S1: If you ask me the process of running for governor in Virginia, it seems to have been designed to make politicos nervous. Here’s why. Since the mid 1800s, Virginia has held off year gubernatorial elections. That means a couple of things. First, there’s no drafting off some popular presidential nominee or superstar senator. You’ve got to build your own coalition. Second, since there aren’t that many other elections to talk about, this race is guaranteed to get a ton of attention. And because the northern tip of this state is nestled right next to Washington, D.C., you can’t hide from the political strategists and journalists who are looking to divine meaning from your electorate this year. The final gubernatorial debate It was hosted not by some local television anchor or the host of a public radio call-in show.
S2: Good evening, I’m Chuck Todd, and welcome to the Virginia gubernatorial debate between Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.
S1: Instead, it was hosted by Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press. It is one.
S3: Get that out of the way,
S2: we know you’re enjoying both. And with that, let’s begin Mr. Youngkin, your 90 second opening statement.
S1: The people on the stage that night were Democrat Terry McAuliffe. He served as governor of Virginia for years back. And Republican Glenn Youngkin. He has never been elected to anything, but weirdly it’s working for him.
S4: There’s huge amounts of people turning up to Youngkin rallies. So we’re seeing this kind of energy on the right.
S1: Ben Paviour is covering this race for VPM in Richmond. And when I asked him to compare that Republican energy to what’s been happening with the Dems, he said this.
S4: There’s a group of very plugged in Democrats who are very concerned about that and are very activated on this election. I think there’s a lot of people who are tired by the last four years, five years and have tuned this one out a little bit, especially on the left.
S1: That apathy is giving Democrats hives, especially because they are playing defense. When was the last time a Republican won statewide office in Virginia?
S4: Two thousand nine.
S1: So 11 like 12 years? Yes. Do you think of Virginia as a swing state?
S4: Hmm. This election, I guess, is putting that theory to a test if Republicans can’t win this year, and maybe that’s the final sort of stamp of death on swing state status for Virginia.
S1: Some would also say maybe Republicans are due for a win.
S4: You could also say that, yeah, I think they have never quite had their stars aligned as well as they do this year.
S1: But today on the show, Virginia’s gubernatorial election is under the microscope. We’ll talk about why I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Part of the reason you’re hearing so much about this Virginia governor’s race is that for the last decade or so, there’s been a story. Political people have told themselves about this state. It goes like this. Suburban voters have been turning against ugly Republican talking points. And as a result, an increasingly diverse and urbane place like Virginia is getting popular and popular.
S5: It was an historic night in Virginia tonight where Democrats have won control of the statehouse in the state Senate for the first time in the twenty first century.
S1: It’s just two years back. Democrats were celebrating an immense victory that flipped the State House of Delegates and the state Senate. The governor and both senators were Dems, too. It seemed like a turning point.
S6: You’re not really looking at a swing state anymore, Lawrence. You’re looking at a blue state. Yeah, and that is.
S1: But Ben Paviour? He says the tight margins in this year’s gubernatorial contest. They’ve made some people start to question this logic.
S4: The polls have become closer and closer. McAuliffe has, I think, around a three point edge in the average of polls.
S1: That seems like it’s almost the margin of error.
S4: Exactly. It, I think, is really going to come down to turnout. And so what we’re seeing is both candidates really trying to gin up enthusiasm. Make sure people know there’s an election and just get them to the polls. The national mood is hugely important in Virginia. There’s a tradition stretching back 30 plus years that the party that won the White House loses Virginia’s off year election. The next year, they lose the governor’s race in Virginia. The next year, the only person to break that streak was Terry McAuliffe in 2013.
S1: The fact that their candidate this year beat the odds last time around is one of the things giving Democrats hope. Governors in Virginia are prohibited from serving consecutive terms, which is why McAuliffe is running again after this four year break. He’s been a party stalwart for decades.
S4: He was a fundraiser head of the DNC for four stretch in the early 2000s.
S1: He was a fundraiser for the Clintons.
S4: Exactly. Tight connections to a number of high profile Democrats and staged his first run in 2009 didn’t win the nomination. Democrats ended up losing that year, and Virginia ran again in 2013. Pulled off a narrow win against Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican who briefly served for a stretch in the Trump administration down the road. And McAuliffe presided over a legislature that was heavily Republican. So, you know, he faced challenges in getting much done, and I think he spent a lot of his time focusing on economic development. He was all over the place trying to make economic deals that would bring jobs in manufacturing and that kind of thing to Virginia.
S1: It sounds like such an old school Democrat kind of vibe.
S4: Very much so. I mean, he’s somebody who backed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, this this big infrastructure project that was going to come through Virginia, which was cancelled last year. He he kind of ran on that platform as a centrist Democrat, which is played very well with the Virginia electorate in the last 20 years. And you know, his tune has changed a little bit since then, but I think he is still running on what he what he did as governor, particularly his his economic development and focusing on jobs on the economy, those sorts of things.
S1: Was there ever a doubt that Terry McAuliffe would be the nominee? Because it seems to me that he is this kind of old school candidate? Like, was there ever a thought that maybe I don’t know. We should have like a black woman running for governor in Virginia?
S4: Funny, you should mention that. Mary Yes, there were two black women in the race in the primaries race, and I think his entrance in the race really changed it. I think once he was there, it was it was going to be hard to unseat him because of money, because of influence. I mean, McAuliffe, by all accounts, is deeply connected to the Democrat Party in Virginia. Some staff from some of the party went straight to his campaign. So this was somebody with just a lot of resources. And I think for these other candidates, there was a delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, former delegate and then a state senator in the Richmond area. Jennifer McClellan, both of you know, they didn’t quite have the same level of connections and resources, and the the primary wasn’t close. I mean, McAuliffe won it in a blowout.
S1: As a longtime Democratic operative, it seems to me like the major selling point of Terry McAuliffe is his connection to D.C.. But we’re at such a funny moment where Joe Biden is working like hell to get his agenda passed, but reaching a lot of roadblocks when it comes to the Senate and Congress. How is he handling that on the campaign trail?
S4: Recently, he has really stepped up calls for Congress to pass the 1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure package.
S6: We’ve got frustration with Washington. You know, why haven’t we passed this infrastructure bill? I have been very straight on television. We’re tired of the chit chat up in Washington. Get in a room and get this figure out.
S4: I think he wants a tangible win to take voters on the campaign trail from this administration and from the Democratic control of Congress. That said, I don’t think that’s his only platform. I think he could still win if they don’t do that. It’s quite likely they won’t do that before Election Day. So, you know, he’s also talking a lot about the pandemic and a lot about Donald Trump, and I think those other issues could could help him. We’ll see.
S1: You say he’s talking a lot about Donald Trump. I guess that leads us to talk about the Republican nominee. Glenn Youngkin, who is doing this funny two step of being a Republican in a state with a history of conservatism, but that over the last few years has done this step back from Republican base politics. So how is Youngkin presenting himself like? Is he presenting himself as someone who’s aligned with Trump?
S4: It’s it’s it’s a real dance with Youngkin on the relationship with Trump. It’s worth pointing out that I think a year ago, so few Republicans even knew who Glenn Youngkin was. You know, he was. He had stepped down as CEO of the Carlyle Group, this private equity firm. He was not a known name in Virginia politics by any by any stretch of the imagination. His name started to kind of percolate as a potential candidate.
S1: Has he ever been in public service before?
S4: Never been in public service. Something he stresses a lot on on the campaign trail. And he just kind of swooped into the scene for this Republican nomination fight. And, you know, I went to I remember going to an event, I think it was in April or May before before they they held this convention and the some of the other candidates were there and spoke and they had kind of a low key presence. And then Youngkin came in and like you could tell, there was a sort of celebrity almost aura around him. And among Republicans, even at that point, you know, people rush kind of rushed over to take their photos
S1: just because he had a lot of money.
S4: He had already sort of established his name. He was buying TV ads, TV ads, which, as you mentioned in some cases, talked about his connection to Trump. Trump mentioned no the Carlyle Group and his his name in a speech once, and they used that clip in early ad.
S2: President Trump brought together real business leaders like Glenn Youngkin and stood up
S5: to China Glenn Youngkin of Carlyle grateful.
S4: And so he was running as somebody who could hold the Trump base together, but who could also appeal to a certain kind of, you know, maybe moderate voter who has drifted away from Republicans. I’ve heard him described as a country club Republican. He’s somebody who like, you know, he’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s charismatic. When you meet him, he’s very personable and I think he’s on a lot of the campaigns. He spent talking about things like education and eliminating the grocery tax. And so he’s kind of talking to the Trump base at moments and then also talking to these other voters. And, you know, at least that the polls are to be believed. He’s he’s seems to be successfully threading that needle, whether to win him the election. That’s another story.
S1: Yeah, it sounds a little bit like Mitt Romney 2.0 or something.
S4: I think he would be flattered by that comparison, probably, although you know his supporters, probably some of them would not be. He’s built an interesting tent. You know, there’s people like State Senator Amanda Chase in Virginia who has gotten paid visits to Arizona to watch the air quote audit that happened there. She’s been someone who stumped quite a bit for him, says talks a lot about election integrity and how Youngkin is going to strengthen elections. Youngkin himself has made various nods to that. You know, he was very evasive early on on whether there was any widespread fraud. When I asked him that back in the convention and then as soon as he won the convention, has his tune changed, he said Biden was legitimately elected president. His campaign actually took down some, some videos of his old videos around certain topics like election integrity, and he still talks about it. But I think it’s not the issue that that he’s personally taking to the polls. He’s relying on other surrogates to kind of carry that message to the more. Trump aligned base,
S1: he had this decision point last week because Steve Bannon wanted to hold a rally for him. What happened?
S4: Yeah. So that rally, which happened in suburban Richmond. And Steve Bannon is actually a resident of the Richmond area. It was a litany of conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. Bannon had some pretty incendiary rhetoric around getting in people’s faces.
S5: Look, I think some pretty extraordinary action are going to have to be taken with with, you know, as far as the protest and getting up in the people’s grill politely but strongly.
S4: There was there was a lot of, I think, material from the Trump days that that showed Trump’s movement is alive and well, and Trump himself phoned in to endorse Youngkin again.
S7: And I think it’s wonderful that you gathered together and it’s an appropriate name. Take back Virginia rally. And I’ll tell you what, Glenn Youngkin is a great gentleman, and I really believe that Virginia is very, very winnable.
S4: And I think the moment that kind of crystallized this event was when the organizers brought out a flag that they said was flown over and there was a peaceful rally. On January 6th, the U.S. Capitol and the crowd pledged allegiance to this flag,
S6: for which it stands one nation under God, indivisible with
S4: liberty. Oof. That, of course, made some headlines the next day, and Youngkin at first kind of dodged questions around whether he endorsed that kind of action and then ultimately distanced himself from it. He said it was weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to the to that flag. He didn’t disavow Trump, which is something McAuliffe and the Democrats wanted to hear from him. So, you know, it’s kind of speaks to the the position that that Youngkin is. And I think with the Republicans, probably, you know,
S1: I think part of the challenge is that if you look at a candidate like Glenn Youngkin, the Trump year, he is, the better it is for the Democrats. And so they’re kind of embracing this, you know, rush to push him into the same boat as Trump. They went as far as chartering a plane over Mar a Lago to sort of taunt Donald Trump over Youngkin because Youngkin wouldn’t campaign with him. And it just seems like the trolling on both sides. It makes the situation intractable where they’re not actually talking about what might matter to voters.
S4: Yeah, I completely agree, and it’s frustrating as a politics reporter to try to get through to the issues what the
S1: voters say to you, like when you talk to them about this race, like do they roll their eyes?
S4: Not completely. I think they, especially the voters who are solidly in one camp, feel like there are real policy decisions at stake, you know, particularly around abortion, around voting rights and voting access, you know, around education and school curriculum on the on on the right. I do think people very strongly believe that there’s policies that will change and be affected by who’s nominated. But I think the tenor of the rhetoric is very much kind of aligned with the, you know, the general national mood and the national political debate, which seems to be seeping, you know, down not just to the state but to school boards where, you know, we’ve seen people harassed. And there’s this there’s really intense meetings about whether, in Virginia’s case, whether to adopt policies that protect transgender students or whether to ban the teaching of critical race theory at schools. And so I think from my vantage point here and I’m not plugged into all levels, I think it seems like those debates seem to be, if anything, saturating further down and getting more and more local.
S1: When we come back, how the national debate over critical race theory became so central in Virginia’s race for governor.
S3: Wow. Oh, wow. We generally
S1: stick around. Before this governor’s race was attracting so much attention, Virginia was making headlines for another reason raucous, drawn out school board meetings where parents were waging a battle over what they called critical race theory. The meetings in one district, Loudoun County, got especially contentious and they were recorded.
S4: There was a big outcry there that the teachers, because they’d gone through trainings on on racial sensitivity and on fighting discrimination. I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t I don’t know the details of those trainings, but that they there was critical race theory was an element in some of those trainings. And therefore, I think that got kind of exploded into this idea. That critical race theory was pervasive in schools and that students were being taught. White students in particular, are being taught to to hate themselves.
S1: And people might remember the images in particular. Like when I think of Loudoun County in the debate there, I think of this one particular image of a I assume it was a parent, but a person who had been in a school board meeting being dragged away by police
S6: from the city could be arrested.
S1: This is, I believe, the school board meeting was shut down. People were so loud and so upset. Public comment is now ended. We’ll move to our next agenda item. So how did that debate, which had been going on last spring and maybe a little bit in the summer? How did it become such a big part of the governor’s race now in the fall?
S4: I think it’s just because for Republicans, they see the amount of energy and anger on some of their supporters and some conservatives, and they see that as a channel to win. And I think Youngkin has highlighted this comment that McAuliffe made in the debate that parents shouldn’t be telling teachers what to teach
S6: to veto bills, veto books, Glenn not to be knowledge about it. Also take them off the shelves. And I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take those out, make their own decision. You vetoed it. So, yeah, I can’t stop the bill that I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.
S4: He was referring to a bill that he vetoed that would have allowed, I think parents to to screen out some books from schools, libraries or as a Toni Morrison book that that they thought was objectionable.
S1: It was called the beloved bill, I think, and the key thing was that. I believe it was the parents could decide what they felt was inappropriate or sexually explicit and pull things from the curriculum or shelves, and McAuliffe vetoed it because the opinion was the schools should be deciding what the kids are learning.
S4: Exactly. And I think Youngkin has taken that that soundbite of a McAuliffe saying that and turn it into TV ads and digital ads.
S5: Virginia parents have a right to make decisions on their children’s education. That’s the Virginia I grew up in.
S4: Terry McAuliffe wants to change that. And I mean, that has been their kind of take home message that parents are being stripped of their rights to control their children’s education and that somehow it’s being controlled by radicals who are truly rewriting the curriculum of the state for the worse.
S1: Does that ring true to the voters you talk to?
S4: I think it rings true, certainly to those those Republican activists. And, you know, it’s hard to know with certainly Democrats don’t believe that to be true. Fact checkers don’t believe that to be true. It’s not true. The critical race theory is being taught across Virginia school system. You know, there’s there’s not some, some huge movement to tell white students that they are lesser than other students. I think there is a recognition from states, school systems, state school systems that they need to do a better job being more inclusive with history and Loudoun County. That’s how this all began, was that there was a Returnal report about problems with students feeling marginalized and some of the discrimination they’d faced and the bullying they’d received. And so some of the changes that parents were reacting to were put in place as a means to try to correct that. And so I think we’re seeing school systems, you know, change make changes to their history curriculum here and there, that kind of thing. There’s not, I think, some top-down effort to malign white students or anything like that. And as for whether it connects to voters, I mean, I think it depends a lot on the voters. And I haven’t frankly talked enough to enough moderate voters or swing voters to know how that’s playing with their
S1: political operatives are looking to Virginia to give them guidance. Will these school board fights drive voters to the polls? If so, you might be hearing a lot more about critical race theory in the 2022 midterm elections. But Ben, he’s not so sure that Virginia’s experience is going to map cleanly onto other states.
S4: It’s something I think about a lot with the sort of national attention Virginia gets, I think partly just based on its kind of a vaguely swingy state right next to D.C.. And especially at this point, you know, Virginia’s demographics have changed so much. I don’t know that that the results, you know, if McAuliffe wins as the polling shows he’s on track to, even if narrowly that that will, you know, give us a clear message about about 20 20 to a lot could happen in between. The pandemic has been so unpredictable. Virginia likes to think of itself as a microcosm for the rest of the country. But is it really? I mean, I don’t I don’t know that, you know, it’s it’s a complicated state, but I don’t know that the state encapsulates the whole of the country’s political mood at one moment. There’s just so many factors that go into winning. And in this case, you know, money’s important. You know, the Democrats have a huge cash advantage. They have resources that they’re at there ready. And I think if Republicans win, then that maybe is something of an index on the national mood. But whether it’s a prediction or whether it, you know, there’s there’s some like deeper message in that for the political fortunes going forward. I don’t know that that’s really the case.
S1: Well, it’s interesting because this race is often talked about as a barometer for Democrats, you know, because they have more at stake here. They’ve been winning elections in Virginia for so long at this point, a little more than a decade. But it is also a barometer for Republicans to you like, OK. But what if our party isn’t Trump’s party? But is Trump curious? You know, like we’re just like in a like next to Trump, but we’re not like, we’re not Trump. And it’ll be interesting to see if that is how Republicans look at this to when this is all over.
S4: Youngkin has faced questions from reporters like would you have certified the results of the 2020 election if you were in Congress
S1: or what does he say?
S4: He didn’t really answer at first when I think it was Axios reporter who asked him this. He dodged the question. He said, Well, the wonderful thing and I’m paraphrasing here is that I’m not running for Congress. And then, you know, Axios ran the story and then his state, his campaign put out a statement saying, Well, you know, I definitely would have certified the results of the 2020 election. He’s he said repeatedly that he believes Biden was legitimately elected and that there was no, no widespread fraud. And so he said those things. But also he gets asked these questions that that hearken back to the 2020 election. Trump is still talking about the 2020 election, so whether they can stay Trump curious, you know, as Trump kind of re-emerges onto the political scene after January six, I think Youngkin has has faced those questions, and I’m sure Republican nominees for Congress will will face those questions, given some of Trump’s recent comments.
S1: When you are working the phones right now talking to your sources about the gubernatorial election. I mean, to some extent, I guess at this moment in time, it would always be tense. People would always be like, Oh my God, it’s almost the end. But can you characterize what it’s like to get on the phone with operatives from either side at this point? Like, are they just both stretched and stressed and feel like it could go either way?
S4: I am definitely sensing lots of tension and stress. I think the candidates are becoming increasingly wary around reporters, particularly Youngkin. That’s always been true for him. But now they’re they’re they’re being especially careful about any sort of chance encounters with reporters who might ask him about Trump or the election or anything like that. McAuliffe people, you know, I was at an event on Friday and and they were, you know, making sure the press were like, very kind of closely consigned to our little area. I think, yeah, tensions are high. I mean, the stakes are high and people feel like this is a really close race. You he’ll that you hear that urgency from the candidates. I’ve noticed a change in tone with McAuliffe recently, where he’s he’s kind of emphasizing that this is a close race. I think he he seemed a little more confident to my eyes this summer, more sure of himself. And I think that reflects the fact that the polling has narrowed. I think Democrats seem more worried. Republicans, in some ways are the underdog, so I think they feel like if they manage an upset great, it would be certainly disappointing if they lost. But I don’t think it would shock anybody.
S1: Ben Paviour, I’m really grateful for you joining. Thanks.
S4: Thanks for having me, Mary.
S1: Ben Paviour is a state politics reporter for VPM in Richmond, Virginia. And that is our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Danielle, Hewitt, Davis Land Mary Wilson and Delaina Schwartz. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. See the costume I’m workshopping for my dog for Halloween. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.