The Virginia gubernatorial election has shaped up to be one of the most competitive races of 2021.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are facing off in a state that has trended blue in recent years.
Insider spoke with voters and experts about key groups that will drive the election outcome.
On Tuesday, Virginians will decide whether to make a wealthy political newcomer their next leader or give their former governor his old job back.
Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are in the closing days of a fiercely competitive and unpredictable race that has galvanized the Commonwealth.
Youngkin, the former co-chief executive of the private equity firm Carlyle Group, and McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, have divergent visions of where they'd like to take Virginia, on everything from business and education to health care and criminal justice.
It has been over a decade since a Republican has won a statewide election in Virginia. Since 2012, voters have consistently elected Democrats at the state and national levels, but they could buck the trend this time around as McAuliffe and Youngkin have been deadlocked in most of the final polls in the leadup to the election.
Virginia's expanded early voting ended on Saturday with more than 1.1 million ballots cast, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan organization tracking the state's politics.
"Turnout is going to be critical in this election. Now, the good news is that we are in a period of very high turnout," Brandy S. Faulkner, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, told Insider. "It's going to make a big difference given that the candidates are really neck and neck at this point."
The outcome of the race may ultimately be determined by key groups of the electorate, including undecided and independent voters, minorities, and young voters. Insider spoke with voters and experts ahead of what's shaping up to be a test of the Democratic Party's electoral durability in a state that President Joe Biden won by a 10-point margin last fall.
Across Virginia's populous suburbs, especially in northern Virginia and the Richmond metropolitan area, and in defense-rich Hampton Roads, elections have largely been lost or won by the hundreds of thousands of voters who don't hold a firm allegiance to either party.
In this year's gubernatorial election, many of these independents, who fueled Democratic gains in recent cycles, are up for grabs, with many already showing a reception to Youngkin's messaging around economic issues.
"What we see from the data so far is that those who have been undecided or have classified themselves as Independent are leaning towards Youngkin," Faulkner told Insider. "Given the nature of Virginia politics, that is what most of us would have expected."
In the latest Washington Post-Schar School poll, McAuliffe led Youngkin by a slim 49%-48% margin among likely voters - the survey had a margin of error of 4%. But the Republican enjoyed an 18-point lead with independents.
While many observers may be surprised with Youngkin's polling strength with independents, given the solid base of conservative support in the state, along with its not-too-distant history of electing Republicans across state government, Virginia's competitive nature in gubernatorial elections never went away.
"It's definitely inaccurate to classify Virginia as solidly blue," Faulkner said. "I think what many people were basing that on is the way that Virginia has voted in presidential elections over the past few years, but our state politics have been different. There is an ebb and flow, a back and forth, that goes on."
For generations, Black voters have played a pivotal role in Virginia elections, and while the journey to gain full representation has been fraught, the electoral gains have resulted in some of the most momentous electoral victories in US history.
In recent elections, Black voters have generally made up roughly 20 percent of the electorate. Black residents comprise of a large share of the population in Richmond and its surrounding suburbs, along with Hampton Roads and Southside Virginia, and have become a growing part of the electorate in the influential northern Virginia suburbs.
In 1989, Black voters powered L. Douglas Wilder's ascension to the Executive Mansion, making him the first popularly elected Black governor in the nation. And after decades of Republican dominance on the presidential level, Black voters pushed the state Democratic for former President Barack Obama during his successful 2008 and 2012 campaigns in the Commonwealth - with the trend continuing for McAuliffe in 2013, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017, and Biden in 2020.
However, 2020 marked a huge shift in the way in which many voters thought about governance and equality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. For years, Black Americans watched as racial reconciliation was treated as a third rail in politics in many quarters, and calls for progress that were once ignored were now suddenly taken seriously.
Black voters, who have long been rooted in collective political activism, may have overwhelmingly backed McAuliffe eight years ago against a deeply conservative challenger, former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, but the onetime governor also defeated two high-profile Black female candidates in this year's gubernatorial primary.
While those candidates, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, quickly threw their support behind McAuliffe, some Black legislators and voters opined that it was time for a new generation of leadership.
With Black turnout playing a definitive role in whether McAuliffe heads back to Richmond, any small crack in support will matter.
Dr. Julian Maxwell Hayter, a historian and associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, told Insider that the importance of the Black vote, especially in a Southern state like Virginia, cannot be understated.
"I think Georgia demonstrated that African-American votes still matter," he said. "Virginia demonstrated this in the last several years, and North Carolina demonstrated it in Barack Obama's first bid for the presidency. If Black people show up, things change, and people know it."
He emphasized: "African-Americans have exerted a disproportionate amount of influence, especially in relation to their population statistics, on American political imagination. And we still do."
In recent weeks, McAuliffe has also brought in a range of prominent Black surrogates to help him make the case for his return to state politics, as Faulker, the Virginia Tech professor, remarked to Insider.
"What we see right now is significant outreach to the Black community," she said. "It certainly made the difference for McAuliffe in 2013 and he is hoping that it's going to make the difference again. It's why he's leaned so heavily on Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris, and Keisha Lance Bottoms among others."
One in 10 Virginians is Latino, representing the fastest-growing minority group in the state, according to the US Census Bureau. For the candidates, Latinos represent a sizable share of the electorate who could tip the election in their favor.
The tight polling numbers show "where the Latino community could really flex some of its political muscle," Canek Aguirre, an Alexandria City Council member who co-chairs McAuliffe's Latino outreach campaign, told Insider.
"We can be extremely crucial in getting those last points to make sure that McAuliffe gets across the finish line," Aguirre, who's Mexican American, continued.
Latino voters, who are largely concentrated in northern Virginia, typically lean Democratic. In 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won their vote by 38 percentage points; Northam won the group by 35 percentage points in his successful 2017 campaign and now-President Joe Biden carried the group by 25 percentage points last year.
Democrats are confident that the community will back McAuliffe, whose campaign has tried to engage voters through efforts like in-person events and Spanish-language media ads. The party has touted its recent policy achievements, including expanding Medicaid to over 500,000 residents, making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition, and establishing a driver's credential for undocumented immigrants, to bolster support.
"All of these things we will continue to do and expand upon once McAuliffe is in office," Aguirre said.
"Democrats have been delivering on issues, not just for the Latino community, but for the commonwealth as a whole," he continued. "I would challenge anyone to tell me what the Republican party has done for Latinos in the commonwealth in the last 10 years, because outside derogatory messaging and really vitriolic policies, I couldn't really tell you what the Republican Party has done."
For Carmen Elena Oatway, a Mexican American voter in Virginia, it was former President Donald Trump's racist language that drove her away from the GOP.
"I don't like my son to grow up and think that he has to hide his Mexican part," Elena Oatway, whose husband is white, told Insider. "I want him to be proud. That's why I choose the Democrats. I used to be a Republican, but no more."
Elena Oatway said she voted for McAuliffe because she doesn't "want a 'Trumplican'" to lead her state, referring to Youngkin, who has tried to distance himself from Trump while at the same time embracing some of his rhetoric.
Although the bulk of the Latino vote went for Biden last November, Trump's support among the group in Virginia surged by 6 percentage points in 2020 compared to 2016. And Republicans feel confident that they can peel off more of those votes this year.
"People within the Hispanic community, they've now realized that we need change and that they're stepping out of their traditional comfort zone," Yesli Vega, a Prince William County Supervisor who chairs Youngkin's Latino coalition, told Insider. "We're absolutely going to see a large number of people that in the past traditionally voted Democrat are now going to be supporting Glenn."
Part of the coalition's outreach includes hosting rallies and virtual meetings as well as speaking directly with Latino voters to hear their concerns.
Besides the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, education has emerged as a top voter priority, according to multiple polls. Vega, a Salvadoran American who has two school-aged children, said the most important issue to her, and many other Latinos, is education.
Virginia's culture wars have seeped into the gubernatorial race as Youngkin's campaign has elevated hot-button issues like "critical race theory" that are flaring up in local school board meetings. Republican officials and far-right figures have seized on the theory, which generally refers to an academic framework to study systemic racism in the US, calling it divisive.
Youngkin has promised to ban CRT from K-12 schools on his first day in office, despite school officials in Virginia saying the theory is not part of their curriculum. Still, the Republican candidate's messaging has resonated with conservative parents, like Vega, who believe they should have a greater say over what's being taught to their kids.
"As a mother, I absolutely have an obligation - a duty - to be involved in the education of my children," Vega said.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, has decried Youngkin's stance as a "racist dog whistle."
The young voter turnout rate in Virginia for the 2020 presidential election was among the highest in the country at 56%, beating the national average of 50%, according to data from Tufts University. The rate also reached historic levels in the 2018 midterms, and nearly doubled between the gubernatorial races in 2009 and 2017.
Young voters - particularly those of color - went overwhelmingly for Democrats last year and helped power Biden's victory in the state. In the 2017 gubernatorial race, 69% of them chose Democrat Ralph Northam, opposed to 30% who supported his Republican rival, Ed Gillespie.
Overall turnout in an off-year election is usually lower and young voters are less likely to head to the polls than other demographics. Young voters aged 18-29 made up roughly 6.2% of the early vote in this election, according to Democratic polling data firm TargetSmart.
Anuj Kotak, a 20-year-old voter from Richmond who studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where McAuliffe rallied with former President Barack Obama last weekend, told Insider that he reminds his friends to vote every year.
"Maybe we can only have a minor impact," he said, "but I don't think we're allowed to complain if we don't put any effort into change."
Kotak said he voted for McAuliffe because the former governor is the candidate who will continue to push Virginia on a steady, progressive track. Also, he doesn't think Youngkin is qualified for the state's highest office.
"I've always believed candidates without prior political experience are unprepared for governing, and Youngkin will surely follow President Trump's footsteps in that regard," Kotak said.
Felipe Borja, a 24-year-old master's student from Blacksburg, also cast his vote for McAuliffe in part because he's taken strong policy positions on reproductive rights and marijuana legalization, whereas Youngkin has campaigned on "fear-mongering."
"The critical race theory issue is nonsense. It's a bunch of word salad," Borja told Insider.
But the major reason Borja, who identifies as a left-leaning independent, supported McAuliffe is because he's not Youngkin.
"If Glenn Youngkin is not a Trumpy, why doesn't he speak out against the moral rot that Trump brought to the country?" Borja said.
"The thing that most matters most to me is that Virginia is a multicultural place of diverse experiences and peoples, and I don't think Youngkin appreciates that," he added.
Still, if young people fail to turn out, their lack of participation could potentially spur a victory for Youngkin. Last year, Trump only carried Virginians who are age 65 and older. However, according to the most recent data, this age group made up nearly 47% of the state's early vote.
The youth "will turn out if they're engaged," Amanda Wintersieck, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said during the department's recent panel discussion on the election. "We have seen efforts by both political parties to engage young voters with more or less success."
Young Republicans and Democrats are trying to get out the vote for this election cycle by phone-banking and canvassing for their preferred candidate. Both campaigns have made stops at universities across the state in an effort to gain support among younger Virginians.
Yet Youngkin appears to have been more effective in targeting the age bloc, according to Wintersieck.
"If you look at the last couple weeks, you've seen a lot of political ads from both Youngkin and McAuliffe specifically targeting young people, attempting to motivate them to show up to vote," Wintersieck said. "But what it seems is that's been fairly ineffective, particularly on the Democratic side."
"McAuliffe is really struggling and he is struggling because he is not coming to young voters with the issues they care most about - issues like climate change, issues like racial justice, issues like gun control, and what he would do on those issues in the state," she added.
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