McLEAN, Va. — In the closing days of the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Glenn Youngkin has used a now-familiar metaphor in his stump speech: He and former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe are each driving around the Beltway, with the former governor puttering along at 45 miles-per-hour, and Youngkin busting through the speed limit at 65.
Tuesday evening will show if he was able to catch him.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s election, Youngkin has been steadily gaining ground on McAuliffe in public and private polling. That’s despite the state’s overall blue tint — President Joe Biden carried Virginia by 10 points in 2020 — but in line with decades of political history, in which the party that wins the White House in the preceding election almost always loses the next year’s gubernatorial race.
Though it is an election to state office, the race is seen as a key bellwether halfway between Biden’s 2020 victory, and the crucial midterm elections next November. Polls in Virginia and nationally have shown a significant drop in public support for the president, whose party holds only slim majorities in Congress and is defending governorships in swing states in 2022.
Also on the ballot Tuesday is New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, whose bid for reelection is considered safer than Democrats’ hold on the governor’s office in Virginia. Voters in a handful of House districts in Florida and Ohio are choosing new members of Congress to replace incumbents who resigned or died earlier this year, and a number of cities, including New York, are picking new mayors on Tuesday.
In Virginia, McAuliffe has relentlessly tried to tie his Republican opponent to former President Donald Trump, who had endorsed Youngkin.
“I am running against, I like to say, Donald Trump in khakis or sweater vests,” McAuliffe told a crowd at a Richmond brewery on Monday, his second-to-last stop of the campaign.
And while Trump endorsed Youngkin, he never physically appeared in the state on behalf of Youngkin, as the candidate tried to walk a delicate line of hanging on to and energizing the former president’s most ardent supporters — while not spooking the large swath of suburbanites who fled the party in great numbers during Trump’s tenure in the White House.
The closest Trump came to appearing in the state was a brief tele-rally into which he dialed on Monday evening, which Youngkin did not attend — part of a “heads I win, tails you lose” strategy for the former president — after teasing a potential in-person visit last week. Trump called Youngkin a “fantastic guy” and encouraged his supporters to back him on the call and in a pair of statements on Monday.
Youngkin, meanwhile, has steered clear of Trump on the trail. At one of his final rallies on Monday at an airport on the border of the city of Richmond and the county of Chesterfield, an ancestrally Republican area that Biden carried in 2020, former President George W. Bush and his famous line on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” got a shoutout during an extended riff on education — but Trump went unmentioned.
That push on education, along with a focus on the economy and crime, has been the centerpiece of Youngkin’s campaign. He has cast himself as a bulwark against “critical race theory” — a legal theory that has become a catch-all for conservatives for how race is taught in school — pledged to raise academic standards and promised to support a push for more charter schools in the state.
“Virginians [are] pushing back on this culture that wants us to shelve hope, that tells our children they have to accept low standards,” Youngkin said in a campaign speech on Monday. “This is a moment for Virginans to push back on this left liberal progressive agenda and take our commonwealth back.”
It isn’t just the governor’s race up in Virginia, with two other statewide races. Democratic state Del. Hala Ayala and former Republican state Del. Winsome Sears are facing off to be lieutenant governor, and whoever wins will be the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia’s history. And longtime Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring is being challenged by Republican state Del. Jason Miyares.
Democrats are also fighting to maintain control of the lower chamber of the state legislature, where they have a narrow majority after flipping the House of Delegates in 2019.
The mechanics of this year’s race are also expected to look drastically different than previous governor’s elections: It’s the first off-year election in which every Virginian could choose to vote early in-person or via the mail if they wanted to. A Democratic-controlled state government drastically overhauled the state’s voting laws in 2020 to add these expansions.
A bit under 1.2 million voters cast ballots early or by mail before the election, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, a dramatic increase from the roughly 196,000 who did so in 2017, the last gubernatorial election under the old election rules. (It pales in comparison to the 2.8 million who voted early or via the mail during the 2020 election, the first election the options were available.)
Democrats are expected to stake out a lead from those early voters — McAuliffe claimed a “big lead” from those voters at his Richmond rally — and Youngkin’s goal would be to make up any lost ground with strong Election Day turnout. But there is still significant uncertainty surrounding those votes: Is early voting significantly expanding the electorate, or is it just cannibalizing voters that would have voted on Election Day anyway?
Virginia election officials have also tweaked how results will be reported this year. That could likely result in a frontloading of early and mail votes as opposed to them being the last votes counted at the end of the night — which could undercut conspiracy theories from Trump and his allies who seek to undermine confidence in the election. It could also result in what appears to be an early and major lead for McAuliffe, but incomplete tallies won’t be determinative until both Election Day and pre-Nov. 2 voting are reported.
Trump and other conservatives have repeatedly said he doesn’t trust the election in Virginia this year, a continuation of the former president’s falsehoods about the 2020 election. But Youngkin has said that he believes this year’s election will be fair, and both candidates have pledged to accept the results.