It was a testy start to the second and final debate in Virginia’s high-stakes governor’s race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin on Tuesday night.
With polls showing a close contest just five weeks before Election Day, the debate centered on familiar national issues: the pandemic, abortion rights and former President Donald Trump. The candidates also tried to score points on a host of less prominent topics, including crime rates, Youngkin’s background in private equity and labor law.
Here are key takeaways from the final gubernatorial debate before Election Day on Nov. 2:
THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY
It took less than 90 seconds for Youngkin to call McAuliffe a liar.
“In the first debate, he lied to you. That’s what politicians do,” the Republican candidate said during his opening statement.
The attack set the tone for the debate, with each candidate taking on the other in personal terms, even if Youngkin was often the aggressor. Youngkin clearly got under McAuliffe’s skin at times.
“I just can’t understand how you can so comfortably lie to everybody,” Youngkin said during one exchange on abortion.
McAuliffe retorted, “That’s what you’ve been doing all night, buddy.”
Things got particularly nasty when the candidates were talking about the state budget.
“Revenue and expenses, I know were hard for you. I know they’re hard for you,” Youngkin said. “Terry, you have no idea what you’re talking about.”
McAuliffe repeatedly seized on Youngkin’s opposition to mask and vaccine mandates. It’s an issue McAuliffe’s team believes is a political winner, especially as the pandemic remains a serious threat in Virginia and beyond.
Youngkin came prepared with a statement outlining his position — “Everyone should get the vaccine … but I don’t believe we should mandate it” — but stumbled briefly when asked by moderator Chuck Todd whether he supports mandating vaccines for diseases like measles and mumps, which have been required in U.S. schools for generations.
He eventually said he did support mandating measles and mumps vaccines, explaining that more data was available on those inoculations.
McAuliffe described Youngkin’s position as dangerous.
He “says if you don’t want to get it, don’t get it. You can’t be governor and say things like that,” McAuliffe charged. “That is disqualifying.”
TRUMP ON THE BALLOT?
McAuliffe repeatedly tried to link Youngkin to the former president, calling Youngkin “a Trump wannabe.” Youngkin, who has been endorsed by Trump, didn’t like it.
“There’s an over/under on how many times you’d say Donald Trump,” Youngkin said. “You’re running against me. It’s Terry McAuliffe against Glenn Youngkin.”
He added, “The only person invoking Trump is you.”
Youngkin has declined to embrace Trump as heartily as some of his Republican primary challengers did in a state Democrat Joe Biden won over Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020. And while he tried to sidestep the subject onstage Tuesday, Youngkin made news in the final minutes of the debate when asked whether he’d support Trump if he runs again in the next presidential election.
Initially, Youngkin tried to dodge: “Who knows who’s going to be running for president in 2024?”
When pressed, he clarified, “If he’s the Republican nominee, I’ll support him.”
ABORTION FIGHT COMES TO VIRGINIA
The candidates exchanged particularly heated rhetoric on abortion, which has emerged as a central issue after the Supreme Court scheduled arguments in a case that could challenge Roe v. Wade.
Youngkin, who has downplayed his anti-abortion policies on the campaign trail, confirmed that he does support a “pain threshold bill,” which would ban most abortions after the 20-week mark. The Republican then pivoted to his opponent, calling McAuliffe “the most extreme abortion candidate in the country.”
“You want to be the abortion governor,” Youngkin charged.
The Democrat seemed to welcome the attack.
“I want every woman in Virginia to listen to me closely. I was a brick wall to protect women’s rights,” McAuliffe said. He later added, “Women are tired of people like Glenn Youngkin telling them what to do with their bodies.”
The fight is a likely preview of midterm elections across the country. Democrats believe the threat of new abortion restrictions will help rally women behind them. Female voters, particularly in the suburbs, have played a key role in helping Democrats seize control of Congress — and Virginia — in the Trump era.
It remains to be seen if Democrats will do as well without Trump as a foil in the Oval Office.
By STEVE PEOPLES, AP National Political Writer