- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2021

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’s GOP 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

The economy and jobs are two of the top issues on the minds of registered Virginia voters, according to a Monmouth University poll last month that showed the issue 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, who served as the co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm based in Washington, was more trusted on the economy and the preferred pick of 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 Institute of Polling. “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.”

For his part, 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 COVID-19 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.

Mr. McAuliffe also is playing up the pro-business achievements he garnered as governor working with the then GOP-controlled legislature and attacking Mr. Youngkin‘s “failed record on Wall Street.”

“We can’t trust him to lead Virginia,” the narrator says in a new McAuliffe campaign TV ad released this week.

Mr. Youngkin and Mr. McAuliffe are set to square off Thursday on the debate stage for the first time.

It offers Mr. Youngkin a major platform to deliver his message straight to voters and make the case that one-party Democratic rule in Richmond has hurt public education, fueled rising crime and made Virginia less competitive economically.

“Virginians are supporting Glenn Youngkin because they know he is the best leader to cut the cost of living for Virginians, get Virginia through the pandemic, reinvigorate our economy, and build job opportunities,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “Independents, Republicans, and Democrats across the Commonwealth are joining to support Glenn‘s candidacy because they want common-sense solutions and real results, not political games and stagnant growth from a 40-year career politician.”

Two months out from the election, Mr. Youngkin also could be getting a boost from President Biden, according to a GOP 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 about the gubernatorial election than Democrats.

Mr. Youngkin led by 2 points over Mr. McAuliffe when progressive third-party candidate Princess Blanding, a racial justice activist, was added as a choice. She will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

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 base of the Republican Party without turning off the suburban voters that helped Democrats dominate recent statewide elections, and disliked 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 2020.

The WPA poll released this month found Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater at 43% approve, 50% disapprove. A month ago, the same survey found 53% approved of his performance, and 43% disapproved.

It also found Mr. Youngkin had pulled into a 48% to 48% dead heat with Mr. McAuliffe, with 4% of likely voters undecided.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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