By Joseph Ax, Gabriella Borter and Jason Lange
FAIRFAX, Va. (Reuters) -Virginians voted on Tuesday in an extremely close race for governor that could signal whether Republicans or Democrats will have an advantage in U.S. 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 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.
“We all knew from the beginning it’s gonna be a tight race,” Biden said about the Virginia election on Tuesday, predicting that McAuliffe would win. “The off year is always unpredictable.”
Cultural issues have dominated the gubernatorial race, with Youngkin promising to give parents more control over how public schools handle race, gender and COVID-19 protocols, and McAuliffe vowing to protect abortion access and voting rights.
Polls leading up to Election Day showed that Youngkin closed the gap with McAuliffe by appealing to independent voters – a group that was alienated in 2020 by Trump’s firebrand style of politics but was more drawn to Youngkin’s congenial manner – despite McAuliffe’s attempts to tie Youngkin to the former president.
“Comparing him to President Trump really didn’t resonate with me,” Jacob McMinn, a program manager at a defense contractor, said after casting his vote for the Republican in Fairfax, just outside Washington.
McMinn, 38, said he supported Youngkin’s view that schools should not teach “critical race theory:” a law school concept that maintains racism is ingrained in U.S. law and institutions and that legacies of slavery and segregation have created an uneven playing field for Black Americans.
Schools say they do not include the theory in elementary and high school curriculums, but are trying to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse U.S. population.
Youngkin’s strategy could offer a road map https://www.reuters.com/world/us/virginia-governors-race-could-show-way-republican-congressional-campaigns-2021-11-01 for Republicans trying to woo back suburban moderates in the 2022 elections, where control of Congress and the fate of Biden’s agenda will be at stake, without alienating the hard-liners who backed Trump.
But Trump’s role in the race still loomed in the minds of many voters after the former president endorsed Youngkin.
“He had Trump supporting him and I’m like out the door,” Alicia Prieto, 57, said after casting her ballot for McAuliffe in Fairfax. The computer programmer said she thought McAuliffe would do a better job funding public education.
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 favored to win a second term against Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state lawmaker.
Dozens of major U.S. 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 https://www.reuters.com/world/us/minneapolis-voters-decide-scrapping-police-department-18-months-after-george-2021-10-31 with a new public safety agency.
Virginia’s gubernatorial race has long been viewed as a crucial barometer of the president’s national standing – and a preview of the following year’s midterm elections.
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.
Youngkin, 54, a political newcomer and former private equity executive, campaigned as an advocate for parents who want more say in their children’s education, capitalizing on anger among some conservatives who believe schools are imposing divisive curricula in the name of diversity.
Speaking in Richmond, on Monday, Youngkin promised he would usher in “a Virginia where our government stops telling us what to do all the time.”
McAuliffe, 64, has sought to tie Youngkin to Trump at every turn, attacking the Republican for initially hesitating to say whether Biden won the election legitimately.
While Youngkin has acknowledged Biden’s victory, he called for an audit of Virginia’s voting machines, a move that prompted Democrats to accuse him of validating Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories.
Trump reiterated his support for Youngkin in a statement on Monday, saying: “He has had my complete and total endorsement for many months!”
McAuliffe responded to 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,” McAuliffe wrote of Trump, referring to his slogan, Make America Great Again.
Youngkin has walked a fine line on Trump, mostly avoiding discussion of the former president while campaigning on issues like public safety and education that appeal both to moderates and Trump supporters.
But without Trump at the top of the ballot, it is unclear whether invoking his name will be as effective for Democrats.
Both Biden and former President Barack Obama hit the campaign trail with McAuliffe.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, Gabriella Borter and Jason Lange; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)
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