McAuliffe, helped by Vice President Kamala Harris and Virginia-native performer Pharrell Williams, spent Friday highlighting the national implications of the race, headlining a Norfolk rally that represented the crescendo of a campaign that has leaned on big name supporters to boost excitement and turn people out.
“Virginia, I am here because the President and I care deeply about Terry McAuliffe, about the commonwealth of Virginia and about the future of our nation. Now you all know that every four years when this election happens for governor of Virginia, it is a tight election, it is a close election, and it is a bellwether for what happens in the rest of the country,” Harris told the audience there, ratcheting up the national pressure on the race.
Youngkin, at five events across the commonwealth, tried to focus the close of his campaign on the same hyper-local issues that propelled him from the outset: Education, the economy and taxes. As the polls have tightened in recent weeks, Youngkin is now trying to inspire Republicans by convincing them that a Republican can win in Virginia after eight years of Democratic control.
And unlike McAuliffe, he campaigned without the help of top Republican officeholders.
“Terry McAuliffe is driving 45 miles an hour down Interstate 66, and I’m coming up 70 on the outside passing him,” Youngkin said. “And I’m telling you what’s about to happen: What’s about to happen is we are going to sweep our statewide offices.”
There was extra weight to each candidate’s events on Friday: Early voting in the state ends on Saturday, putting pressure on each campaign’s attempt to get voters to cast their ballots before Election Day. By the end of Friday, nearly 1 million Virginians had cast their ballots in the race.
McAuliffe will close his campaign with a frenetic weekend of candidate and surrogate events, including events for the former governor in the Virginia Beach, Hampton and Chesapeake areas on Saturday and events around Richmond and in the Washington, DC, suburbs on Sunday.
Youngkin will close the race with a series of events in the Washington suburbs of northern Virginia on Saturday, the state’s far western region on Sunday, and then in final stops across its biggest cities on Monday.
Although polls have been relatively steady throughout the race, recent polling shows Youngkin closing the gap in the final weeks of the campaign, giving Republicans hope for the first time in years that they could win a statewide race.
“I think we’ve been on the downslide,” said Linda Tylka, a former Charlottesville-based secretary. “I don’t think we’re respected in the world anymore. We need new people in the government who will work for the taxpayer and that starts in Virginia.”
The question is whether Youngkin’s efforts will be enough in a place that was tilted toward Democrats in a significant way ever since former President Barack Obama won Virginia in 2012. As the commonwealth has diversified and the northern Virginia counties just outside of Washington have ballooned in size, Republicans have found it difficult to compete statewide.
This was especially true during Donald Trump‘s four years in office, when once reliable Republican voters fled the party in opposition to the then-President.
Youngkin’s goal from the outset of the campaign has been to cobble together a coalition that includes the diehard Trump supporters and those who left the party in response to the caustic leader. To do that, the Republican candidate has looked to stoke anger at the left and, by extension, Democratic control in both Richmond and Washington, DC.
“This is the moment for us to stand up and say, ‘No, not here anymore.’ We’re not going to have this left, liberal, progressive agenda,” Youngkin said Friday at an event in Charlottesville.
McAuliffe has responded with the opposite, hoping to lean heavily on the blue tilt of the state by bringing out Democratic leaders from Richmond, like Gov. Ralph Northam, and from Washington, like Harris. And he is attempting to keep those suburban voters who left the Republican Party over Trump with Democrats by regularly trying to tie Youngkin to the former President.
“We only have a few days to go. I cannot tell you how critical this election is. The stakes could not be any more clear: On one side, you think what you have over there, conspiracy theorists, we’ve got anti vaxxers and we’ve got Donald Trump. They are all on one side,” McAuliffe said in Norfolk. “From the day he got into this race Glenn Youngkin has run a campaign of hatred, division and fear.”
Although McAuliffe did highlight local issues he would tackle as governor — like addressing climate change and flooding in the Norflok area — he reminded the crowd of what it would mean to Republicans to get a win in Virginia — something that Harris echoed, too.
“What happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and beyond,” Harris said. “The power is in your hands and elections matter.”
Across the state in Warrenton, an exurb about an hour west of Washington, Youngkin focused narrowly on how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled by schools and the state government, as well as parents’ roles in schools.
Youngkin pledged to deliver Virginia’s largest education budget in history, with raises for teachers and more funding for special education, if he is elected. He said he would launch the largest charter-school push Virginia has ever seen — including 20 new charter schools on his first day in office. And he lambasted critical race theory.
“We will teach accelerated math in our schools. We will award advance diplomas in our schools. We will teach all history, the good and the bad, in our schools,” Youngkin said.
Unlike McAuliffe, who made the Norfolk event his focus on the day, Youngkin headlined five rallies that were energetic and drew hundreds of supporters — including parents who brought their children. Staffers used T-shirt guns to fire shirts into the crowd while Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” played before Youngkin took the stage in Warrenton.
Education dominated Youngkin’s events, with speakers routinely hitting McAuliffe for saying “parents should be telling schools what they should teach” during the second and final debate in the contest. “Don’t mess with my kids,” one supporter’s sign in Warrenton said.
Mary Alipio, a Northern Virginia parent and volunteer who spoke in Warrenton, said that “being involved in their lives and education is non-negotiable.”
“That made me mad,” she said of McAuliffe’s debate comment. “But I’ve been mad since 2020.”
Another popular target for Youngkin and his supporters was critical race theory.
“Governor Glenn Youngkin will ban it, and if I have to take it to court to stop it, I will,” said Jason Miyares, the Republican nominee for attorney general, while campaigning with Youngkin in Warrenton.
Youngkin has walked a tightrope during the campaign with Trump, seeking to align himself closely enough to the former President to keep from alienating his Republican base, but not too close to drive moderates in northern Virginia away from his campaign.
Trump has repeatedly inserted himself into the race, though: He’ll headline a tele-rally Monday for Youngkin and the GOP ticket, said John Fredericks, the Virginia based conservative radio host who served as the co-chair of the Trump campaign in the commonwealth.
Youngkin and those who spoke at his rallies didn’t make reference to the former President. But his supporters were animated by opposition to the same Democratic rivals that Trump faced.
The crowd in Warrenton — as Youngkin crowds have elsewhere — chanted “Let’s go Brandon,” a coded phrase that conservative crowds have used to express their displeasure with President Joe Biden.