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PolitiFact VA: Fact checking the candidates for governor after the first debate

Two people shake hands
Steve Helber/AP
Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Governor Terry McAuliffe, left, greets Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, at the start of a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin disagreed sharply, sometimes personally, on a host of issues Thursday night during their first gubernatorial debate.

They expressed different visions on abortion, vaccine mandates and taxes. Along the way, they made a number of statements that were familiar to PolitiFact. Here’s a fact-checking rundown of those claims:

McAuliffe: “My opponent, as you know, wants to ban abortion.”

This claim, which McAuliffe also makes in a TV ad, misrepresents comments Youngkin made in June to liberal activists posing as  anti-abortion advocates at a Republican gathering in Loudoun County. The activists secretly videotaped the quiet conversation.

Youngkin was sympathetic to the undercover activists. He described himself as “staunchly, unabashedly pro-life,” spoke of ending tax-funded abortions and repealing Democratic actions that have eased state abortion restrictions in recent years. He told them he did not want to focus on anti-abortion agenda during the campaign because it could cost him independent votes but promised he would not be “squishy” on the issue if he is elected.

Virginia follows U.S. law that allows women a clear path to abortion up to the time a fetus is viable otside the womb, usually around the 22nd to 24th week of pregnancy.

Youngkin told the activists he would consider moving up the time adult women have unconditional paths to abortions from fetal ability to the moment a fetus can feel pain — a much-debated determination that some anti-abortion advocates place at 20 weeks into pregnancy. Youngkin affirmed that position at the debate.

But Youngkin never said to the activists that he favors a flat-out ban on abortions.

Youngkin: McAuliffe said if a right-to-work bill “comes to his desk, he will sign it.”

This accurately refers to a June 3 on-line interview McAuliffe had with the Democratic Business Council of Northern Virginia. He was asked if he would sign a bill that repealed Virginia’s right-to-work law which bars compulsory union membership.

McAuliffe said it is improbable that he’d get the opportunity because right-to-work has strong bipartisan support in the General Assembly and it would be smarter to focus on more achievable labor goals such as collective bargaining.

“If it came to my desk, sure, I would sign it,” McAuliffe said of a bill ending the right-to-work law. “But listen, you can’t get it through the House and the Senate."

McAuliffe: “When I was governor, I brought unemployment down in every single city and county in Virginia.”

McAuliffe is right. As we’ve previously reported, both the unemployment rate and the number of unemployed people dropped in all 95 Virginia counties and 38 cities during McAuliffe’s term, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McAuliffe was governor from January 2014 to January 2018, a profitable time across the country. The United States had shaken the Great Recession and was well advanced into what became a record 128-month economic expansion.

The number of unemployed Virginians fell from almost 228,000 to about 144,000 during McAuliffe’s term — a 37% decrease. The number of unemployed people in the U.S. dropped from almost 10.2 million to almost 6.6 million during the same time — a 35%  decrease.

Although presidents, governors and mayors love to take credit for good numbers, economists generally say politicians have only a marginal effect on unemployment. The economy, they say, ebbs and flows with global trends over which politicians have little control.

Youngkin: Says McAuliffe said he would have a signed a bill that would allow abortion “all the way up to and including birth…”

Virginia allows third-trimester abortions in hospitals if three physicians certify that a continued pregnancy would "likely" kill the woman or “irredemiably impair” her mental health. 

Unsuccessful legislation - introduced in 2019 by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax - would have lowered the threshold from three physicians to one. That doctor would only have to certify that the pregnancy would damage a woman’s health. The "substantial and irremediable" threshold would have been repealed.

Under hostile questioning by Republicans, Tran acknowledged that the bill would allow abortion if a woman was dilating, causing a stir that was intensified by clumsy remarks from Gov. Ralph Northam. 

McAuliffe, after some stammering, said he would have signed a bill that reduced the number of physicians need to authorized a late-term abortion, which is extremely rare.

McAuliffe: Youngkin’s budget plan “would take $10 billion out of education...These aren’t my words.Three independent reports have just come out.”

McAuliffe is referring to studies by three liberal groups: the Virginia Education Association; Center for American Progress Action Fund; and Virginia Excels. Youngkin said in April that he was working on a plan to eliminate the state income tax. All of the studies are based on the assumption that he would repeal the tax, which provides about 70% of the state’s funding to public schools, public safety and health programs..

The problem is that Youngkin is no longer calling for the end of the income tax. In August, he settled on a more modest plan that would double the standard deduction for individuals to claim on their state income tax returns. We’ve not seen an independent estimate on the cost of raising the deductions but given that Virginia must keep a balanced budget, all tax cuts must be accompanied by either cuts in spending or increased revenue from a different source.


Glenn Youngkin, Comments in Loudoun County, June 2021
Terry McAuliffe, Interview with he Democratic Business Council of Northern Virginia, June 3, 2021
PolitiFact Virginia, “ Biden's claim about Virginia unemployment largely holds up,” July 23, 2021
PolitiFact Virginia, “ McAuliffe does full flop on late-term abortion bill,” April 1, 2019
The Washington Post, “ Republican Youngkin unveils long list of policy priorities in Virginia governor’s race, including tax cuts and new spending,” Aug.30,2021
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “ Youngkin bets race on tax policy, but do the numbers add up?” Sept. 3, 2021
Virginia Education Association, “ Youngkin’s Tax Plan a Disaster for Virginians, Public Education,” Sept. 14, 2021