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Competitive Virginia governor's race to test Biden's appeal

The first major test of how voters feel about Joe Biden's presidency is unfolding in Virginia, where a governor's race that was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats is instead ending in suspense.

Joe Biden easily carried the state in 2020 presidential vote, but tight race shows how things have changed

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters during a rally in Richmond, Va., on Monday. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

The first major test of how voters feel about Joe Biden's presidency is unfolding in Virginia, where a governor's race that was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats is instead ending in suspense.

Terry McAuliffe, one of the most prominent figures in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, is in a tight race Tuesday for his old job against Republican rival and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin. The bruising, costly campaign has centred on issues including Youngkin's ties to former president Donald Trump, the future of abortion rights and culture war battles over school curricula.

But the results may ultimately be interpreted as an early judgment of Biden. A year after he easily captured Virginia by 10 percentage points, the competitive nature of the governor's race is a sign of how his political fortunes have changed. The White House has been shaken in recent months by the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a sometimes sluggish economic recovery amid the pandemic and a legislative agenda at risk of stalling on Capitol Hill.

A loss in a state that has trended toward Democrats for more than a decade would deepen the sense of alarm inside the party heading into next year's midterm elections, when control of Congress is at stake.

"Tomorrow will be a statement. A statement that will be heard across this country," Youngkin told a large crowd that chanted "USA! USA!" during his final rally late Monday night. "The future of this commonwealth, the future of this country is going to be decided."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va., on Monday. (Cliff Owen/The Associated Press)

McAuliffe countered that a GOP win would roll back all the progress his party had made while buoying Trump. "Folks, the stakes are huge," McAuliffe said, adding of Youngkin, "He doesn't know anything about governance."

Elsewhere on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is trying to win re-election against Republican former State Assembly member Jack Ciattarelli. If successful, Murphy would be the first Democrat re-elected as the state's governor in 44 years, though New Jersey hasn't voted Republican for president since 1988.

Mayor's offices in many of the nation's largest cities are also up for grabs. A ballot question in Minneapolis, meanwhile, could reshape policing in that community, where the killing of George Floyd last year touched off sweeping demonstrations for racial justice across the nation.

But no other race in this off-year election season received the level of attention as the governor's campaign in Virginia. That's in part because previous races have sometimes foreshadowed voter frustration with the party newly in power.

In 2009, during President Barack Obama's first year in office, Republican Bob McDonnell's victory in Virginia previewed a disastrous midterm cycle for Democrats, who lost more than 60 House seats the following year.

Voters want to send a message

Heading into Tuesday, some voters similarly said they wanted to send a powerful message to Washington.

Dan Maloy, a 53-year-old small-business owner and Youngkin supporter, said he would grade Biden's performance as worse than an F.

"Unfortunately, everything he touches has turned to stone," Maloy said, noting he was particularly worried about securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Brooke Hall-Ewell, a 50-year-old nurse who lives in Richmond and attended a McAuliffe event in the campaign's final hours, acknowledged, "It's scary to see things so close."

"We have a huge opportunity to take advantage of right now with Biden's presidency," she said, noting that she wished the Democratic-controlled Congress would move with more urgency. "I just wish we could come together as a unit."

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