Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin’s path to victory over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race could come down to grocery bills, according to one of the more iconic figures of the state GOP’s politics.
Former Sen. George Allen said Mr. Youngkin’s vow to scrap the state’s grocery tax is emblematic of a broader economic message that helps him court suburban voters who are interested in cutting costs and putting the brakes on the leftward lurch of the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
“With this inflation, the gasoline prices are high, but what people are really noticing are food prices going up,” said Mr. Allen, a Republican who served as governor from 1994 to 1998. “Glenn is for removing the tax on groceries, which I think is one of the downright common-sense issues.
“It is literally a kitchen table issue,” he said.
Mr. Youngkin, who served as the co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm based in Washington, and Mr. McAuliffe got the opportunity Thursday to share parts of their respective economic visions in their first debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. They also tangled over vaccine mandates, energy policy, abortion and their resumes.
“What I will do as governor is create a booming economy, as I did before,” Mr. McAuliffe said. He touted his work with the legislature, which Republicans controlled at the time.
Mr. McAuliffe said Mr. Youngkin‘s plans would run the economy into a ditch and siphon money away from government services.
Mr. Youngkin said Mr. McAuliffe‘s far-left vision would devastate the state’s economy and saddle taxpayers with bigger bills.
“If Terry McAuliffe is your next governor, get your checkbook out because he is going to have to raise taxes for you,” he said.
“We need to bring down the cost of living because the liberals in Virginia have been overtaxing Virginians,” he said.
“They are going to do it again, and that is your money, and Terry McAuliffe thinks that is his money,” Mr. Youngkin said. “I think it is your money, and I am going to give it back to you.”
Mr. McAuliffe said his record speaks for itself.
“I have a record of creating jobs, your record at Carlyle is outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. That is your record,” he said. “We don’t need that here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Mr. Youngkin said the attack is “bogus” and that Mr. McAuliffe invested money in the Carlyle Group.
“If you can trust me with your money, the rest of Virginia can trust me too,” Mr. Youngkin said, speaking to his rival.
The race in Virginia is viewed as a possible bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats will be defending control of the House and Senate.
The economy and jobs are two of the top issues on the minds of registered Virginia voters. A Monmouth University poll last month showed the issues sandwiched below concerns about the coronavirus and education and above concerns about health care and gun rights.
Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, held a 47% to 42% lead over Mr. Youngkin and was viewed as more trusted on most of the major issues. Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms.
But Mr. Youngkin was more trusted on the economy and was preferred among independent voters.
“He’s probably going to need to elevate jobs and the economy as an issue that more voters care about,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “McAuliffe has the edge on the pandemic because most Virginia voters support stricter guidelines such as school mask mandates, so doubling down on anti-mandate rhetoric may energize his base but is unlikely to sway any voters over to his side.”
In the hourlong debate, the issue of vaccinations also was front and center.
“He is not requiring vaccinations. That is the difference between the two of us,” Mr. McAuliffe said of his opponent.
Mr. Youngkin said Mr. McAuliffe is a liar and he has been a strong advocate “for everyone to get the vaccine,” but “I do believe that individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own.”
On abortion, Mr. McAuliffe said Mr. Youngkin wants to ban abortions. “It is dangerous for a woman’s life, but it is also crippling to the Virginia economy,” he said.
Mr. Youngkin said he is pro-life. He said he believes in exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. He also said he opposed the new Texas abortion law, which, among other things, bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy and empowers individuals to sue over abortions.
But Mr. Youngkin said Mr. McAuliffe is the most “extreme pro-abortion candidate” in the nation.
Mr. McAuliffe and his team have been intent on making the race about former President Donald Trump and have highlighted Mr. Youngkin‘s opposition to mask and vaccine mandates.
Gov. Gavin Newsom relied on a similar message to energize liberal-learning California voters and beat back a recall election this week, allowing Democrats to breathe a sigh of relief in the deep-blue state.
Two months out from the election, Mr. Youngkin could be getting a boost from President Biden, according to a Republican polling outfit.
A WPA Intelligence survey conducted for the Youngkin campaign showed that a backlash against Mr. Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan exit and the resurgent coronavirus was dragging down Mr. McAuliffe.
The survey showed Mr. Youngkin running neck and neck with Mr. McAuliffe in a head-to-head matchup, and it showed Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats about the gubernatorial election.
Mr. Youngkin led by 2 percentage points over Mr. McAuliffe when liberal third-party candidate Princess Blanding, a racial justice activist, was added as a choice. She will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot under the Liberation Party banner.
An Emerson College poll of likely voters released Thursday showed Mr. McAuliffe with a 49% to 45% lead over Mr. Youngkin, which is within the poll’s error margin.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, University of Mary Washington professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said Mr. Youngkin is seeking to strike a delicate balance between energizing the Republican base without turning off the suburban voters who have helped Democrats dominate recent statewide elections and who dislike Mr. Trump.
“The most effective issue that Youngkin can focus on is tax cuts,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “It is something that unifies Republicans, and it is something that is popular with voters — particularly in the suburbs, where a lot of people are facing financial pressures because of expensive home mortgages, and the relief would be welcome.”
Mr. Youngkin has proposed doubling the standard income tax deduction for taxpayers, suspending a gas tax increase and slicing taxes on veteran retirement. He also wants to require a vote for any proposed property tax increase.
“It is going to be hard for Youngkin to win the election without winning the argument over the economy,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “That is tough to do given Virginia’s rankings as a business-friendly state, but talking about the economy is far more effective than talking about abortion bans or critical race theory.”
Mr. Allen said Mr. Youngkin also is smart to target voters’ concerns about education and public safety.
“That is an issue not just for law enforcement, but I think for a lot of these suburban moms that care about safe neighborhoods,” he said.
The Youngkin campaign is betting that the political landscape has moved in their direction since Mr. Biden scored a 10-point win over Mr. Trump in Virginia in the presidential race last year.
The WPA poll released this month found Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater in Virginia, at 43% approve, 50% disapprove. A month ago, the same survey found 53% of the state-approved of his performance and 43% disapproved.
That poll found that Mr. Youngkin had pulled into a 48% to 48% dead heat with Mr. McAuliffe, with 4% of likely voters undecided.