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Virginia gubernatorial hopefuls face off in first debate

While both campaigns claimed victory at the end of the night, neither candidate offered clear answers on some of the debate's toughest questions.

GRUNDY, Va. (CN) — Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe squared off against businessman Glenn Youngkin Thursday night in the first gubernatorial debate ahead of Virginia’s highly anticipated November election.

McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is hoping to become one of a handful of Virginia Governors who will serve a second term in a state where consecutive terms are banned. He was the first Democratic gubernatorial win in Virginia after backlash to the state’s conservative GOP majority saw Democrats sweep all three state-wide seats in 2013.

Youngkin, former CEO of the Carlyle Group, has used his millions to buff his image as the businessman who can help pull Virginia out of its post-pandemic slump. Endorsed by former president Donald Trump shortly after he won the primary in May, Youngkin has since distanced himself from the social issues which saw the GOP lose power in the increasingly diversifying DC suburb and has instead harped on his economic chops. 

Polls have shown the two candidates neck and neck, but Trump lost the state by 10 points in 2020 after Democrats took over the state House as part of the 2017 blue wave. And while McAuliffe is often credited with running Virginia successfully despite GOP efforts in the House, Youngkin has attacked him as bowing to the state’s more progressive wings; most loudly in the ongoing debate over rolling back the state’s union-busting right to work law, something the former governor has been unclear on. 

Youngkin, meanwhile, has been dogged for his mixed record with Carlyle, and off-the-cuff comments about his interest in, but fear of discussing publicly, the roll back of abortion rights. 

And as murky as the attack ads have been between candidates, clarity remained out of reach on some of these issues Thursday night. 

"I encourage all Virginians to get the vaccine,” said Youngkin when asked about President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate and whether he’d encourage businesses to defy the order as other GOP governors have. He also suggested healthcare workers should make their own decisions about vaccinations, even if they are treating those with coronavirus as it sweeps through the conservative southwestern corner of the state where the debate was held. 

"They fought the spread with testing, not mandates. I respect your ability to make decisions,” he said. “My opponent wants to make life difficult for those who don't get it."

“Being the governor is a hard job,” McAuliffe said, saying he supported vaccine mandates for all public sector jobs and healthcare workers, as well as adding vaccine requirements for public school students once a vaccine is properly approved. 

“I am for mandating the vaccine,” he said. 

When asked about the state’s struggling unemployment system as millions of claims piled up during the pandemic, McAuliffe promised to fix the agency responsible, but said economic recovery through supporting businesses would be the first step. 

“My first goal will be to get folks off unemployment,” he said.

Youngkin called the state’s vaccine rollout a failure, though Virginia has a 58% fully vaccinated rate against the national average of 54%. 

He blamed Democrats for the failed unemployment response: “This is what you get when you put these people into jobs when they've never run a business in their life.”

On abortion, Youngkin said he wouldn’t sign a bill like what Texas recently passed, calling the effort unclear and hard to enforce. And while he said he wouldn’t outlaw abortion in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother was in danger, he failed to clearly answer if he would support a “fetal heartbeat” bill as other Republican governors have. 

"I support the abortion laws we have on the books today,” said McAuliffe when asked about his abortion stance. “I'm scared of Trump's Supreme Court; I'd enshrine Roe v. Wade into Virginia law."

Both candidates said they wouldn’t ban qualified immunity, the protection afforded police officers in civil rights disputes. 

“If you have a law enforcement officer who breaks the law, that's why we have qualified immunity, you have to qualify,” the Democrat said, before pushing back on Youngkin’s claims that he’d defund police. “When I was governor, I got raises for law enforcement and state police.”

“Across the state we have a police funding and moral problem,” said Youngkin before claiming the state was more dangerous than ever. He too promised to increase police funding. 

And while the Republican said he’d block any effort to roll back right to work, McAuliffe failed to answer the same question clearly, instead promising to raise the minimum wage and “help workers.” 

After noting Trump was no longer in office, McAuliffe was asked why he continues to associate Youngkin with the former president in attack ads.

"Youngkin said Trump was the reason he ran, he inserted [Trump],” he said, pointing to early interviews with Youngkin where he admitted as much. He also noted the Republican hired former Trump adviser Steve Moor to be his economic advisor. “He's following Trump's policies.” 

Youngkin argued critical race theory, a hot topic in conservative circles which often inaccurately reflects the complex legal theory about the impact race has had on the nation’s history, was being taught in schools, something the moderators questioned. 

McAuliffe called Youngkin’s CRT comments a “dog whistle.”

In closing arguments Youngkin claimed McAuliffe was lying about him throughout the hour-long debate. He said Democrats over taxed and regulated Virginia when McAuliffe was governor and the schools were failing after being “sold out to the teachers' unions.” 

"Covid's tough,” McAuliffe offered in closing, hinting at a similar effort used by California Governor Gavin Newsom who used support for coronavirus mandates as a key to overcoming his recall bid.  

“We need someone  who has done this job before,” the former governor said.

While both campaigns claimed victory at the end of the night, University of Mary Washington Political Science Professor Stephan Farnsworth thought neither offered much for the voters. 

“The left is going to be disappointed with McAuliffe’s answer on right to work and the right is going to be disappointed with Youngkin’s answer on abortion,” he said of the politicians’ efforts to dodge the toughest questions of the night. “Both of these guys are very clear about questions they’re not going to answer and that means voters have to make a decision without knowing the full story.”

Other politicos were less kind to Youngkin, especially in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“I'm willing to bet Youngkin loses more swing votes by being anti-mandate than he would lose from the Trump base if he were pro-mandate,” tweeted Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. 

Virginians will have the final say as the polls open tomorrow and close on Nov. 2.

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