McAuliffe pivots to public education in an effort to stem tide of Youngkin momentum

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In the closing weeks of their closely watched Virginia gubernatorial race, Terry McAuliffe is going after Glenn Youngkin on unlikely ground — public education — as he tries to reverse the Republican's surprisingly strong challenge.

Why it matters: McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats are in danger of losing a bellwether election in a must-have presidential state. He's brought in President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Obama as his own efforts to make the race a referendum on Donald Trump have faltered.

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  • By focusing on education, McAuliffe is trying to shift the debate on a topic that resonates especially with pivotal suburban women.

  • The past and would-be future governor is warning parents that plans pushed by Youngkin will quietly cut thousands of teaching jobs — and this should be a bigger concern than the tonality of lesson plans around systemic racism.

  • “Listen, he’s got an economic plan that 43,000 teachers will be cut. $10 billion hole in education. So, I want to rebuild, and that's what I'm excited to do,” McAuliffe said about Youngkin.

Youngkin rapid response director Christian Martinez said in a statement, “All-talk, no-action career politician Terry McAuliffe has been exposed for rolling out the same old failed promises, failed policies and misleading lines of attack that he’s been repeating for 12 years."

  • "Virginians have taken notice and are overwhelmingly throwing their support behind a new kind of leader in Glenn Youngkin."

Driving the news: Axios caught up with McAuliffe on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a deadly 2017 rally by white supremacists marked an early low point in the Trump administration.

  • Joe Biden says it also provided the spark for him to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential race.

  • Despite his own efforts to tie Youngkin to Trump, McAuliffe said, "You know, I don't think y'all should be putting all this national stuff on me. I'm just trying to run this little governor's race here in the capital of Virginia.”

  • Youngkin himself told Axios during a similar interview last month, “I brought together Forever-Trumpers and Never-Trumpers, sitting in the same audience, excited about what we're doing."

What they’re saying: The issue raised most frequently by McAuliffe during an early vote rally was education. His would-be constituents signaled they're concerned about the nation’s overall division and lack of respect for basic facts and educational principles.

  • Ginny Craven, 63, a freelance writer from the Charlottesville area, told Axios: “It’s Earth One and Earth Two" between Democrats and Republicans.

  • “It’s definitely polarized, and you know, perhaps it's getting worse,” said John Ballen, 62. “It comes down to education.”

Between the lines: The race in Virginia is tight, and it was clear the McAuliffe campaign has taken on an air of tension — bordering on panic.

  • McAuliffe cut off one television interview last week, and his staff told Axios a planned 20-minute interview — which they had requested following the Axios interview with Youngkin — was being limited to five minutes.

  • McAuliffe himself got agitated as Axios asked him about his efforts to tie Youngkin to Trump.

  • “I’m not tying — he’s tying himself. He said, ‘I'm honored to receive his endorsement, so much of the reason why I'm running is because of Donald Trump.’ I’m not tying him; he is.”

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