Cheat sheet: Youngkin and McAuliffe on the issues

As the race for governor comes to a close, here’s a look back at the stances Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin have staked out on major policy issues.
McAuliffe, Youngkin meet for first debate on eve of beginning of early voting
McAuliffe, Youngkin meet for first debate on eve of beginning of early voting
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 2:21 AM EDT
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Public education has become the dominant issue of Virginia’s gubernatorial race. But in the last weeks of the campaign, both candidates have focused less on funding formulas and school construction — some of the most pressing needs facing schools across the commonwealth — and more on controversial literature and other cultural flashpoints.

First, the basics. At the start of his campaign, McAuliffe released a six-page plan pledging “the largest increase in education investment in the history of Virginia.” He’s promised more funding to raise teacher salaries above the national average, expand access to preschool and fully adopt the Standards of Quality recommended by the Virginia Board of Education — guidance for staffing ratios, class size and other school resources.

Youngkin’s “Day One” plan offers less detail, but he’s committed to building at least 20 charter schools across Virginia to “provide choice” to parents. He’s also called for every school in the state to place a law enforcement officer on campus or lose out on state funding.

It’s Youngkin’s pledge to ban critical race theory, though, that’s become the centerpiece of his campaign. The largely academic concept isn’t part of Virginia’s statewide learning standards, but the term is often used to encompass broader equity efforts or lessons that focus on historical instances of racism. In Loudoun County, for example, one parent complained that his second-grade daughter learned Christopher Columbus enslaved and killed indigenous people. Another example conservatives point to is an “Anti racism 101″ seminar hosted on the Virginia Department of Education’s YouTube page as part of a state equity summit, which includes a slide titled “interrogating whiteness” and presenters imploring education leaders to “force yourself to always see race, especially if you’re White,” suggesting educators who don’t work to dismantle institutional racism are complicit in the “spirit murdering of our Black and Brown students.”

“Critical race theory has moved into our school system and we have to remove it,” Youngkin said in August, promising to ban the concept “on day one.” His campaign has promised to “stand up for teachers and parents,” and he’s supported a Loudoun County educator who was suspended after speaking against the district’s policy requiring that transgender students be addressed by the pronouns they identify with. He has also pledged to include funding in his budgets for all five of Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities.

Youngkin has also criticized McAuliffe for vetoing a bill in 2017 that would have required school districts to notify parents when students are assigned reading materials deemed “sexually explicit.” The legislation originated with opposition to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in Fairfax County. McAuliffe responded, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids.”

McAuliffe has largely dismissed Youngkin’s attacks on critical race theory as racist, describing them as “a dog whistle” in one recent roundtable. And his closing ads have accused Youngkin of “wanting to ban books by prominent Black authors.”

Economy, jobs and taxes

Both candidates are pitching themselves as job creators, with McAuliffe touting his record of landing big economic development deals during his first term and Youngkin saying he’ll bring new perspective as someone who just left the business world for politics.

Building on Democrats’ push to make Virginia friendlier to workers as well as executives, McAuliffe says he’ll require employers to offer paid sick days and family medical leave, ideas that have been discussed in the Democratic-led General Assembly but have yet to be broadly implemented. He has also called for speeding up planned increases in the state’s minimum wage, getting it to $15 per hour by 2024. With respect to labor organizing, McAuliffe wants to extend collective bargaining rights to state employees, but he has signaled Virginia’s right-to-work law won’t be repealed if he wins a second term.

Youngkin contends that’s not a sure bet, noting McAuliffe once indicated he would sign right-to-work repeal if it got to his desk.

With little room to attack Virginia’s business climate given the state’s top ranking from CNBC, Youngkin has zeroed in on cost-of-living issues and promises to cut tax bills. He has proposed doubling the standard deduction for state income taxes, one-time tax rebates, restrictions on “runaway property taxes” and eliminating the state’s grocery tax. Youngkin has also campaigned against business shutdowns tied to COVID-19.

Both campaigns have pushed out studies from their political allies claiming their opponents’ fiscal plans are mathematically untenable.

McAuliffe has said Youngkin’s tax policies, including the GOP nominee’s aspirations of eliminating the state income tax altogether, would inevitably blow up the state budget and bring major service cuts. Youngkin has claimed McAuliffe’s ambitious spending plans couldn’t be covered by existing revenues and could lead to tax hikes.


Any focus on health in Virginia’s governor’s race has largely boiled down to two issues: COVID-19 and abortion.

Publicly, McAuliffe and Youngkin have sparred over measures like masking and vaccinations, still key in efforts to bring an end to the pandemic. McAuliffe has supported a mandate to require masks in school buildings and released a plan to boost vaccination rates, including using federal rescue money to incentivize vaccine requirements by private employers.

Youngkin, on the other hand, has explicitly said “there should not be a statewide school mask mandate” in Virginia. He’s also opposed vaccine mandates, though he’s encouraged Virginians to get the shots voluntarily.

Abortion, too, has become a prominent campaign topic for McAuliffe since Texas effectively banned the procedure. Around the same time, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could present a serious challenge to Roe V. Wade, its landmark 1973 abortion rights decision. With access potentially under threat, Democrats have seized on the opportunity to emphasize the importance of individual state protections.

“I’ll say this again to every woman watching tonight — I will protect your rights,” McAuliffe said at one debate in September. He’s cited his own record in vetoing legislation that would have blocked funding to Planned Parenthood, and he’s supported recently passed measures that rolled back many of the state’s abortion restrictions. In one radio interview, he also said he wouldn’t have vetoed a controversial proposed bill from Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, that would have eased certain restrictions on late-term abortions (though Politifact described it as a flip-flop on previous statements).

Youngkin, for his part, has described himself as “unabashedly pro-life.” In debates, he’s said he would support the reinstatement of some abortion restrictions and a bill that would ban the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape and incest.

Other health issues haven’t gotten much airtime from either campaign, though McAuliffe has released plans to strengthen Medicaid, expand health care access and lower drug costs. Youngkin has supported investments in the state’s struggling mental health hospitals.


The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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