RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin sparred over vaccine mandates, abortion rights, tax policy and election integrity in their final debate before polls close in Virginia. But they did agree on a few issues, including maintaining Virginia’s right-to-work law.

Tuesday’s debate was contentious from the start, with both major-party candidates for Virginia governor pitching themselves to voters while attacking each other’s respective records. Third-party candidate Princess Blanding wasn’t on the debate stage, a decision she protested from the audience.

Recent polling suggests that McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, is in a tight race with Youngkin, a political newcomer, in a state where a Republican hasn’t won statewide in over a decade. Under the state constitution, Virginia governors can’t seek a second consecutive term.

With the debates now over and early voting already underway, candidates will be ramping up their voter outreach efforts ahead of the Nov. 2 general election.

An opening pitch to voters and a familiar divide over Covid-19 vaccine mandates

Youngkin said Virginia has seen itself “fall behind” over the last eight years under Democratic rule, saying McAuliffe has been recycling “failed policies” during his campaign.

“In our last debate, he lied to the voters once about every other minute,” Youngkin said of McAuliffe in his opening statement Tuesday. “Trying to hide his views on getting rid of right-to-work, defunding police, on selling out to the teacher unions.”

McAuliffe claimed he “inherited an economy that was in chaos” when he took office in 2014 and that he worked in a bipartisan manner to help turn it around. He spoke about proposals to invest $2 billion in education and raise the minimum wage in Virginia to $15 per hour two years ahead of schedule.

But the former governor noted moving Virginia forward wouldn’t be possible without getting control of the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing Youngkin of pushing anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Youngkin repeated that he believes the vaccine is the best way of protecting people from COVID-19, but that he wouldn’t mandate them for state employees. The GOP nominee expressed concern over how vaccine mandates could push workers out of certain fields, leaving gaps to fill in Virginia’s workforce.

“Ten percent of Virginia’s population has been infected. We need leadership as governor, not trying to be a Trump wannabe and doing the talking points,” McAuliffe responded. “He has said day one as he is governor, masks off and no vaccination requirements.”

When pressed on whether Virginia should have the authority to implement current vaccine mandates for measles, mumps and rubella, Youngkin stumbled with his answer but eventually said he believes they can be required by the state.

The race’s third-party candidate speaks up

Blanding, an advocate and educator running under the newly-formed Liberation Party, was invited to sit in the audience but was not allowed to participate in Tuesday’s debate. When a question about how the candidates would try to reduce crime in Virginia, Blanding spoke up and interrupted the debate.

“I worked very hard to be on the ballot,” Blanding shouted, among other things, from the audience.

The moderator, NBC News political director Chuck Todd, called for security to escort Blanding from the room and went to commercial break after only about 12 minutes.

After the debate, 8News spoke with Blanding to ask what reason she had been given for not being in the debate. She said her campaign informed her that organizers would not allow her to participate as the debate was meant for the two major-party candidates and for “the business audience.” Blanding added that she was told she could be in the audience and speak with the media afterwards.

“That’s like being told you can ride the bus, but that you need to sit in the back of the bus,” Blanding said in a phone interview. “The two-party system is trying to silence my campaign.”

8News reached out to the debate’s organizer, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, to learn more about why Blanding was excluded from the debate but allowed to sit in the audience. Clayton Medford, the chamber’s vice president of government relations, said Wednesday that it’s the chamber’s normal practice to only have the Democratic and Republican candidates debate.

“We always host the major-party candidates for our ‘Top of the Ticket’ debate, but do extend an invitation to third-party candidates to sit in the audience and take part in the press gaggle afterwards,” Medford said.

McAuliffe, Youngkin clash over the economy, education and abortion

Major questions such as those about abortion, incorporating racial history in education and adding school policies for accommodating transgender students were posed after the commercial break.

On abortion, McAuliffe and Youngkin repeated the positions they shared in their last debate. McAuliffe said he backs “the laws on the books” and that Youngkin’s views on abortion would drive away companies from possibly doing business in Virginia.

Youngkin said he would support a “pain-threshold bill” in Virginia. Other states have passed similar laws, which prohibit abortions after about 20 weeks of gestation based on the argument that a fetus can feel pain at that point.

When asked if he would favor including Roe v. Wade protections into the Virginia Constitution, Youngkin said he wouldn’t. McAuliffe said he would support enshrining Roe v. Wade in the state’s constitution.

Early voting totals ahead of Nov. 2

More than 121,000 Virginians have already voted in this year’s statewide election. Including mail-in ballot requests, data from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project shows early voting totals for this year are above the figures in the last statewide election four years ago. But not all ballots requested through the mail are returned. 

While the data does not indicate which candidates the voters are choosing, VPAP has provided a breakdown of the early voting totals by congressional district. Accounting for the mail ballot requests, the four congressional districts seeing the highest early voter turnout numbers are held by Democratic lawmakers.

Virginia voters will cast their ballot for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in the Nov. 2 election. All 100 House of Delegates seats and certain local races will also be on ballots.

The last day to vote early in-person in Virginia is Oct. 30. Polls in Virginia are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Stay with 8News for updates.