Voters are headed to the polls today to elect the next governor of Virginia in a close race that has drawn significant national attention and that will likely have political implications for North Carolina — a neighboring state that is grappling with many similar policy debates.
The following report compiled by journalists Ned Oliver, Kate Masters, Graham Moomaw and Sarah Vogelsong of the Virginia Mercury provides a useful review of the stances staked out on several major policy issues by the Democratic nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and the Republican candidate, former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin.
Public education has become the dominant issue of Virginia’s gubernatorial race. But in the last weeks of the campaign, both candidates have focused less on funding formulas and school construction — some of the most pressing needs facing schools across the commonwealth — and more on controversial literature and other cultural flashpoints.
First, the basics. At the start of his campaign, McAuliffe released a six-page plan pledging “the largest increase in education investment in the history of Virginia.” He’s promised more funding to raise teacher salaries above the national average, expand access to preschool and fully adopt the Standards of Quality recommended by the Virginia Board of Education — guidance for staffing ratios, class size and other school resources.
Youngkin’s “Day One” plan offers less detail, but he’s committed to building at least 20 charter schools across Virginia to “provide choice” to parents. He’s also called for every school in the state to place a law enforcement officer on campus or lose out on state funding.
It’s Youngkin’s pledge to ban critical race theory, though, that’s become the centerpiece of his campaign. The largely academic concept isn’t part of Virginia’s statewide learning standards, but the term is often used to encompass broader equity efforts or lessons that focus on historical instances of racism. In Loudoun County, for example, one parent complained that his second-grade daughter learned Christopher Columbus enslaved and killed indigenous people. Another example conservatives point to is an “Antiracism 101” seminar hosted on the Virginia Department of Education’s YouTube page as part of a state equity summit for educators and school administrators, which included a slide titled “interrogating whiteness.”
“Critical race theory has moved into our school system and we have to remove it,” Youngkin said in August, promising to ban the concept “on day one.” His campaign has promised to “stand up for teachers and parents,” and he’s supported a Loudoun County educator who was suspended after speaking against the district’s policy requiring that transgender students be addressed by the pronouns they identify with. He has also pledged to include funding in his budgets for all five of Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities.
Youngkin has also criticized McAuliffe for vetoing a bill in 2017 that would have required school districts to notify parents when students are assigned reading materials deemed “sexually explicit.” The legislation originated with opposition to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in Fairfax County. McAuliffe responded, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids.”
McAuliffe has largely dismissed Youngkin’s attacks on critical race theory as racist, describing them as “a dog whistle” in one recent roundtable. And his closing ads have accused Youngkin of “wanting to ban books by prominent Black authors.”
Economy, jobs and taxes
Both candidates are pitching themselves as job creators, with McAuliffe touting his record of landing big economic development deals during his first term and Youngkin saying he’ll bring new perspective as someone who just left the business world for politics.
Building on Democrats’ push to make Virginia friendlier to workers as well as executives, McAuliffe says he’ll require employers to offer paid sick days and family medical leave, ideas that have been discussed in the Democratic-led General Assembly but have yet to be broadly implemented. He has also called for speeding up planned increases in the state’s minimum wage, getting it to $15 per hour by 2024. With respect to labor organizing, McAuliffe wants to extend collective bargaining rights to state employees, but he has signaled Virginia’s right-to-work law won’t be repealed if he wins a second term.
Youngkin contends that’s not a sure bet, noting McAuliffe once indicated he would sign right-to-work repeal if it got to his desk.
With little room to attack Virginia’s business climate given the state’s top ranking from CNBC, Youngkin has zeroed in on cost-of-living issues and promises to cut tax bills. He has proposed doubling the standard deduction for state income taxes, one-time tax rebates, restrictions on “runaway property taxes” and eliminating the state’s grocery tax. Youngkin has also campaigned against business shutdowns tied to COVID-19.
Both campaigns have pushed out studies from their political allies claiming their opponents’ fiscal plans are mathematically untenable.
McAuliffe has said Youngkin’s tax policies, including the GOP nominee’s aspirations of eliminating the state income tax altogether, would inevitably blow up the state budget and bring major service cuts. Youngkin has claimed McAuliffe’s ambitious spending plans couldn’t be covered by existing revenues and could lead to tax hikes.
Youngkin’s campaign has made crime and police central to his general election campaign, arguing Democrats have made the state less safe with a slew of criminal justice reforms passed last year.
His campaign cites crime data that shows murders hit a 20-year high last year, though the same data shows the overall crime rate actually decreased and, in either case, the laws in question had largely not gone into effect yet.
Youngkin has said less about what he intends to do on the issue as governor. In addition to his promise to require a police officer in every school, he’s said he will fire the parole board, which was at the center of a contentious state Inspector General’s Office investigation into violations of rules and procedures in its release of a string of violent offenders. He also says he would “fully fund law enforcement,” though he has not elaborated on what that might entail.
McAuliffe, meanwhile, has laid out detailed plans to continue the criminal justice reform initiatives set in motion last year. That includes promises to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, hire more public defenders, fund police accreditation efforts and bring new rehabilitation programs to state prisons, including a nursery program for prisoners with newborn children.
And rather than fire the parole board, he says he hopes to expand access to parole, which the state abolished in 1995.
McAuliffe also backs banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines — a measure that has failed to muster enough Democratic support to pass the legislature. Youngkin has promised to roll back restrictions on firearms.
Both men say they support increased funding for community violence prevention programs. And both now say they oppose rolling back qualified immunity for police officers accused of misconduct — something McAuliffe said he supported during the primary but walked back during his first debate with Youngkin.
Any focus on health in Virginia’s governor’s race has largely boiled down to two issues: COVID-19 and abortion.
Publicly, McAuliffe and Youngkin have sparred over measures like masking and vaccinations, still key in efforts to bring an end to the pandemic. McAuliffe has supported a mandate to require masks in school buildings and released a plan to boost vaccination rates, including using federal rescue money to incentivize vaccine requirements by private employers.
Youngkin, on the other hand, has explicitly said “there should not be a statewide school mask mandate” in Virginia. He’s also opposed vaccine mandates, though he’s encouraged Virginians to get the shots voluntarily.
Abortion, too, has become a prominent campaign topic for McAuliffe since Texas effectively banned the procedure. Around the same time, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could present a serious challenge to Roe V. Wade, its landmark 1973 abortion rights decision. With access potentially under threat, Democrats have seized on the opportunity to emphasize the importance of individual state protections.
“I’ll say this again to every woman watching tonight — I will protect your rights,” McAuliffe said at one debate in September. He’s cited his own record in vetoing legislation that would have blocked funding to Planned Parenthood, and he’s supported recently passed measures that rolled back many of the state’s abortion restrictions. In one radio interview, he also said he wouldn’t have vetoed a controversial proposed bill from Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, that would have eased certain restrictions on late-term abortions (though Politifact described it as a flip-flop on previous statements).
Youngkin, for his part, has described himself as “unabashedly pro-life.” In debates, he’s said he would support the reinstatement of some abortion restrictions and a bill that would ban the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape and incest.
Other health issues haven’t gotten much airtime from either campaign, though McAuliffe has released plans to strengthen Medicaid, expand health care access and lower drug costs. Youngkin has supported investments in the state’s struggling mental health hospitals.
Climate change and sea level rise
McAuliffe has outlined a detailed plan for responding to climate change, quoting President Joe Biden’s statement that “climate change is the existential threat to humanity” and calling a transition to clean energy essential “to protect Virginians from the long-term threats of climate change.”
Youngkin meanwhile has walked a careful line on the subject, despite a broad scientific consensus that carbon emissions are a primary driver of climate change. During an October roundtable at Norfolk State University, Youngkin said that while he knew climate change is a challenge, particularly in Hampton Roads, he didn’t know what’s causing it. Asked if “humans play any role at all in the warming of the earth,” he skirted the question and called it “one of these topics that, candidly, people are trying to use to divide people.”
Both candidates have emphasized the need for funding to help combat sea level rise in Hampton Roads, which is experiencing the fastest rate of any city on the East Coast. Both have also touted the possibilities of a project that is pumping treated wastewater back into the Potomac aquifer to offset sinking land.
Youngkin has accused state government of not doing enough to help coastal regions address rising sea levels and pledged to put together an independent committee to raise funds and contract for projects in the region. He also praised a referendum Virginia Beach voters will face on Tuesday that would raise real estate taxes to pay for flood protection projects.
McAuliffe has said he’ll seek federal grant funding to help with the issue, prioritize restoration of wetlands that can serve as natural coastal protections and pursue a full coastal study of the state with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has been stalled at the federal level. He has also noted that in his prior term he was responsible for Virginia’s first steps toward joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate carbon market that puts a price on carbon emissions and then redistributes proceeds back to the states.
Since Virginia began participating in carbon auctions this year, it has generated $64 million earmarked by law for flood protection efforts.
Youngkin and McAuliffe flatly disagree on Virginia’s current course toward transitioning the electric grid away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
Youngkin said in a Sept. 28 debate that the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act is “unworkable” and that he wouldn’t have signed it. The law set a 2050 deadline for the grid to go carbon-free, mandated that Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy propose large amounts of solar and wind facilities, and imposed binding energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards on both utilities, among other provisions.
During an earlier debate on September 16, he said Virginia should “embrace all aspects of power generation — wind, solar, nuclear and our clean-burning natural gas” and warned that accelerating the transition to renewables would result in “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.” He also criticized the cost of shifting away from fossil fuels, saying it will increase customers’ electric bills by up to $1,000 annually. (State regulators agree that it will raise rates, but estimated a slightly lower rise of $800 a year.)
McAuliffe meanwhile has thrown his support behind the Clean Economy Act and said he would like to see the 2050 carbon-free deadline moved up to 2035.
In an issue brief on clean energy and climate change, he pledged to improve energy efficiency by raising the standards the state’s two largest electric utilities are mandated to meet, expand commercial and residential solar and accelerate transportation electrification. He also expressed support for redesigning parts of Virginia’s system of electric utility regulation to be more outcomes-based, calling for Virginia “to rebuild the incentive structures that drive” Appalachian Power and Dominion.
McAuliffe has repeatedly framed clean energy as a net positive for Virginia, saying that “when I think of clean energy, I think of jobs” and emphasizing the possibility of Hampton Roads becoming a hub for the offshore wind industry.
Throughout the campaign, McAuliffe has emphasized his role in restoring the voting rights of more than 173,000 people convicted of felonies, which he says is more than any other governor in the nation.
If reelected, he says he would go further and pursue a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights, which would bring Virginia in line with much of the rest of the nation.
Youngkin’s campaign has attacked McAuliffe’s efforts on voting rights, noting that the action also made it easier for ex-offenders to also have their firearms rights restored.
McAuliffe also says he would pursue additional protections for LGBTQ Virginians, including anti-bully legislation for students and repealing a so-called “conscience clause” that permits state-funded adoption agencies to refuse to serve LGBTQ people.
Youngkin has largely avoided weighing in on the issue, but told the Associated Press that he feels “called to love everyone.” However, pressed as to whether he intended to convey support for same-sex marriage, he said no. Youngkin’s staff then abruptly ended the interview.
Click here to read the original Virginia Mercury report.