Virginia voters head to polls in key governor’s race for Biden

Republican and Democrat neck-and-neck in bellwether contest one year since election

A hotly contested governor's race in Virginia, where voters head to the polls on Tuesday, is being closely watched by Republicans and Democrats as a key barometer of US voter sentiment a year after Joe Biden was elected president.

The contest, which comes as Biden battles sinking job approval ratings, pits Republican Glenn Youngkin, the former chief executive of private equity group Carlyle, against Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic fundraiser who served one term as Virginia governor from 2013 to 2017.

It also takes place against a backdrop of months of Democratic party infighting on Capitol Hill over the legislative agenda of Biden, who will be attending the Cop26 UN climate conference in Scotland when the polls close.

McAuliffe was seen as an early frontrunner in Virginia, where Biden defeated Donald Trump by a margin of more than 10 points last year. But the latest opinion polls give Youngkin a slight edge heading into election day.


The FiveThirtyEight average of the most recent polls show Youngkin leading by one point, within the margin of error, over McAuliffe.

"I don't think anybody following this would be shocked if it went either way," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

‘Off-year’ elections

Virginia and New Jersey are the only two US states to hold governor's races in this November's "off year" elections. Dozens of other governor's seats, as well as control of both houses of Congress, will be up for grabs in next year's midterms.

In New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy is widely expected to secure re-election on Tuesday, with the latest statewide surveys showing him leading among registered and likely voters by a nine-point margin. The mayor's race in New York City is also seen as a foregone conclusion, with Democrat Eric Adams on course to defeat Republican Curtis Sliwa given the city's overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.

But the “toss-up” Virginia race is being closely watched nationwide as a bellwether of the political mood 12 months after Biden defeated Trump, and with one year to go until the midterms.

The McAuliffe campaign has tried to tie Youngkin, who has until now never run for political office, to Trump, who was fiercely unpopular in Virginia’s densely populated suburban areas outside of Washington DC.

But Republicans are hoping that with the former president out of the White House and off social media, independents and one-time Republican voters who backed Biden will once again embrace the party's platform of lower taxes and more funding for police.

Youngkin has also tried to focus on a range of “culture war” issues, including so-called critical race theory – a once obscure academic field that examines the role of race in society. Republican lawmakers across the country have in recent months pushed legislation to ban CRT from being taught in public schools, while Democrats have accused Republicans of employing racial dog-whistle tactics around the issue.


Youngkin has had to walk a political tightrope in an attempt to appeal to more moderate conservative-leaning voters while at the same time energising Trump’s loyal base of right-wing supporters. Trump has endorsed Youngkin at least six times, and on Monday night phoned into a rally to support the Republican ticket – an event Youngkin declined to attend.

Democrats say Youngkin has been two-faced in his campaigning, pointing to his often mealy-mouthed comments about Trump’s false claims that last year’s election was stolen.

In an interview earlier this year, Youngkin declined to say whether he would have certified Joe Biden’s election had he been a member of Congress on January 6th, when mobs of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. But Youngkin quickly amended his comments following a public backlash, telling a local television network he “absolutely” would have voted to certify the result.

"He believes in the Big Lie. That is the most fundamental thing about him at least in my view, and in the view of a lot of Democrats," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, before adding: "But that isn't the biggest thing about him in the view of a lot of Republicans."

Bennett added of Tuesday’s contest: “It is essentially a jump ball. One candidate is probably going to win by a tiny margin.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021