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Virginia gubernatorial race is split over COVID-19 restrictions, race and the economy

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

There's an old saying that all politics is local, but that doesn't seem so apt anymore. In Virginia, thorny cultural issues like race and vaccine mandates are all jumbled up as folks decide who to pick as their new governor on November 2.

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GLENN YOUNGKIN: We have a moment here, a defining moment, where we all get to change the trajectory of this great Commonwealth of Virginia not just for Virginians, but for the entire United States of America.

KHALID: That's Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate down near the Virginia-North Carolina border the other night. Meanwhile, on the opposite edge of the state...

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TERRY MCAULIFFE: We cannot let Glenn Youngkin be in charge of our children's education or their health.

KHALID: The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, brought the president of the United States to campaign for him at a rally just outside of Washington, D.C.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So, Virginia, show up. Show up like you did for Barack and me.

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KHALID: McAuliffe is running for governor again after leaving office four years ago.

We're in Arlington, the reliably blue part of the state. These are the crowded suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., where you can find a Vietnamese strip mall down the road from a kabob joint. It's a microcosm of a changing America. Lisa Soronen is a Democrat, but she's not thrilled with her candidate, even though she's here at his campaign event on a chilly, windy weeknight.

LISA SORONEN: I was disappointed in some ways that it was Terry McAuliffe because he's already been governor, and there were some great women candidates, great candidates of color.

KHALID: But, she figures, at least he knows what to do in the job. Plus, she says, she's really concerned about the pandemic and how a Republican governor might handle or mishandle the situation in schools.

SORONEN: I have a school-age child who isn't vaccinated, and I have a sister in Georgia. She sends me every single COVID notice she has, and they're daily - multiple daily. And I don't have to worry about that.

KHALID: Schools, school masking, school board meetings, school curriculum - it's all become possibly the most explosive subject this campaign cycle. We meet Harold Anderson in the crowd just as the campaign speeches are getting underway. He's been teaching high school math at a public school for 30 years, and he told us about this comment that's been making headlines. The GOP candidate, Glenn Youngkin, has been blasting his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, for saying during a debate that he did not think parents should tell schools what to teach.

HAROLD ANDERSON: You can't let a parent come in and run a school system, and that's why you elect a school board. They make decisions for you.

KHALID: For some people here, the race is about keeping this newly blue state blue. Democrats are getting anxious because polls show the candidates running neck and neck. They say this election should never have been this competitive. Joe Biden easily won Virginia last year. Still, pundits and pollsters are obsessively watching this governor's race to figure out how schools, the economy and vaccines might all factor into the 2022 midterm elections.

Northern Virginia is home turf for Democrats, but there are worries about how many Democrats will actually make it to the polls, especially Black and brown voters. Kelly Hebron has been hearing about this.

KELLY HEBRON: And some folks are like, oh, I'm not even going to vote, and we don't want to hear that because whether or not you're happy or not with a party, this is what we have to work with. And I think too many people don't feel like they're having a voice. And I think that is why this race is close.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, this is a little bit tricky.

KHALID: We drive less than two hours south, and we're in Hanover County, a consistently red part of the state with high voter turnout. Folks here preferred Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There's yours, and there's yours. Thank you for voting.

KHALID: We meet Anthony Hess just as he walked out of the main early voting site. He tells us he's skeptical of politicians like Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

ANTHONY HESS: He's too, like, nationwide, I think, not really Virginia-based. Like, bringing in Biden and Obama - it's not really here. I think he's more in the next level. I want someone that's going to focus on Virginia.

KHALID: Hess voted for Youngkin, the Republican. Youngkin has never held public office. He made his fortune leading one of the most prominent private equity firms in the country, the Carlyle Group. And that matters because the economy is on a lot of voters' minds - voters like Nicole Anderson, who has a small construction business that does roofing.

NICOLE ANDERSON: I did vote for Youngkin.

KHALID: OK. How do you think the Democrats have handled the economy here in the state?

ANDERSON: Extremely poorly. I understand that things need to be done during the COVID vaccines when things were shut down. But unfortunately, I think they held that relief too long. And so everybody is looking for people to work. No matter what you're doing as an employer, you're dealing with shortages. You're dealing with shortages on materials and equipment and supplies at every single solitary level. And people are not returning to work. And so it's just going to continue to snowball.

KHALID: Are you - do - like, supply shortages or people shortages?

ANDERSON: All the above.

KHALID: OK.

ANDERSON: So for instance, the materials on some of the projects that I need are not available until August of 2022, so it makes it exceptionally difficult to be able to do our jobs.

KHALID: Republicans nationwide are eager to blame Democrats for inflation and supply shortages. They argue that business-minded Republicans would improve the economy. And here in Virginia, conservatives are particularly upbeat about their odds in this election. The local GOP chairwoman sees this cultural moment as ripe for Republicans.

DALE ALDERMAN: People are very involved in Hanover. They're very patriotic. They love their country. I think people in this county feel that America is kind of on a collision course for very bad things. You know, they don't like critical race theory. It's basically used to indoctrinate people.

KHALID: To be clear, Hanover County Public Schools has said it is not teaching critical race theory, and local Democrats say it's not the real issue here.

PAT JORDAN: My name is Pat Jordan, and I am the president of our Hanover County NAACP.

KHALID: Jordan says her family has lived in Hanover County for more than 200 years.

JORDAN: So when I'm told by some of the people with differing views from ours to leave Hanover, I say I can't leave Hanover because this is my country, my county.

KHALID: Last year, the Hanover School Board agreed to rename two public schools named after Confederate generals. This was after years of pressure and a lawsuit. Jordan wants a governor that's an ally, and so she's cast her ballot for the Democrat, McAuliffe. She says Republicans are sensitive to change.

JORDAN: They don't want to be called racists. But your actions speak for you. And if you have to fight against the simple change in the name of a school, that speaks to me of racism. If you have to always threaten and call names of people who come to the school board meetings to express different opinions from you, those are racist things that are being done.

KHALID: Have you been called names?

JORDAN: I've been called names. I've gotten threats.

KHALID: Do you mind me asking what kind?

JORDAN: Yeah, the threats that I've gotten are telling me to leave Hanover County because of my quote, "BS agenda." I do not believe that I am going to run from anyone. I just know that change is coming here. In church we say there's a shifting in the spirit. And I feel that shift taking place in Hanover County. And that is why I think there is so much unrest right now, because I believe others see that as well.

THOMAS LEACHMAN: This is a family home. This is my grandfather's home. So my grandfather was the longtime Democrat here in the county.

KHALID: We meet Thomas Leachman to talk politics on his broad wraparound porch just yards away from the railroad tracks where trains speed by like clockwork. Leachman proudly remembers voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

LEACHMAN: Politically, I'm a tough nut to crack. For a majority of my life, I've been more left.

KHALID: And in 2013, when Terry McAuliffe first ran for governor of Virginia, Leachman was behind him.

So you did identify with Terry McAuliffe as governor when he ran the last time?

LEACHMAN: Absolutely, yeah.

KHALID: And why so?

LEACHMAN: Just because I think he was - he was a different - he was a different person to me. I think he's power-hungry this time, and I think he's changed a lot. I really changed my feelings of Terry McAuliffe towards - when Trump got elected because I felt like he was so, so ugly about Donald Trump. And he wasn't - he wasn't part of the solution. He was part of the problem with some of the - some of the hate that we see.

KHALID: It sounded like you voted for President Trump.

LEACHMAN: Yes.

KHALID: You voted - maybe you voted for him twice. I don't know.

LEACHMAN: Yes, I did.

KHALID: You voted for President Trump twice. You voted for Barack Obama the first time.

LEACHMAN: Yes.

KHALID: Not the second time.

LEACHMAN: Romney the second time.

KHALID: So what's made you move away from that Democratic Party that your grandpa was such a, you know, committed member of?

LEACHMAN: One of the things that's really irks me is the rise of identity politics that has been used by the Democratic Party in Virginia over the past six-plus years. That is really what I think has really sent me more so than any other thing because I just - I'm so, so frustrated by everything being racist every single time.

KHALID: But more important than party politics, he likes Youngkin.

LEACHMAN: I just identify with him more. You know, I just think he's a, you know, what you see is what you get type person. You know, I like his story. He's a Virginian, too. He's a true Virginian, whereas, you know, Terry McAuliffe is a come-here Virginian.

KHALID: Just as we were about to wrap up the conversation, Leachman pointed over to the corner of his lawn.

LEACHMAN: Over there, you'll see a political sign. First...

KHALID: It's a Glenn Youngkin sign.

LEACHMAN: Yeah, it's a Youngkin sign, but it's the first political sign that's ever been a Republican in this yard, probably since whenever they started doing political signs.

KHALID: And it may not be a political sign, but Leachman does have another symbol in his yard - the flag of Virginia. It's billowing from his front porch, and it's been there for years. Leachman says it does not matter who wins the governor's race this Tuesday. He'll keep flying that flag.

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KHALID: This story was produced by Hiba Ahmad and edited by Melissa Gray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.