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As they elect a governor, Virginia voters show how all politics have become national

In Virginia's race for governor, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has rallied voters around national cultural divisions playing out in schools in his campaign against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
In Virginia's race for governor, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has rallied voters around national cultural divisions playing out in schools in his campaign against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

There's an old saying that all politics is local, but that doesn't seem so apt anymore.

In Virginia, thorny cultural issues that have divided people across the country like race and vaccine mandates are all jumbled up as voters decide who to pick as their new governor on Tuesday.

GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin plainly stated that if he wins a state that's become reliable for Democrats, it will ripple across the country.

"We have a moment here, a defining moment, where we get to change the trajectory of the great commonwealth of Virginia, not just for Virginians, not just for those who live here, but for the entire United States of America," Youngkin said last Tuesday at an event in Danville, Va., near the North Carolina border.

Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe was on the opposite edge of the state that same day, at a rally just outside Washington, D.C., with President Biden asking voters to "show up like you did for Barack and me," nodding to the fact that Democrats have won Virginia in every presidential election since 2008, including a 10-point victory for Biden in 2020.

McAuliffe won the governorship once before, in 2013, on the heels of Obama's second victory, breaking a trend where the party holding the White House tends to lose the Virginia governor's race.

Some took it as a sign that the state was becoming just too Democratic for the party to lose statewide.

Democrats are fighting history and apathy

All signs show an incredibly close race, drawing national Democratic figures like Biden, former President Barack Obama, Vice President Harris and Stacey Abrams to the state in the final days. They are trying to fire up their party's voters and avoid falling to that historic pattern of losing Virginia after winning the White House, especially since Biden's popularity has sagged and Youngkin has kept the race tight in the polls with support from many independent voters.

McAuliffe campaigned with the president in Arlington, the reliably blue part of the state with the crowded suburbs of Washington that are a microcosm of a changing America, where you can find a Vietnamese strip mall down the road from a kabob joint.

Lisa Soronen is a Democrat who was at the campaign event with her 8-year-old daughter Sasha on a chilly, windy weeknight, even though she's not thrilled with her candidate.

"I was disappointed in some ways that it was Terry McAuliffe because he's already been governor and there are some great women candidates, great candidates of color," she said.

But Soronen figures at least he knows what to do in the job. She has concerns about the pandemic and how a Republican governor might handle or mishandle the situation in schools.

Democratic voter Lisa Sorenen and her daughter Sasha, age 8, at a rally for Democratic candidate for Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 26.
Asma Khalid / NPR
Democratic voter Lisa Sorenen and her daughter Sasha, age 8, at a rally for Democratic candidate for Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 26.

"I have a school-age child who isn't vaccinated and my 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," she said.

Schools, school masking, school board meetings, school curriculum — it's all become possibly the most explosive subject this campaign cycle.

Youngkin has been blasting McAuliffe for saying at a debate, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," referring to control of which books are taught in schools.

It's been all over local television in the Republican's ads.

Harold Anderson is a longtime math teacher in public schools, and at the McAuliffe rally he defended the remark.

"Well, I've been teaching for 30 years. You can't let a parent come in and run a school system. That's why you elect a school board," he said. "They make decisions for you."

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.

Democratic voter Kelly Hebron, who is a Black woman, says she has been hearing about this.

"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," she said. "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."

Republicans are frustrated with Democrats over the economy

Drive less than two hours south of Arlington and you find Hanover County, a consistently red part of the state with high voter turnout. Folks here preferred Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Anthony Hess had just cast his ballot at the main early voting site and said he's skeptical of politicians like McAuliffe.

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

Hess voted for Youngkin, who 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 with the economy on a lot of voters' minds.

Nicole Anderson has a small construction business that does roofing, who thinks Democrats in the state have handled the economy "extremely poorly" and thinks pandemic relief was extended too long.

"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," she said. "And so it's just going to continue to snowball."

Republicans nationwide are eager to blame Democrats for inflation and supply shortages. They argue that business-minded Republicans would improve the economy.

How cultural and racial divisions motivate voters

In Virginia, conservatives are particularly upbeat about their odds in this election. The local GOP chairwoman in Hanover County, Dale Alderman, sees this cultural moment as ripe for Republicans.

"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," she said. "It's basically used to indoctrinate people."

That's despite the fact that Hanover County Public Schools has said it is not teaching critical race theory.

Local Democrats say the academic theory is not the real issue, anyhow, as society confronts racial and cultural changes. Last year, the Hanover school board agreed to rename two schools named after Confederate generals after years of pressure and a lawsuit.

"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 the school, that speaks to me of racism," said Pat Jordan, president of the Hanover County NAACP. "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."

Pat Jordan is president of the Hanover County, Va., NAACP. She has received threats over her political positions and sees Democratic candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe as an ally.
Melissa Gray / NPR
Pat Jordan is president of the Hanover County, Va., NAACP. She has received threats over her political positions and sees Democratic candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe as an ally.

Jordan says she's gotten threats and been told to leave the county, where her family has lived for more than 200 years. She cast her ballot for McAuliffe because she says she wants a governor who is an ally.

"I do not believe that I am going to run from anyone. I just know that change is coming here," she said. "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 proudly remembers voting for Barack Obama in 2008, sitting on the broad wraparound porch of his home in Hanover County, a house that belonged to his grandfather, who Leachman says was a devoted Democrat.

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

Leachman supported McAuliffe when he ran for governor in 2013, but not this time.

"He was a different person to me," Leachman said. "I think he's power hungry this time, and I think he's changed a lot."

The former Obama voter, who then supported GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and voted for Trump twice says the aftermath of the 2016 election played a role in that change. "I felt like he was so, so ugly about Donald Trump, and he wasn't part of the solution, he was part of the problem with some of the hate that we see."

Leachman's disaffection with the Democratic Party is influenced by his feelings about the party's focus on race.

Thomas Leachman is a former Democratic voter who is put off by the way the party focuses on race. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but then voted twice for Donald Trump for president and supports Republican Glenn Youngkin for Virginia governor.
Melissa Gray / NPR
Thomas Leachman is a former Democratic voter who is put off by the way the party focuses on race. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but then voted twice for Donald Trump for president and supports Republican Glenn Youngkin for Virginia governor.

"One of the things that 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," Leachman said. "That is really what I think sent me, more so than any other thing, because I just — I'm so, so frustrated by everything being racist, every single time."

But more than party politics, he says he likes Youngkin.

"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," he said, adding that he appreciates the fact that Youngkin is a Virginia native while McAuliffe was born and raised in upstate New York.

Leachman at one point motioned to the corner of his lawn, where a Glenn Youngkin sign was standing.

"It's the first political sign that's ever been a Republican in this yard, probably since, you know, whenever they started doing political signs," he said.

Leachman does have another symbol in his yard that's not a political sign.

The Virginia flag billowing from his front porch.

It's been there for years, and Leachman says it does not matter who wins the governor's race this Tuesday, he'll keep flying that flag.

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