Virginia governor’s race: Things to know ahead of final McAuliffe-Youngkin debate tonight

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are set to meet on the debate stage for the final time Tuesday, weeks after they clashed over abortion rights, vaccine mandates and their records in their first debate.

Election Day for the closely watched, and now competitive, statewide race is Nov. 2, but early voting has already started in Virginia.

Tuesday’s debate will be the last chance voters have to see both major-party candidates for governor spar over key issues before the polls close in Virginia.

Recent polling suggests that McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor seeking a second term, is in a tight race with Youngkin, a political newcomer, in a state where a Republican hasn’t won statewide in over a decade. After initially having the contest leaning Democratic, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report now considers the race a toss-up.

Focusing on the issues

McAuliffe and Youngkin sparred over COVID-19 vaccine mandates, abortion rights, tax policy and more during the first debate of Virginia’s governor’s race on Sept. 16.

The first questions of the night focused on vaccine mandates, specifically for workers and school children. Both candidates have encouraged Virginians to get the vaccine but Youngkin said he doesn’t believe they should be required.

When asked if he would challenge President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for companies employing over 100 people, either in court or by urging businesses to defy the order, Youngkin did not directly respond. While noting the vaccine has not been authorized for those under 12, the former Virginia governor said he would back such a change for students currently eligible for the shots.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates have taken center stage for both candidates and the topic is expected to be addressed during Tuesday’s debate.

What recent polls are saying about the race

The latest Monmouth University poll has McAuliffe with a small edge over Youngkin, 48% to 43% among registered voters, showing little change from a Monmouth poll released in August. But one notable shift is how central Virginia flipped for Youngkin in that span.

According to the poll results, Youngkin has a 51% to 40% advantage over McAuliffe in the central part of Virginia along the I-95 corridor. McAuliffe had the double-digit lead in central Virginia (53% to 43%) in Monmouth’s poll in August. (Monmouth’s poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5% and was conducted by telephone from Sept. 22-26 with 801 registered voters.)

“The central spine around Richmond appears to be the area with the greatest potential for actually swaying voters,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a Sept. 27 release that accompanied the poll results. “Throughout most of Virginia, though, it’s more a matter of turning out the respective party’s bases.”

A recent statewide poll from the University of Mary Washington showed no clear lead for either McAuliffe or Youngkin, with the differences between both among all adults, registered voters and likely voters all being within the survey’s margin of error. Unlike most other polls, the Mary Washington survey does include third-party candidate Princess Blanding.

Early voting totals ahead of Tuesday’s debate

More than 104,000 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 slightly 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.

The second and final debate between McAuliffe and Youngkin, slated to begin Tuesday at 7 p.m., is hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and will be held at Northern Virginia Community College. The hourlong debate will be moderated by NBC News political director Chuck Todd, including questions from News4 Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey and Telemundo 44 reporter Alberto Pimienta.

Blanding, an activist and educator running under the newly-formed Liberation Party, will be on the ballot but was not invited to participate in Tuesday’s debate.

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.

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