Virginia's Republican candidate for governor tries to thread needle on COVID vaccines

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·Chief National Correspondent
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The Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, issued a challenge of sorts this week to his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, inviting him to film a joint public service announcement promoting vaccination against COVID-19.

It was a ploy that could be clever, but maybe too clever by half.

Certainly Youngkin’s gambit had the benefit of being an appeal for bipartisan cooperation that could spur an increase in vaccination. He has also run a TV ad in which he says, “I chose to get the COVID vaccine. It's your right to make your own choice, and I respect that. I do hope you’ll choose to join me in getting the vaccine.”

Glenn Youngkin
Glenn Youngkin, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But on closer inspection, Youngkin’s play was also a way to brush past the complicated matter of vaccine mandates, which the Republican opposes. And that opposition may not play well in northern Virginia, home to the commonwealth’s affluent, populous suburbs near Washington.

Sure enough, Youngkin’s pro-vaccine ad is playing only in northern Virginia, largely unavailable to viewers in more rural and conservative parts of the state where vaccine skepticism runs higher.

Vaccine mandates have become more complicated, and more political, since President Biden announced last week that the federal government would mandate vaccines for all federal employees, federal contractors, and health care workers who work for a facility that receives federal funding. The government mandate also requires all those who work for a company with 100 or more employees to either get a COVID vaccine or undergo weekly testing for the virus.

At a time when the Delta variant continues to rage in much of the country, the issue of leadership on public health is moving to the front of the electorate’s mind again, as was on display in the California recall election this week.

Republican governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have struggled somewhat in recent months to be both pro-vaccine and inflexibly anti-mandate. Both governors have overseen states hard hit by Delta, leading to criticism of their approaches in confronting the virus.

Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images)

But Abbott and DeSantis also have the political advantage of running states that are considerably more conservative than Virginia, which hasn’t elected a Republican statewide since 2009 and has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 2008. Recent polls show McAuliffe leading Youngkin, although the Democrat’s lead appears less than insurmountable roughly seven weeks out from the election.

Even before Biden's announcement a week ago, however, Youngkin — a former private equity CEO — was unequivocally opposed to mandates. He told reporters two weeks ago that he would reverse the mandate by current Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, that covers state employees.

“I believe that people should have the ability to decide whether they get the vaccine or not. And again, we don’t have to have mandates from on high, from a mansion in Richmond ... [to] tell 8.5 million Virginians what to do every day,” Youngkin said.

People arrive to receive Covid-19 vaccinations
People wait to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at a clinic in Fairfax, Va. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

The Republican speaks vigorously about his personal enthusiasm for COVID vaccines. “I am a strong, strong proponent of people getting the vaccine. I have gotten the vaccine. It was a decision that I made. My family has gotten the vaccine,” Youngkin, who is married and has four children, said earlier this month. “It was a decision we made because we know that’s the best way to stay safe. And I am encouraging people in every corner of the state to please go get the vaccine.”

But when asked why he would oppose a COVID vaccine mandate — particularly when states require children to be vaccinated against numerous other illnesses — Youngkin struggled some to articulate his message.

“There’s lots of difference in those vaccines,” he said of vaccines mandated for schoolchildren. “So I think we have to recognize ... [the COVID-19 vaccine] is a vaccine that people don’t fully, fully understand yet. We haven’t done a good job educating people on it. And actually, I think it is incumbent on government to actually educate and make available and go into communities with low vaccination rates.”

Youngkin did not elaborate as to how he would educate Virginians about the vaccine in a different way, or how he would combat misinformation that now plays a powerful role in shaping public opinion, often through poorly vetted sources who promote discredited or unfounded fears through social media.

McAuliffe didn’t accept Youngkin’s invitation to do a PSA encouraging vaccination. The Democrat, who was governor from 2013 to 2017, released a plan for getting all Virginians vaccinated earlier the same day that Youngkin sent out his challenge to do the PSA.

Terry McAuliffe
Former Virginia Gov. and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I have a real plan, Glenn. Not a gimmick like the one you launched to paper over the fact that you've been spreading anti-vaxx rhetoric,” McAuliffe tweeted. “Here's an idea: join me in calling for vaccine requirements so we can end this virus once and for all. Step up Glenn.”

Youngkin responded: “Bipartisanship that will save lives isn’t a gimmick, Terry. Sad that you think that way.” McAuliffe ended the exchange by saying that if Youngkin would promote vaccine mandates with religious and medical exceptions, he’d do the PSA. He proposed they film it in Grundy, Va., situated in the state’s Republican-leaning southwest corner.

The two candidates will hold their first televised debate Thursday evening. The election will be held on Nov. 2.


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