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Democrats defending state control as the election winds down

People stand on stage with arms raised
Crixell Matthews
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (center) campaigns with lieutenant governor candidate Del. Hala Ayala (left) and First Lady Jill Biden (right) in Henrico County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In Virginia, voters will choose a new governor — and 100 state lawmakers — on Tuesday.

Democrats are playing defense in a state that President Biden won by ten points. As Biden’s approval ratings have dropped, polls show the race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is a dead heat. 

McKenney, Virginia is an hour south of Richmond, where the suburbs give way to farms. Or as longtime resident Alan Mullis tells it: “I mean, this place is in the middle of boondocks.”

Mullis is flattered that Glenn Youngkin parked his bus outside the Flat Rock Country Store. It’s a bend-in-the-road pit stop selling biscuits and hams. Mulllis, who has leukemia, delayed his chemo treatment to come to this event.

“That's how important it is to me to meet Glenn Youngkin. Thank God for somebody like him running for office,” Mullis said.

Mullis likes Youngkin’s backing of law enforcement. But for many supporters here, it’s the mood as much as the message. The first-time politician brings celebrity energy in a fleece-vest and cowboy boots. Supporters sign his tour bus and snap photos.

Youngkin has directed his closing message at parents. He’s channeled conservative outrage over critical race theory, a nearly 50-year-old academic framework which examines the ways racism affects daily life, which is not taught in Virginia schools.

“It's not Republicans against Democrats anymore. This is Virginia and standing up for our rights, and particularly for the rights of our kids,” Youngkin said.

It’s a message he often takes to Fox News and a shift from earlier in his campaign, when he focused on the Trumpian theme of “election integrity.” Still, the former private equity CEO denies this race is about national politics.

"Well I don’t know about everybody else, but If you look at the ballot today, what it says on it is Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe," Youngkin said.

There is a third name on the ballot, Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding, but it's Youngkin and McAuliffe who are raising the big bucks. On Tuesday, McAuliffe campaigned with his old friend, President Joe Biden. The president repeatedly connected Youngkin to Trump, who has endorsed the businessman. 

“Extremism can come in many forms," Biden said, connecting Youngkin and the attempted insurrection. "It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the capitol. It can come in a smile in a fleece vest."

McAuliffe has brought in a number of heavy hitters, ranging from former President Barack Obama, who said, “This guy is the energizer bunny. He does not sleep. He does not stop," to musician Dave Matthews, a Charlottesville resident.

For Democrats, the stakes are high. Losing Virginia would be a bad omen for next year’s midterms. They haven’t lost a statewide election since 2009. McAuliffe says he always knew it would be close. “I remind you for 44 straight years, the party that wins the White House, the other party wins the governor's mansion,” he said.

The lone exception to that rule was McAuliffe, who won a tight governor’s race in Virginia in 2013. At that point, McAuliffe was a wealthy Democratic fundraiser who once wrestled an alligator to win over a donor. Now he’s able to run on his record during his first term.

"I was governor before, got us out of a horrible financial mess, created a record amount of 200,000 new jobs, made the state open and welcoming," McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe’s yard signs are a hot commodity on a windy day at an early voting location in Henrico County, just outside of Richmond.

Elizabeth Balaschak is staffing a Democratic table. She just moved here from Florida, drawn by Virginia’s increasingly blue tint. Backlash to Trump in these Richmond suburbs helped Democrats flip the state legislature. They passed a slew of laws, like raising the minimum wage.

"My concern is if it starts to go toward Florida — I know a lot of people who moved out of Florida over the last few years because of the way the state is going," Balaschak said.

Now Virginia Democrats have to defend not just the governor’s seat, but their hold on the House of Delegates.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.