RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin will meet on the debate stage for the first time Thursday, the day before voters can cast their ballots early in Virginia.

In hopes of building enthusiasm for the off-year election, their campaigns are ramping up efforts to thrust issues of abortion rights and tax cuts to the forefront of the governor’s race.

McAuliffe, who is seeking a second term as Virginia’s governor, has turned his focus to abortion rights since Texas enacted a new law banning most procedures after about six weeks of pregnancy.

“This is the biggest issue we are facing,” McAuliffe said about the topic during the first press conference with the other Democratic statewide candidates on Sept. 7.

Youngkin, a former private equity executive and political newcomer, has been pushing a “day one game plan” that proposes sweeping tax cuts, 20 new charter schools and requiring localities to get voter approval on increases in property taxes.

Both candidates also recently went back and forth on another topic of interest: coronavirus vaccines.

New Texas abortion law sparks political debate in Virginia

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks alongside the other Democratic statewide candidates, Attorney General Mark Herring and Lt. Gov. nominee Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) on Sept. 7. (8News photo by Dean Mirshahi)

McAuliffe has claimed Youngkin “wants to turn Virginia into Texas,” citing past remarks by the Republican gubernatorial nominee on abortion in a secretly recorded video released in July.

“The candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, in July was caught secretly on tape saying that when he is governor, and he has the House, that he will defund Planned Parenthood and he will ban all abortions in the commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said at the Sept. 7 press conference.

In the video, Youngkin is pressed by a liberal activist posing as an anti-abortion supporter on whether he would back defunding Planned Parenthood and a so-called fetal heartbeat bill. After Youngkin says he’s “unabashedly” pro-life, another person asks him about defunding Planned Parenthood again and taking “it to the abortionists.”

Youngkin responds that pushing the issue won’t get him independent votes he needs to win, but he believes Republicans can go “on offense” if the Virginia House flips red. He does not go as far as McAuliffe suggests.

“I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is, in this campaign, I can’t. When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get,” Youngkin said in the video clip. “So you’ll never hear me support Planned Parenthood. What you’ll hear me talk about is actually taking back the radical abortion policies that Virginians don’t want.”

The Texas law prohibits abortions if cardiac activity is detectable, which starts at around six weeks and is before many women know they’re pregnant, and allows ordinary citizens to enforce it by filing civil suits against abortion providers and anyone who “aids or abets” a procedure.

Youngkin has avoided weighing in directly on if he backs the new law, but has repeated that he’s pro-life and supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life is in danger. His campaign has argued that the Democratic-controlled Virginia General Assembly would not pass such a restrictive abortion law, agreeing with an assertion the campaign for Republican Lt. Gov. nominee Winsome Sears made after Sears said she would support a law similar to the one in Texas.

“Terry McAuliffe is trying to divide us and distract from his own extreme, pro-abortion position. The Texas law is not something that is here in Virginia,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter wrote in an email to 8News. “What is in Virginia is Terry McAuliffe’s extreme agenda, which advocates for abortion, all the way up through and including birth.”

At the Democratic statewide press conference, McAuliffe said he supports the commonwealth’s current abortion laws. Virginia allows abortions during the second trimester and only after the second trimester in circumstances when three doctors conclude “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

Youngkin proposal brings tax policy to forefront of governor’s race

Republican Glenn Youngkin talks about his “day one” plan to eliminate Virginia’s tax on groceries and personal hygiene products. (8News photo by Dean Mirshahi)

Youngkin pitched his sweeping plan to cut taxes to shoppers during a campaign stop at a grocery store near Short Pump in early September, claiming the proposed cuts are “already paid for” because Virginians have been overtaxed.

If elected, the GOP gubernatorial candidate will seek to end the state’s 2.5% tax on groceries and personal hygiene products, suspend the state’s 5-cent tax hike on gas for another year and give tax filers a one-time income tax rebate. 

“Virginia will no longer tax eggs and milk and bread and everything else in here,” Youngkin said while going over the plan with two women near the Tom Leonard’s seafood section. “And we’re going to make Virginia more affordable for Virginians.” 

This is all part of Youngkin’s first major policy proposal, which his campaign has called his “day one game plan,” although most of its proposals would first require approval from the state legislature. Youngkin’s campaign says future revenue growth and Virginia’s $2.6 billion surplus will cover the cost.

But his Democratic rival has contended the plan would “decimate” funding for education, public safety and will be a “job killer” for Virginia. McAuliffe’s campaign has also questioned how Youngkin proposes to replace the revenue from the tax cuts. 

Under Youngkin’s plan, individual filers would get a one-time rebate of $300 and joint filers would get $600. The GOP nominee is also proposing to require localities to hold referendums so voters must approve property tax increases, doubling the standard exemption on state income tax returns and cutting taxes on veteran retirement pay.

Property taxes are the largest source of revenue for local governments in Virginia and are used to fund school districts, but Youngkin dismissed McAuliffe’s claims that his proposal would cut public education funding.

“The reality is we are going to have the largest education budget in the history of Virginia,” Youngkin said in an interview. “And we’re going to invest in 20 new innovation charter schools to provide parents choice, all of which will be done within the public school system. So, we’re gonna add to the public school system. My opponent doesn’t understand any of this because reality is he doesn’t understand revenues and expenses.”

Virginia’s transportation trust fund and local governments could see a hit in revenue as both receive a portion of the tax revenue from the sales tax on groceries and personal hygiene products.

A Youngkin campaign official told 8News the one-time tax cuts would total $1.8 billion, the recurring tax cuts would cost $1.4 billion per year and eliminating the grocery tax would cost roughly more than $568 million in the next year.

The tax rebates Youngkin is proposing, his campaign says, will be paid out of Virginia’s $2.6 billion surplus. But Gov. Ralph Northam’s administrations says that money has already been allocated, with the state constitution requiring a $1.1 billion deposit for Virginia’s rainy day fund. Under state law, over $400 million will have to go towards the state’s water quality improvement fund and transportation trust fund.

While McAuliffe’s campaign has labeled Youngkin’s tax plan as “Trumpian,” he has not shared a tax policy proposal. He has, however, unveiled a $2 billion annual investment in public education to allow all students to get online, increase teacher pay, and expand preschool to every 3 and 4-year old in Virginia. A McAuliffe spokesperson says the plan will not require a tax increase.

Before Thursday’s debate, both candidates go back and forth on covid vaccines

A vaccination record card is shown during a COVID-19 vaccination drive for Spring Branch Independent School District education workers Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On Tuesday, Youngkin went to Twitter to call on McAuliffe to join him for a PSA on coronavirus vaccines at Thursday’s debate. “Hey @TerryMcAuliffe, I’m glad you’ve finally realized that a marketing campaign encouraging Virginians to get vaccinated against COVID is important. I released a PSA weeks ago. Where’s yours? Let’s put politics aside and film one together this Thursday at the debate – you in?”

McAuliffe responded quickly, blasting Youngkin’s plan as a “gimmick” and pressing the GOP candidate to come out in support of vaccine requirements.

Both then went back and forth on the proposed idea, with Youngkin tweeting that his campaign team has reached out to McAuliffe’s and he hopes he reconsiders. McAuliffe repeated his own challenge to the GOP nominee, asking Youngkin whether he would be willing to back a vaccine mandate.

“Glenn are you willing to call for all Virginians to follow the science and call for vaccine mandates except for medical and religious reasons, no anti-vaccine rhetoric involved? If so, I’m in. Let’s do it in Grundy,” McAuliffe tweeted.

McAuliffe and Youngkin are set to face off twice in a two-week span this month. The candidates will debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy on Sept. 16 and then again on Sept. 28. Third-party candidate Princess Blanding will be on the ballot but was not invited to either 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.

Early voting starts in Virginia on Sept. 17.