The Virginia gubernatorial race wasn’t supposed to be this close.
Terry McAuliffe, who served as Virginia governor from 2014 to 2018, was expected to cruise to a second non-consecutive term running the commonwealth 12 months after Joe Biden carried it by 10 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election.
With hours to go before Election Day, however, most polls show the race between McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is close to a dead heat. And Youngkin appears to be taking the fight to McAuliffe on education, long an issue dominated by Democrats.
A poll published Friday by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University found that a plurality of likely Virginia voters (24 percent) saw education as the top issue in the race, ahead of the economy (23 percent) and the COVID-19 pandemic (10 percent). In September, by contrast, the same poll found that 27 percent of voters saw the economy as the key issue, followed by the pandemic (16 percent) and education (15 percent).
The Washington Post reported that voters who picked education as their top issue favored McAuliffe by 33 percentage points in September, but now back Youngkin by 9 percentage points. However, when asked who they trusted more on the issue, likely voters were split, with 47 percent saying McAuliffe and 46 percent saying Youngkin.
Similarly, an Emerson College poll of likely voters published Monday showed 21 percent picked education as the top election issue, ahead of jobs (15 percent), COVID-19 (14 percent), health care (11 percent) and taxes (10 percent).
While both the Post and Emerson polls showed McAuliffe with narrow leads among likely voters, a Fox News poll released Thursday showed Youngkin with a 8 percentage-point lead among likely voters.
The Fox poll showed that more than half of likely Virginia voters (52 percent) say they trust Youngkin more than McAuliffe (44 percent) on the issue of education. The Republican also has a 14 percentage-point advantage (56-42) over McAuliffe among likely voters who are parents.
The two campaigns’ approaches to education have been studies in contrast, with Youngkin advocating for greater parental involvement in local schools. McAuliffe, on the other hand, summed up his own position in a Sept. 28 debate when he said: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
In a time when school board meetings across America have featured heated debates — and sometimes physical confrontations — over issues like mask mandates and the addition of critical race theory in K-12 curricula, Youngkin’s message has resonated.
A Suffolk University poll of likely Virginia voters published Tuesday — which showed McAuliffe and Youngkin in a statistical tie on 45 percent each — found that 49.8 percent believed parents should have more influence over a curriculum than local school boards, compared to 38.8 percent who believed school boards should have the greater say.
Youngkin has sought to harness parental anger into Republican votes, accusing McAuliffe in the same September debate of trying to “suppress and silence” parents so schools could push a “radical political agenda” in classrooms.
The Republican has also vowed to “ban critical race theory as soon as he is elected,” while McAuliffe has accused him of using the term as a “racist dog whistle.”
In addition, Youngkin has called for an investigation of the public school system in Northern Virginia’s tony Loudoun County over claims it covered up the sexual assault of a female student in a high school bathroom, and ripped Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this week over his Oct. 4 memo suggesting the FBI would crack down on parents deemed to have threatened school officials.
“Terry McAuliffe has demonstrated that he cares more about his own career than he does for Virginians,” Youngkin told Fox News Thursday night. “He wants to put government between parents and their children. If he doesn’t like the answer, then all of a sudden, the FBI comes in and tries to silence them.”
Youngkin is far from assured of victory. It remains to be seen how deep his message of parental empowerment has penetrated into Northern Virginia — the most prosperous, populous and pro-Democrat part of the state. However, the closeness of the race in a solid blue state is being viewed by both parties as a possible sign that trouble could await Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
“What happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and on,” Vice President Kamala Harris told McAuliffe supporters at a rally in Norfolk Friday night.