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Virginia’s governor race heats up with less than a month left

Both candidates have struggled to walk the line between the center and their bases as low turnout is expected in one of the nation's few state-wide 2021 races.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Critical race theory, dead children, horse de-wormer and Taylor Swift: Virginia’s off-year elections include a myriad of topics with the hope of inspiring voters ahead of Election Day where the fate of the once-purple state’s governor’s office hangs in the balance.

With less than a month left Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin and Democratic former Governor and party fundraiser Terry McAuliffe continue to be neck-and-neck in polling. Politicos argue getting out the base will be key to winning, but whether they're doing so is up for debate. 

A recent Saturday morning in Henrico County featured a packed house for the Henrico GOP’s final breakfast meeting before Election Day. Conservative commentator Kenny Xu, a native of the area, spoke about critical race theory and took question for about 45 minutes. He argued race-based equity efforts in public schools — from the alleged teaching of CRT to administrative diversity training programs — were harming Virginia’s students. 

“It’s a new death of excellence and it's eating children alive,” Xu said as the room nodded in agreement.

There’s no record of CRT being taught in a Virginia school system, but that hasn’t stopped Youngkin from asking voters what role parents should have in their children's education. 

“Too bad,” the Republican tweeted out. “Terry McAuliffe says you have to sit down and shut up.”

The attack follows his Democratic opponent saying “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” when asked about CRT in schools.

“Parents find it obtuse when they’re being taught their six-year-old is racist and they can pick their own gender pronouns,” said the Virginia-based conservative commentator Shaun Kenney about the backlash McAuliffe and school systems have faced.

“It might be the one issue that has galvanized opposition against McAuliffe,” he added. 

Later that Saturday, in a driveway in downtown Richmond, McAuliffe stumped with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. The city was packed as street festivals and a pro-abortion rights Women’s March filled nearby roads, but the small crowd didn’t stop McAuliffe from utilizing his brand of high energy electioneering. 

“If you go back eight years, our economy was in chaos [and] we had the most anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-environment, pro-gun legislation in the nation,” he hollered to the crowd about his first term as governor when he vetoed a record number of GOP efforts. 

McAuliffe opened his event with a speech from campaign organizer Anthony Belotti.

The activist made headlines when he spoke before his local school board advocating for transgender rights and offered a contrast to Youngkin who’s rejected LGBTQ inclusive policies in public schools.

“With McAuliffe running the state I’m sure we’ll see promises of LGBTQ inclusion expand,” the activist said from the podium. 

Virginia’s gradual but persistent shift to the left has left the GOP without a state-wide win since 2009, and former President Donald Trump lost the state in 2020 by 10 points. But both candidates have publicly shifted toward the center in the hopes of reigning in the much desired suburban vote.

Kenney noted Youngkin’s slide to the middle has left some of those on the right wanting, especially after he rejected an endorsement from the NRA and said he supports abortion in certain circumstances.

Meanwhile McAuliffe has shied away from controversial topics like the state’s right to work law and roll backs to cop-protecting qualified immunity.

“Both seem afraid to lock horns on policy and I’m not sure if that serves the voters of Virginia at the end of the day,” Kenney said.

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But McAuliffe has found a sword to wield against his opponent: coronavirus vaccinations. 

“There’s not one single good reason to not be vaccinated,” he said under the warming October sun, noting Youngkin said he was “frustrated” with universities’ vaccine mandates and urged students to use the waiver system and “fix it later.” 

And Covid might be a winning strategy; the state claims over 80% of those eligible have received at least one jab, and but those under 19 make up almost 20% of the state’s current cases, and two children died of the virus at the start of the month.   

“There’s a lot of voters in Virginia who have played by the rules, gotten their vaccines and tried to minimize the impact of Covid,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “If things start to get bad in schools in the next few weeks it's going to be bad for anyone who is lite on Covid protections.” 

Meanwhile, down ballot GOP candidates aren’t making Youngkin’s claims of liberty from a vaccine mandate any less controversial. 

“The CDC, the FDA and insurance companies are the most corrupt organizations in this country and they need to be completely dismantled,” said Sheila Furey, a Republican House of Delegates candidate, from the podium during the Henrico GOP event. She also praised “life saving ivermectin,” a anti-parasite drug used in farm animals but since embraced by conservative anti-vaccine advocates, to a round of roaring applause. 

“How much horse de-wormer or defunding of the police do you tolerate while still trying to convince suburban moms your interests are their interests?” Kenney asked about both candidate’s efforts to appeal to their base while the fringes fight to be heard. 

But those coronavirus concerns could be a double edged sword for the Democrat — fears about the pandemic are keeping some Democratic activists at home when McAuliffe and his allies down ballot need them knocking on doors. 

Among those sitting this year out is Marc Cheatham. He runs a Richmond-based blog called the Cheats Movement aimed at uplifting the Black community, often with a stress on activism and politics. But when asked why he hasn’t posted in months, he offered one word: Covid. 

“It’s been difficult to get engaged in this cycle cause I’ve got a 7-year-old son who can’t get vaccinated so we, as a family, made the decision not to enter a lot of public places,” said Cheatham. 

And Covid remains a top concern for voters, partially because so many of them — almost 75% — know someone who’s caught it. How that plays out for those like Cheatham is pretty simple: “Neither candidate can put a pause on this pandemic, but leadership sets a tone.”

In his eyes, comments from Youngkin, including respecting “people's ability to express their liberty, to say, ‘No, I'm not going to get this vaccine for whatever reason,’” paint a grim picture that he and other voters like him will push back on in the ballot box. 

As for CRT, Cheatham argues it's a racist dog whistle used to rile up the base. 

“There’s about 14 other issues that matter more to your average African American voter,” he said. “[Republicans] know it's an issue that gets white people worked up.” 

McAuliffe, meanwhile, has found his own way to tap into an usually absent and younger voter base: Taylor Swift. 

In a new digital ad buy targeted at fans of the singer, the Democrat is pointing to Youngkin’s time as head of the Carlyle Group and the company’s links to music producer Scooter Braun. Braun and Swift had a public fight over the rights to the pop stars music, and now McAuliffe is hoping to remind voters about Youngkin’s tertiary role in the dispute. 

Whether or not the pop star plays a part in Virginia’s gubernatorial fight is yet to be seen, but both Democratic and Republican politicos argue without a jazzed up Republican base it's McAuliffe's race to lose. 

“I think it’ll be lower turn out, and you’ll look at a map of the state and you’ll see who won: McAuliffe after he gets all of Northern Virginia,” said Cheatham of the increasingly diverse and Democratic DC suburb.

“Packed rooms are a good sign no matter where you go,” Kenney said of the Henrico GOP’s standing-room-only event. “But the demographics in Virginia haven’t gotten any better for Republicans overall.”

The last day for Virginians to vote is Nov. 2.

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