Both parties are anxiously watching as results pour in from across the commonwealth, eager for clues about the political temperature that will inform their campaigns next year for Congress, Senate and 36 other governors’ mansions. It’s the first statewide general election of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive making his first run for office, is hoping an outpouring of support in rural areas and a return to the GOP by some suburbanites will signal the beginning of a red wave to put his party back in power in Washington.
McAuliffe, a former governor seeking to reclaim the office, is hoping to keep the state blue with strong turnout in Northern Virginia’s sprawling suburbs, the Richmond area, and the heavily African American Hampton Roads region.
Early NBC News exit polls found the economy was the top issue for Virginia voters — they split roughly evenly on which candidate they trusted more to handle the issue — followed by education, taxes, Covid and abortion, in that order.
Youngkin made education the centerpiece of his campaign, capitalizing on parental frustration with school closures and fears about alleged anti-white bias in the curriculum. Stoked by conservative alarmism about critical race theory, an until recently obscure academic discipline mostly taught in universities, Republicans say the issue could be central in future campaigns across the country.
When asked how much say parents should have in what their children’s school teaches, McAuliffe voters mostly said “not much,” while Youngkin voters mostly said “a lot,” according to NBC News exit polls.
Voters said they trusted McAuliffe more to handle the pandemic, but Youngkin more on crime, while they split roughly evenly on whom they trust to handle the economy.
Donald Trump has loomed large over the Virginia race, with McAuliffe looking to tie his opponent to the divisive former president, who lost the state by 10 percentage points in 2020.
The NBC News exit poll found that 54 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, compared to 41 percent who had positive view of him. While McAuliffe voters were almost unanimously negative on the former president, only about three quarters (73 percent) of Youngkin voters have a favorable opinion of Trump and 19 percent had a negative view of him.
Youngkin has tried tricky balancing act with Trump, who praised him in a telephonic rally Monday, keeping him just close enough to keep the conservative base engaged while trying to avoid turning off suburban voters who fled the GOP in recent years.
Meanwhile, about half of voters said that Biden was not a factor in their vote for governor, according to the NBC News exit poll, but only 43 percent approved of the way he is doing his job, while a slight majority (56 percent) disapproved.
Forty-nine percent said Biden was not a factor in their vote, 28 percent said one reason for their vote for governor was to express opposition to Biden, and 20 percent said it was to express support for the president.
A recent expansion of early voting options is expected to help drive turnout up in Virginia, though it’s unclear which party will benefit from the change.
Polls close in Virginia at 7 p.m. ET and results are expected to come in relatively quickly, though a close contest could drag out the declaration of a winner.