Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin, the leading contenders to become Virginia’s next governor, will face each other for the first of two scheduled debates Thursday night in Southwest Virginia.
The COVID-19 pandemic—which has resurged in Virginia due to the delta variant and lagging vaccinations—will serve as the backdrop for the debate Thursday, when both candidates are expected to defend competing visions for managing the crisis.
McAuliffe, a former governor and seasoned politician, will come onto the stage to advocate for a second term in the Executive Mansion in a state increasingly trending in favor of Democrats. McAuliffe has promised to use his deal-making skills and progressive social policies to attract economic development to Virginia.
The moderate, business-friendly Democrat will need to draw enough liberal voters to the polls to secure his victory.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, will be participating in his first high-profile political debate.
Youngkin has no previous political experience and has instead leaned on his time in the private sector to round out his pitch for the state’s highest office. A package of tax cuts rolled out last month has become his most substantial policy proposal and the centerpiece of his campaign.
In a state where Republicans have faced political losses going back a decade, Youngkin will try to rally disgruntled Republicans and enough independents to become the first GOP governor since Bob McDonnell.
McAuliffe and Youngkin will meet in Grundy, a legacy coal-mining town that is home to the debate’s host, the Appalachian School of Law. The area, which leans solidly in favor of Republicans, faces some of the same economic opportunity and health care access challenges that plague the rest of the state’s rural Southwest. In 2015, The Atlantic profiled Grundy as “the sickest town in America.”
Grundy is in Buchanan County, which saw the largest population decline of any city or county in the state over the past decade—a 16% drop, according to the 2020 census. Grundy itself, a town of nearly 900 people, saw a population decline of 14%.
For weeks, McAuliffe and Youngkin have sparred on pandemic-related policies. McAuliffe has advocated for mask and vaccine mandates for public and private sector employees, arguing that the orders are necessary to bring the public health crisis to an end.
President Joe Biden issued a sweeping mandate—one that was quickly backed by prominent Democrats in the state—that will cover many Virginia employers.
Youngkin, meanwhile, has been emphatic in his opposition to vaccine mandates, arguing that people should choose for themselves. Youngkin has said he and his family are vaccinated and encourages others to be. Youngkin also opposed vaccine mandates in schools and has ruled out tightening public restrictions in the future, no matter what happens with the pandemic.
Youngkin’s campaign and the Republican Party of Virginia on Tuesday shared an article from Fox News showing McAuliffe, in a photo from July, not wearing a mask aboard an Amtrak train, where masks are required.
The McAuliffe campaign has declined to explicitly address the photo, and instead, in comments to Fox News, said Youngkin “has an extensive history of not following CDC mask guidelines.” Youngkin, in fact, has attended and spoken at multiple indoor events without a mask, which goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Youngkin may use the spotlight to talk more about the new centerpiece of his campaign, a sweeping plan for tax cuts. Youngkin has proposed to do away with the state’s 2.5% tax on groceries, to delay a tax hike on gasoline, and to issue a $600 tax rebate per family once he takes office, among other tax measures.
It’s unclear if Youngkin’s plan is financially or politically viable, but he has used it to deride Democrats as overtaxing Virginians.
Youngkin’s opposition to abortion access may also come to a head given recent attention on Texas’ law essentially banning abortions as early as six weeks.
McAuliffe may face questions about his stance on the state’s “right-to-work” law, which allows employees to avoid paying dues to the unions that represent them without risking their jobs. Many progressive Democrats support repealing the law, but the GOP and business lobby staunchly oppose its repeal.
McAuliffe has wavered on his position, declining to engage on the topic by arguing that the repeal of the right-to-work law is politically impossible in Virginia.
Where to watch
The debate starts at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast by CBS stations across the state and livestreamed on the Appalachian School of Law’s YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/1r5o1GgGqU8.
The debate will be moderated by Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today. Bob Holsworth, a political analyst, and Candace Burns, a CBS6 News anchor, will participate as panelists.