Too-close-to-call Virginia governor's race headlines US elections

Virginia voters will head to the polls to elect their next governor in a close race, carrying national implications.

Campaign signs for Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin stand together on the last day of early voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election in Fairfax, Virginia, October 30, 2021 (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
Campaign signs for Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin stand together on the last day of early voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election in Fairfax, Virginia, October 30, 2021
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)

Virginia voters will elect their next governor on Tuesday in an unexpectedly close race that carries national implications for both Republicans and Democrats ahead of next year's congressional elections.

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 President Joe Biden won by a double-digit margin over former President Donald Trump last year, would sound alarm bells for national Democrats.

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 voting rights and abortion access.

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.

 People vote on the last day of early voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election in Fairfax, Virginia, October 30, 2021 (credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS) People vote on the last day of early voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election in Fairfax, Virginia, October 30, 2021 (credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)

His strategy could offer a road map 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.

The winner will succeed Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who is barred by Virginia's unique term limits law from serving two consecutive terms.

The race is one of numerous contests and issues before US 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 US cities will also choose mayors, including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston, Miami, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle. In New York, former police captain Eric Adams, a Democrat, is expected to become the city's second Black mayor, unless Republican Curtis Sliwa, who runs the civilian street patrol Guardian Angels, can pull off a shocking upset.

A year and a half after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer, Minneapolis voters will decide whether to approve a measure that would replace the police department with a new public safety agency.

TRUMP'S SHADOW

Virginia's gubernatorial race, which always takes place one year after the quadrennial US presidential election, 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, focused on hot-button social issues such as how race is taught in schools, as well as COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.

He 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 said of Trump, referring to his slogan, Make America Great Again.

"Tomorrow, VA will choose a better way."

But without Trump at the top of the ballot, it is unclear whether invoking his name will be as effective for Democrats.

Youngkin has walked a fine line on Trump, mostly avoiding much discussion of the former president while campaigning on issues like public safety and education that appeal both to moderates and Trump supporters.

Trump has not visited the state to campaign, but participated in a pro-Youngkin tele-rally on Monday, telling voters that Youngkin would protect suburbs. In his brief call, he made no mention of his past warnings that Virginia's election could be marred by fraud.

Both Biden and former President Barack Obama hit the trail with McAuliffe.