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Politics

It would be hard for Virginia's race for governor to be any closer

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Election Day in several states, including Virginia - the final day for Virginia voters to cast a ballot for former governor Terry McAuliffe, who's a Democrat, or Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate. Ben Paviour covers state politics at member station VPM in Richmond and joins us now in this suddenly blue state that is now on the verge of a red result. We'll see how things go here, though. Ben, good morning.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What were the candidates' rallies like on the final full day of campaigning yesterday?

PAVIOUR: Well, the Youngkin rally was pretty boisterous. He held it inside an airport hangar south of Richmond. He and McAuliffe, the similarity, I would say, was the message was just get out and vote. These off-year elections don't usually get the same level of turnout as presidential or even midterm ones. For Youngkin, animating the base means, you know, talking, in his case, about the way race is taught in schools. And he said schools were teaching students to view everything through the lens of race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN YOUNGKIN: So on Day 1, I will ban critical race theory from being in our schools.

(CHEERING)

PAVIOUR: And it's worth noting here that critical race theory isn't actually in Virginia's K-12 curriculum.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I suppose we should be clear here. The discussion about how to talk about race is a real discussion. But he's come up with an imaginary take here and has gotten to the verge of the governor's office on this imaginary take. What about Democrat Terry McAuliffe?

PAVIOUR: His rally was much smaller. He held it at a Richmond brewery - still energetic. I mean, McAuliffe said this talk of banning critical race theory is, quote, a "racist dog whistle." McAuliffe spent a lot of his speech talking about what he could claim as earlier accomplishments in the governor's office. That includes things like restoring voting rights for felons and increasing funding for education.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY MCAULIFFE: So all I'm trying to say is when you give Democrats the power, good things happen, right?

PAVIOUR: McAuliffe also spent a lot of time connecting Youngkin to former President Trump, who lost Virginia twice. When he was trying to win the Republican nomination, Youngkin's only real campaign issue was promoting what he called election integrity. And Trump endorsed Youngkin as recently as last night in a phone call that was described as a tele-rally. McAuliffe is making the argument that Youngkin is a kind of Trump enabler.

INSKEEP: So how does this reflect national trends if it does at all?

PAVIOUR: Well, there's a general trend in Virginia that the party that wins the White House loses the governor's race the next year. McAuliffe is the only one to break that trend in the last 30 years or so. And both parties are testing their strategies. For Democrats, the big question is whether Trump is still a motivator to get their base out and vote even when he's not on the ballot. And it's also a test of their power. They've been in control of Virginia now for two years. So there is a question of how voters respond to Democratic control of Richmond and now Capitol Hill, too. And I think for Republicans, they're looking at Youngkin for maybe as a way to learn to win over the MAGA faithful without making the election too much about Trump himself. And they're testing messaging here around critical race theory and school curriculum.

INSKEEP: Democrats finally in recent years got control of the state legislature, which had been coming for a long time. Is it possible that they could lose it again?

PAVIOUR: They could lose the lower chamber. Virginia's House is all up for election. Democrats will control Virginia Senate no matter what for the next couple of years. So we'll have to see how these two parties can cooperate if Youngkin wins or if McAuliffe wins and the Republicans flip the House.

INSKEEP: Ben, thanks for the update.

PAVIOUR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.