginia women are uninspired by the political scene. Among Black women, there is frustration that Democrats won’t deliver for them, and so it doesn’t much matter which party’s candidates win, explains Joshua Ulibarri, who heads the firm’s Virginia research. Among younger women, especially Latinas and white women, there is a sense that the Trump danger has passed and that they can let their guard down.

"But if Democrats lose their sense of urgency when it comes to voting, the party is in serious trouble," she said. "Republicans are working hard to keep their voters outraged and thus primed to turn out. They are seeking to capitalize on a difference in motivation between the parties that Mr. Trump neatly exploited in his rise to power. As is often noted, the essence of the modern Republican Party has been boiled down to: Own the libs. The impulse on the other side is not parallel. Democrats try to mobilize their voters with promises to enact popular policies — paid family leave, expanded Medicare coverage, cheaper prescription drugs, universal pre-K and so on. Democratic voters were desperate to send Mr. Trump packing. But beyond that, what many, many blue-staters want isn’t to own red-state America so much as to return to ignoring it altogether."

In The New Republic, Alex Shephard criticized Youngkin, who recently featured a mother named Laura Murphy in an advertisement about Tony Morrison's book Beloved.

"If you didn’t know who Murphy was or what she tried to do, you would think that she had a young child who was forced to read 50 Shades of Gray or something out of William Burroughs’s demented imagination," Shephard wrote. "Instead her son— who, again, is now in his late twenties and works as a lawyer for the Republican Party — was instructed to read Beloved, a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winner who is arguably the greatest American novelist of the late twentieth century. Sexual abuse is central to Beloved’s thematic power and its investigation of trauma and American history; in the ad, Murphy bizarrely acts as if it’s titillating, rather than horrific. That any Virginia lawmakers may have ever been red in the face at encountering Morrison’s prose should be disqualifying for public office — if not adulthood...

"This is, more or less, exactly what anti-cancel culture conservatives accuse liberals of doing: Because Murphy’s kid was triggered by this book, it should be banned. The argument here isn’t over whether “canceling” exists or if it’s a good idea, but what the criterion for canceling is: In this case, Murphy and Youngkin endorse a version of cancel culture that removes works that depict rape and slavery and are critical of American history. It’s not a fight over freedom, in other words, but one about control: Youngkin says he wants to 'ban critical race theory' if elected, but this... gives away the game: 'Critical race theory' means 'books by Black authors.' Far from giving parents autonomy, he’s treading on it: determining by fiat, over the objections of parents and school boards alike, what children can and cannot be taught."

In The Washington Post, Greg Sargent noted that McAuliffe has made paid leave central to his campaign, something not enough people are talking about.

"This matters for many reasons," Sargent wrote. "First, as Democrats in Washington negotiate the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, it looks as though the plan’s paid sick, family and medical leave provisions may be downsized dramatically — from 12 weeks to four weeks — to meet centrists’ demands for lower spending. This means that future action on the state and federal level will be even more necessary. After all, as Jordan Weissmann points out, if the proposal shrinks, it will be badly insufficient: We’ll still be an outlier relative to other wealthy developed nations, and it would not meet the needs of Americans, judging by the unpaid leave they tend to take.

"With major 2022 gubernatorial contests looming in swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, a McAuliffe victory might embolden Democrats to press the issue forward in those states as well," he added. "It might also give Democrats a good issue in the congressional elections, and (if they manage to hold Congress) more impetus to expand the program on the federal level in coming years."


My take.

It's fascinating — and maybe even ironic — to see education become a top issue in a nationally-watched race like this. Five years ago, if you had told progressive candidates that education would be the front and center topic for a Virginia governor's race, they probably would have been giddy. Better funding of public schools, increasing teacher salaries and making education a primary political issue are things Democrats have been trying to do for decades. Now it's happening, but not on their terms (in this race, the Republican candidate is actually the one promising to raise teacher salaries, even if education groups claim his economic plan would cost teachers their jobs).

I've written a lot about critical race theory in this newsletter, but I should note that the water Youngkin is treading in is basically my worst fears come true.

As Shephard notes above, the mom he trotted out as a symbol of the suffering that parents are enduring is in the ninth year of a personal war to ban a book high school juniors and seniors read that includes depictions of rape and slavery. This is an example of precisely why I expressed skepticism and fear that campaigns to ban "critical race theory" would end up sheltering students from important works rather than preventing teachers from maligning white kids as inherently evil or Black students as inherently less-than. The absurdity of featuring a parent trying to prevent kids from being taught Beloved is tough to overstate.

But the Virginia race should be a wakeup call for Democrats nonetheless. Even though the state usually swings against the party in the White House, for Democrats to go from +10 points against Trump to a dead heat in this race is a sign of how quickly the tides are turning against Biden — and how animated parents are about fights over education, race and Covid-19-related mandates. But don’t be fooled, these issues are clearly potent not just on the right but in the middle and on the left, too.

What's going to happen? Damned if I know. Polling from 2020 was better than it got credit for but pollsters are still trying to solve for the Trump Republicans who don't answer their calls and aren't interested in sharing their political beliefs with a stranger on the phone. A dead heat could mean a decisive Youngkin victory. It could also just be noise, and Democrats will see better turnout late when the press (and major Democratic players) start screaming about a five-alarm fire and the possibility McAuliffe may not actually win. Remember, he had nearly a 10-point lead just a few months ago.

The best read we're going to get on all this is when we get actual results, starting with exit polls, and see who turns out. Meaning we’ll have to revisit it next week. For now, the race in Virginia is confirming much of what we already knew: Democrats have an uphill battle in the 2022 midterms, vaccine/mask mandates and education are now top issues on the right, and the left may need to graduate from anti-Trump rhetoric to current events to fire up the base.



Your questions, answered.

Q: In your Equality Act newsletter, you stated that the idea of males dressed in women's clothing walking into women's bathrooms or locker rooms just to abuse women was absurd, so I'm curious what your reaction is to the incidents in Loudoun County, VA, where a boy who sometimes identifies as female has sexually assaulted two different girls in the women's bathroom at two different schools? And to make matters worse, the schools tried to hide it! Does the trauma these girls endured, others potentially like them in the future, and the fact that this fear is now even more deeply instilled in every woman change your mind at all?

— Rosie, Houston, Texas

Tangle: It doesn't. For a number of reasons.

First, the story: A student accused of sexual assault was transferred from one high school to another, where they then committed a second sexual assault. A juvenile judge sustained charges against the student in the first assault — essentially a guilty ruling. The accuser in that case noted that the student who assaulted her was "gender fluid" and that the assault happened in a women's bathroom. This, naturally, has drawn ire from parents who say allowing trans kids to use the bathroom of their gender identity puts their kids at risk.

So, a few things: First is that the Virginia state rules regarding which bathroom trans students could use was not in effect during the first sexual assault. The state policy to allow trans kids to choose their bathroom was adopted in Loudoun County in May, the assault happened three months before that. The second alleged assault happened in October, and not in a bathroom but in a classroom. So, even if the student is found guilty on both charges and all the details we have about their gender identity are accurate, the bathroom rules did not facilitate either assault, since the second wasn’t even in a bathroom. It's actually pretty remarkable that these very significant facts have not been more central to coverage of the events.

Second is that just because something happens once or very rarely doesn't mean it needs to be a major policy-defining concern. Every policy is a balance of cost-benefit. I think living in fear of an asteroid destroying all life on earth is absurd — that doesn't mean it won't or hasn't happened (it will and it has). Basically every study that I have come across shows trans kids are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of sex crimes and aren't any more likely to commit some kind of sexual assault or violence than cis, straight people. Therefore, I don’t think gender neutral or “gender-affirming” bathroom laws are putting girls at increased risk, and I actually think this story exemplifies the fact these horrific things happen even when those rules are not in place.

Basically: The story in Loudoun County is mortifying and the school's actions could be criminal. But the contours of the story don't change for me based on the fact the perpetrator of the alleged act is gender fluid or trans. If any student of any gender identity sexually assaulted another student and a district simply transferred that student to another school without telling kids or parents, all hell should be raised. But the idea that Virginia’s bathroom rules facilitated these assaults is simply false.


A story that matters.

Chemicals that have been linked to reproductive issues and learning problems in children have been found in a variety of popular fast food items, according to a new report. George Washington University researchers said they purchased 64 fast-food items "from national burger chains McDonald’s and Burger King; pizza chains Pizza Hut and Domino’s; and Tex-Mex chains Taco Bell and Chipotle, all around San Antonio, Tex." The study found harmful chemicals, Phthalates, in a "majority" of the samples collected. Phthalates "are linked to health problems, including disruption to the endocrine system, and fertility and reproductive problems, as well as increased risk for learning, attention and behavioral disorders in children," according to The Washington Post article.


Numbers.

  • 58-32. Youngkin's lead over McAuliffe among men in Virginia, according to a Suffolk University poll.
  • 59-33. McAuliffe's lead among women in Virginia, according to a Suffolk University poll.
  • 40%. The percentage of voters who said the most important issues impacting the race were the economy and jobs.
  • 23%. The percentage of voters who said the most important issue impacting the race was education.
  • 17%. The percentage of voters who said the most important issue impacting the race was healthcare.

Have a nice day.

NASA scientists say they have detected signs of a planet transiting a star outside the Milky Way, which would mean they found the first ever planet outside our own galaxy. Most planets discovered by NASA have been found less than 3,000 light-years from earth. This planet would be about 28,000,000 light-years away — meaning it would take its light 28 million years to get to us. It also means what we’re seeing now is how that planet looked 28 million years ago. Unfortunately, researchers will have to wait a long time to know if their new method for finding an exoplanet works. They will need the candidate to orbit in front of a binary partner, which won't happen for another 70 years, so it could take decades to confirm the observation. CNN has the story.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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