Republican Glenn Yongkin made a slim lead Tuesday night over his Democratic challenger in the closely watched Virginia governor’s race, in the Democrats’ first major electoral test since Joe Biden became president.
A Yongkin victory in the state, which Biden won by 10 points over Donald Trump just a year ago, would deal a huge blow to the president and Democrats across the country. The contest comes against a backdrop of low approval ratings for Biden and with his party engaged in an internal struggle over his legislative agenda.
The results indicated a record turnout for the election of a governor in Virginia, where Yongkin, the former co-CEO of private equity group Carlyle, is pitted against Terry McAuliffe, a veteran fundraiser close to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Yongkin, a political novice who entered the competition with almost no name recognition in the state, made significant gains in the final weeks of the campaign, and polls gave him a slight advantage in approaching Election Day.
An early return on Tuesday indicated that Yongkin had solid support in some conservative rural areas, and made his way into suburban areas outside Washington, D.C., where more moderate Republicans have rejected the party during the Trump era.
With 89 percent of precincts declared on Tuesday night, Yongkin led with 52.2 percent of the vote, compared to 47 percent for McAuliffe. The margin may shrink with the absentee vote count, which tends to favor Democrats.
GOP leaders, including Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, rushed to claim Youngkin’s victory on Tuesday night.
But McAuliffe refused to concede, telling supporters at an election night event in Northern Virginia, “We still have a lot of votes to count.”
The Democrats’ defeat in Virginia, one of two states in the race for governor in an “out of the year” election, would serve as an inauspicious electoral springboard for the president’s party ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when both houses of Congress are in control. Up for grabs.
McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor for one term from 2013 to 2017, ran the contest as the front-runner, but struggled to counter Youngkin’s ingenious campaign that focused on “culture wars” in education as well as traditional Republican issues like tax cuts.
For decades, the newly elected president’s party lost the Virginia gubernatorial race, with one exception: McAuliffe was elected in 2013, a year after Barack Obama was re-elected.
Biden, who last week campaigned with McAuliffe, had an upbeat tone Tuesday night during his last press conference in Scotland at the COP26 climate summit, telling reporters: “I think we’re going to win in Virginia.”
“The race is very close,” he added. “So it’s about who comes in and who goes out.”
More than 1.1 million Virginians voted early, either by mail or in person, according to data collected by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
The McAuliffe campaign has attempted to link Yongkin, who has never run for political office, to Trump, who is unpopular in populous suburban areas of Virginia outside Washington.
Yongkin focused on a range of “culture war” issues and said it would prevent schools from adopting critical race theory, a previously obscure academic field examining the role of race in American society.
Democrats responded by noting that critical race theory was not part of Virginia’s education system and accused Youngkin of running the “dog whistle” campaign. But McAuliffe seemed to miss the voters’ mood when he said in a televised debate that parents should have no say in what is taught in public schools.
Yongkin’s message appears to have resonated in Loudoun County, an affluent part of northern Virginia where parents have clashed with the local school board over issues such as Covid restrictions and transgender rights.
Biden won the county last year with 61 percent of the vote, but with 98 percent of the county vote counting, McAuliffe got 55 percent, compared to Yongkin’s 44.5 percent.
Yongkin had to walk a political tightrope in an effort to attract more moderate, conservative voters while energizing the pro-Trump base of right-wing supporters. Trump endorsed Yongkin at least six times, and on Monday night he phoned a crowd in support of the Republican ticket—an event Yongkin refused to attend.
In New Jersey, the other US state holding a gubernatorial election this year, incumbent Democratic candidate Phil Murphy was widely expected to secure re-election, with the latest statewide polls showing him leading among registered and potential voters. But the vote count soon turned into nail-biting for Democrats, with Republican Jack Cetarelli taking the lead as early results poured in.
With 66 percent of the votes counted, Ciatarelli received 51 percent of the vote, compared to 48 percent for Murphy, according to an Associated Press forecast.
In the New York City mayoral race, Democrat Eric Adams defeated Republican Curtis Sliwa. Adams’ victory was widely expected given the city’s Democratic voters overwhelmingly.
Several cities and states also held referendums on Tuesday, including Minneapolis, Minnesota, where voters rejected a proposal to dissolve the city’s police department, 18 months after the killing of George Floyd there.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington and Christine Zhang in New York
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