McAuliffe, Youngkin unload in feisty final Virginia debate

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin bickered their way through the second and final debate of Virginia’s competitive governor’s race on Tuesday, trading attacks and accusations from the start of the hourlong meeting.

They called each other liars. McAuliffe accused Youngkin of skirting local taxes by housing “fancy horses” on his Northern Virginia property and running a company that performed root canals on “babies.” Youngkin said McAuliffe would end Virginia’s “right-to-work” status and supports President Joe Biden’s “failure of leadership” and “open borders.”

Beginning with an argument over vaccine mandates for workers — McAuliffe supports them, Youngkin opposes them — and ending with hot-button national concerns, the two men disagreed throughout the debate. And McAuliffe frequently returned to his refrain in a state Biden carried by 10 points: tying Youngkin to former President Donald Trump.

“We need leadership as governor, not trying to be a Trump wannabe and doing the talking points,” McAuliffe said while attacking Youngkin over vaccine mandates.

Youngkin has been endorsed by Trump and has accepted his endorsement, but bristled when McAuliffe raised the former president on the stage, accusing him of trying to take attention away from state issues. “There’s an over and under tonight on how many times you are going to say ‘Donald Trump,’ and it was 10,” Youngkin said Tuesday night. “And you just busted through it. You are running against Glenn Youngkin.”

The debate was held in vote-rich Northern Virginia, an area that would be key to any potential Democratic victory. The sprawling region is one that heavily favors McAuliffe and is emblematic of the shift of suburban voters throughout Trump’s tenure in the White House.

And Democrats’ surrogates ahead of the debate also point to the type of voters they are trying to keep in their camp with Trump out of the White House — squishy suburbanites who broke away from the GOP due to Trump. The state party held a press availability ahead of the debate, trotting out former Republican state Del. David Ramadan and Bill Kristol, the longtime neoconservative never-Trump pundit, and McAuliffe shouted out both men on stage.

“Northern Virginia, if not the state overall, is still in my opinion, a third, a third and a third,” said Ramadan, referencing a third for either party and a third independent. “Both parties are going to bring out their bases, right? But what it comes down to here is, are the independents going to come out?”

The question is, however, how much of that swing toward Democrats has stuck with Trump out of office. Public and private polling has suggested that this race will be closer than Biden’s blowout win in 2020. The latest sign was a poll from Monmouth University released on the eve of the debate that had McAuliffe up 5 points over Youngkin among registered voters — a narrow yet stable lead compared to an earlier August poll from the university.

Republicans are hoping that with Trump gone, they can claw back some ground. And Democrats have relentlessly been trying to turn the November election into a referendum on Trump’s sway on the commonwealth, casting Youngkin as an acolyte of Trump.

For his part, Youngkin — a former private-equity executive — tried to stick to his core message, focused on the economy and crime. He hit McAuliffe for saying he would support a bill repealing the state’s “right-to-work” law.

“This bill is going to come to his desk, and Terry McAuliffe will sign it. He said that, and the minute he said he would sign it, every union in America endorsed him,” Youngkin said. “It will be the death blow for Virginia’s business climate. This is why every business organization in Virginia that has offered an endorsement so far has given it to me. Not to you, Terry, but to me.”

McAuliffe, who had previously said he supports repealing the right-to-work law, didn’t explicitly say again if he would or would not back it, saying it has no political path in the state legislature.

On the airwaves, Youngkin has been focused on a message surrounding law enforcement. Over the last week, nearly 70 percent of his TV ad airings in the race have been a variation of a spot that has a former Richmond police officer talking about when she was shot, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact, attacking McAuliffe over the state’s parole board and saying the state “won’t be safe” with him.

Youngkin’s campaign sought to drive that focus home before the debate, announcing the endorsement from the state Fraternal Order of Police on Tuesday morning, following earlier endorsements from the state’s Police Benevolent Association and a sheriff’s association. “Youngkin is the only gubernatorial candidate to sit down with the Fraternal Order of Police and outline his goals as governor,” Virginia FOP President John H. Ohrnberger said in a statement circulated by the campaign.

On the debate stage, the two men also sparred over abortion: McAuliffe hit Youngkin for supporting additional restrictions on abortion rights, while Youngkin called McAuliffe’s position “extreme.” And Youngkin spun a question about Afghan refugees being housed in Virginia into a lengthy and strenuous criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the troop pullout.

Near the end of the hour, the moderator, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, sought to pin the candidates down on national issues. Asked about Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill currently working through Congress, McAuliffe said it was too costly. Youngkin, meanwhile, told Todd he would support Trump if the former president was Republicans’ nominee in 2024.

The debate was produced by Washington’s WRC-TV and aired on NBC affiliates throughout Virginia.

The next five weeks of the campaign are expected to attract a windfall of attention — and money — from national organizations in an already incredibly expensive race that has saturated the airwaves and mailboxes of voters in the region.

The state has no contribution limits, and both parties’ national gubernatorial committees have given their candidate and state parties millions: $6.6 million from the Republican Governors Association, and $4.7 million from their Democratic counterparts, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. And strategists at the upper echelon of both parties have said they have no plans to shut off that fire hose anytime soon.

The final stretch of the race is also expected to draw increased attention from the White House, POLITICO previously reported, which is fearful that a McAuliffe loss could kick off a cascade of second-guessing and nervousness from Democrats across the country.

And other groups are increasingly getting involved, as well. The Virginia branch of the Service Employees International Union will roll out a $4 million field, paid media and Get Out the Vote campaign on Wednesday morning. The plan, shared first with POLITICO, includes $400,000 budgeted for English- and Spanish-language digital ads and direct mail.

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