Virginia voters turned out in droves Tuesday in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial election, a closely-watched race that is widely seen as a referendum on nine months of unified Democratic governance and a preview of next year’s midterm vote.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor between 2014 and 2018, had been a heavy favorite against Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state President Biden carried by 10 percentage points last year. However, McAuliffe spent the final weeks of the campaign on the defensive as Youngkin attacked him on education, long considered a pet Democratic issue.
Despite McAuliffe’s attempt to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, at least one exit poll indicated that the Republican had a higher favorability rating than his rival. An NBC News survey showed that 53 percent of voters had a favorable view of Youngkin, while the same percentage had an unfavorable view of McAuliffe.
Two exit polls, one from NBC News and the other from CBS News, found that a whopping 84 percent of voters said that parents should have either “a lot” or “some” say in their children’s school curriculum, indicating that Youngkin’s attack on McAuliffe over issues like critical race theory in schools and advocacy for greater parental involvement had struck a chord among the electorate in the final weeks.
The CBS exit poll also showed President Biden’s approval rating at just 43 percent, while 54 percent disapproved of the job the president is doing in office.
Election analysts predicted that turnout would surpass the 2.6 million who voted in the 2017 gubernatorial election, and could even top 3 million. Early data indicated that turnout was up in both traditionally Democratic and Republican areas, lending additional unpredictability to the result.
Absentee ballots and early votes were expected to be counted first and show McAuliffe with a large initial advantage. Youngkin was expected to close the gap as Election Day votes were counted and reported, but it was unclear whether he would have enough to overhaul whatever early total McAuliffe received.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, more than 1.16 million people had voted prior to Election Day, with most casting their ballots in person. However, mail-in ballots could provide a late twist if the result is close.
Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper told WRIC-TV that his department had yet to receive approximately 88,000 mail-in ballots. Virginia law allows ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted so long as they arrive by noon three days later — Nov. 5.
That means that if McAuliffe and Youngkin are neck-and-neck, the result may not be known until this weekend.
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