As Youngkin Tries to Finesse Trump, McAuliffe Conjures His Comeback

Barnstorming Virginia, the candidates for governor hammered away at their core arguments. For the Republican: parents’ involvement in schools. For the Democrat: Trump redux.

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In the final hours of campaigning on Monday to become Virginia’s next governor, it was Glenn Youngkin offering an optimistic vision for the future while Terry McAuliffe delivered harsh warnings about ghosts of the past.

As the two men barnstormed across the state, the contrast in tone demonstrated their shifting fortunes in the highest profile race on the ballot on Tuesday. Mr. McAuliffe, a longtime fixture of the Democratic establishment, was scrambling to prevent President Biden’s unpopularity, the gridlock in Washington and Mr. Youngkin’s effective weaponizing of racial issues in the public schools from dooming his bid for a second term as governor.

Mr. Youngkin, for his part, was aiming to redefine how Republicans could win elections with former President Donald J. Trump out of the White House. He has accepted Mr. Trump’s support and has abstained from criticizing him, but Mr. Youngkin has kept Mr. Trump from visiting Virginia and never invokes his name during his stump speeches. A former private equity executive, Mr. Youngkin embraced Mr. Trump during the primary contest this year but spent the months since winning the Republican nomination keeping a rhetorical distance.

On Monday, in the Richmond area, Mr. Youngkin said he would lead a sweep of Republican victories across the state that would define a new era for the party — one that he has centered on giving parents greater control over the curriculum in public schools, particularly in how children are educated about racism.

“We will not teach our children to view everything through the lens of race,” Mr. Youngkin told supporters at a midday rally in an airplane hangar. “So on Day 1, I will ban critical race theory from Virginia’s schools.”

That theory, a graduate-level academic framework that argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions, is not taught in Virginia’s public schools. But conservatives have turned it into a flash point in key suburban areas such as Loudoun County, just outside Washington.

Earlier, in Roanoke, the biggest city in the mountain-specked southwest corner of the state, and a Republican stronghold, Mr. Youngkin promised voters that the party’s renewal was at hand.

“We’re going to have a whole new crop of Republicans come in and define a new way forward,” he told supporters in a morning rally at the airport.

While Mr. Youngkin never mentioned Mr. Trump in his 22-minute speech, he touched on several of the former president’s themes and deployed some of his catchphrases.

“I am so tired of Virginia losing,” Mr. Youngkin said. “I want Virginia to start winning again.”

Mr. Trump, who arranged to speak to his own Virginia supporters on Mr. Youngkin’s behalf during a Monday evening conference call “tele-rally,” appeared to be angling to take credit if Mr. Youngkin was victorious.

The media, Mr. Trump said in a statement earlier in the day, was “trying to create an impression that Glenn Youngkin and I are at odds and don’t like each other.” He said that this was untrue: “We get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies.”

Still, Mr. Youngkin let it be known that he was too busy campaigning to attend the Trump call-in.

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Terry McAuliffe, center, is in a dead heat with Mr. Youngkin, who Mr. McAuliffe has tried to tether to former President Donald J. Trump.Credit…Kristen Zeis for The New York Times

Mr. McAuliffe, crisscrossing the state in another plane, hammered away at the Trump-Youngkin connection, as he has for weeks. He warned that a victory by Mr. Youngkin would pave the way for Mr. Trump to attempt his own political restoration, and urged Virginians not to let the two of them exploit the state that way.

Election Guide: Virginia Governor’s Race

A high-stakes contest in Virginia is coming down to the wire. Here’s what to know ahead of Election Day on Nov. 2.

The Former Governor’s Challenge: Democratic voters’ exhaustion is imperiling former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s comeback attempt.The Republican Pivot: Glenn Youngkin, the G.O.P. candidate, has made a culture-war pivot that has lifted his campaign.A Key Issue: Republicans have been tapping into conservative anger over mandates and critical race theory in schools.Early Voting’s Role: The popularity of early voting has been shaping the dynamics of the race and may play a role in delaying the results.A 2022 Test: The race is the opening act of the midterms, and both parties are waiting to see what the results will mean for the battles ahead.

“We don’t want a Trump wannabe, someone who has been endorsed by Donald Trump 10 times,” Mr. McAuliffe told reporters after a morning stop in Roanoke. “Donald Trump wants to win tomorrow so that on the next day he will declare for president of the United States. He wants to use Virginia as the launchpad for his presidential.”

Mr. McAuliffe’s strategy of tethering Mr. Youngkin to Mr. Trump has not stopped his lead in the polls from evaporating. A Washington Post poll released over the weekend revealed the Virginia race to be in a dead heat, a stark comedown for a Democratic Party that has not lost a statewide race in Virginia since 2009. Mr. Biden won the state by 10 percentage points last year.

Officials on both sides of the race for governor are stymied by a lack of information about what Tuesday’s electorate will look like. It is the first statewide contest under voting rules established in 2020, which created 45 days of no-excuse early voting across the state.

More than 1.1 million votes have already been cast, according to data from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, down from the 2.8 million people who voted leading up to Election Day in 2020 but up sharply from the 195,000 early votes in the 2017 election for governor.

Tom Bonier, the chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, wrote on Sunday that Black turnout in the early vote was down slightly from 2020 levels, while the percentage of young voters was “lagging badly behind previous benchmarks.”

The share of rural voters casting ballots early was up sharply, and Republican voters appeared far more enthusiastic about the election than Democrats did, he said.

That could ratchet up the drama surrounding who shows up at the polls on Tuesday. “Election Day will be decisive,” Mr. Bonier said.

On the ground, officials working on voter turnout for the Democratic ticket said they were finding Black voters far less engaged in this year’s election than in contests during Mr. Trump’s presidency, when the president’s constant Twitter commentary provided a steady supply of outrage.

“Because Trump is not in office, there’s no longer a constant barrage of foolery for them to pay attention to,” said Angela Angel, a senior adviser for Black Lives Matter PAC, who was canvassing Black neighborhoods in Virginia Beach on Monday. “Good or bad, it drew them into politics.”

Mr. McAuliffe has sought to engage Black voters in the campaign through a series of high-profile Black surrogates. He reminded reporters on Monday that he had appeared at rallies with former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist and former Democratic legislator from Georgia.

But Ms. Angel said voters were expressing “some disappointment about the current administration” for failing to enact many of the major changes that Mr. Biden had promised last year as he sought to oust Mr. Trump from office.

Even Mr. McAuliffe lamented the slow pace at which congressional Democrats had been negotiating their long-awaited legislation on infrastructure and social policy.

“I hope that tomorrow they’re going to pass an infrastructure bill,” Mr. McAuliffe said in Roanoke on Monday morning. “Get your job done. Pass the bill. It’s not going to have any relevance to our election, but it will have relevance when I’m governor.”

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