Voters turned out in large numbers to cast their ballot in the Virginia governor’s election on Tuesday, a contest that will serve as key barometer of US voter sentiment a year after Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the race for the White House.
Reports from some counties pointed to record turnout for a governor’s election in the state, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe is running against Republican Glenn Youngkin, the former co-chief executive of the private equity group Carlyle.
Virginia is one of two states holding a governor’s race in an “off-year” election, and Democrats and Republicans alike are looking to the outcome as an electoral bellwether ahead of next year’s midterms, when control of both houses of the US Congress are up for grabs.
The result in Virginia will also be seen as a referendum on Biden’s first year in the White House at a time when the president’s approval ratings are sinking while Democrats on Capitol Hill remain locked in a months-long internal party battle over his legislative agenda.
McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and ally of the Clintons who served one term as Virginia’s governor from 2013 to 2017, entered the contest as the frontrunner, in part because Biden defeated Trump in Virginia just a year ago by a healthy 10-point margin.
However, the final average of statewide polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight showed McAuliffe trailing a point behind Youngkin, a political novice who swept to prominence with a campaign that focused on traditional Republican issues such as lower taxes and funding the police as well as the “culture wars”.
Several surveys suggested Youngkin had made inroads with independent voters, a group that had turned sour on the Republican party when Trump was in the White House.
For decades, the newly elected US president’s party has lost the Virginia governor’s race, with one exception: McAuliffe was elected in 2013, a year after Barack Obama’s re-election.
Biden, who last week campaigned with McAuliffe, struck an optimistic tone on Tuesday evening during his final news conference in Scotland at the COP26 climate summit, telling reporters: “I think we’re gonna win in Virginia.”
“The race is very close,” he added. “So it’s about who shows up, who turns out.”
More than 1.1m Virginians voted early, either by mail or in person, according to data compiled by the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project.
The McAuliffe campaign tried to tie Youngkin, who had never run for political office, to Trump, who was unpopular in Virginia’s densely-populated suburban areas outside Washington.
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 again embrace the party’s platform.
Youngkin focused 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 US 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 also 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 rightwing supporters. Trump 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.
In New Jersey, the one other US state holding a governor’s election this year, the Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy is expected to secure re-election, 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.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington and Christine Zhang in New York
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