On the eve of the first day of early voting, gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin faced off in the first debate of the general election campaign, presenting contrasting visions for how to lead Virginia over the next four years.
Democrat McAuliffe, who served as the commonwealth's top executive between 2014 and 2018, touted his past record throughout the debate, arguing in his closing statement that Virginia needs someone "who's done this job before to lead us through" the pandemic, plugging his 20 policy plans. But Republican Youngkin, a former private equity executive, repeatedly took aim at that same record, urging voters to "embrace someone new" to politics over the "old, recycled policies from a tired politician."
During the hour-long event, the nominees repeatedly clashed, sparring over COVID vaccine mandates, economic policy and abortion rights. But on one critical issue -- the question of whether they would accept the results of the election if they lost, even narrowly -- they were in agreement.
"Absolutely," both candidates pledged, each confident they would come out on top.
Also asked if he agreed with former President Donald Trump's baseless allegations that Democrats may try to cheat in this contest, Youngkin, whom Trump endorsed, said, "No ... I think we're gonna have a clean, fair election."
The debate was held at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia. The tiny town of about 1,000 residents sits in the middle of the southwestern Buchanan County, which borders both West Virginia and Kentucky. The region is a Republican stronghold, but the next and final debate, scheduled for Sept. 28 in Alexandria, will take place in vote-rich and reliably blue Northern Virginia. With only two debates agreed to by both candidates, Virginia voters won't see them face off at all the month before the election. The AARP of Virginia, which has sponsored gubernatorial and Senate debates for the last 15 years, canceled its Oct. 12 debate in the state capital after Youngkin declined to participate.
Fighting the coronavirus, recovering from the pandemic
Each candidate advocated that Virginians should get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but while McAuliffe favors mandates, Youngkin stressed personal responsibility.
"I have been a strong, strong advocate for everyone to get the vaccine. I do believe that individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own," Youngkin said. "I think what we need to do right now is make sure that everyone in Virginia understands that getting the vaccine is the most important thing we can do."
The Republican, who disputed McAuliffe's characterization that he is "anti-vax," also said he does not believe President Joe Biden has the authority to require companies with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccinations, as he did with a new federal rule last week.
McAuliffe, who did specifically weigh in on Biden's policy, made clear that when it comes to him and his opponent on this issue, "I am for requiring ... vaccinations, he's not."
"I've called for employers to mandate their employees. I've called for everyone who works in a hospital to be vaccinated, call for every individual who works in a long-term care facility or a nursing home. Everybody who works in K-12, everybody who attends higher ed," McAuliffe said. "I have been very strongly on this from day one."
Pressed on whether he would have Virginia require eligible school children, currently those over the age of 12 get vaccinated, McAuliffe said, "Absolutely -- you bet I would. I want everybody vaccinated."
Given the opportunity to ask Youngkin a question, McAuliffe again focused on this issue, asking if his opponent would favor requiring a nurse working with immunocompromised cancer patients be vaccinated. Youngkin didn't sway from his position, saying the "nurse should fully understand that getting the vaccination is the best way to protect her health and those around her."
Both candidates are former businessmen, but they argued over their plans to recovery from the pandemic, to rebuild and create jobs.
"What I'll do as governor is build a booming economy as I did before. (I) created a large amount of revenue, I left with a big surplus," McAuliffe said, also referencing a Washington Post editorial that said Youngkin's economic plan "would run our economy into the ditch."
The former governor claimed, citing "independent reports," that Youngkin's plan would cut $10 billion from education funds, leading to 43,000 less teachers and cutting $50 million from the commonwealth's law enforcement budget. Youngkin, standing at the podium next to him, could be heard saying, "Not true," while he shook his head.
"God made me with a big nose, but Terry McAuliffe has racked up so many Pinocchios I'm afraid you can't fit in the building. Everything he's just said is categorically false. The studies he's claiming that had been written weren't even on my plan and if you've read my plan, Terry, you would know that," Youngkin said. "By the way, if Terry McAuliffe is your next governor ... get your checkbook out, because he's gonna have to raise taxes for you. My plan, in fact, recognizes that our economy stalled under his leadership."
Spurred by the Supreme Court declining to block the most restrictive abortion law in Texas earlier this month, abortion was thrust into the forefront of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and on Thursday, it was one of the most contentious moments of the night. The Texas law has a unique -- and controversial -- citizen-enforcement method, essentially outlawing abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy, only giving exceptions to when the life of the mother is endangered.
Youngkin was asked whether he would enact a law, if passed by the state legislature, that banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detected, excluding in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered. Despite the moderator pressing, the Republican nominee would not directly answer, but said he is "pro-life," supports all three of the aforementioned exceptions and believes a "pain-threshold bill legislation would be appropriate." That is understood to be 20 weeks post-fertilization, but the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health legislation, calls that an "unfounded assertion."
Youngkin cast McAuliffe as "the most extreme pro-abortion candidate in America today," but McAuliffe cast himself as a "brick wall" to protecting choice in women's reproductive health.
"I'll say this again to every woman watching tonight. I will protect your rights, I believe a woman ought to make a decision about her own reproductive rights, and I will support those," McAuliffe said. "I am terrified today about what's happened with the Trump Supreme Court. I am terrified today that they will rollback Roe v. Wade, so ... the only thing I would like to see is enshrining Roe v. Wade in the Virginia constitution."
McAuliffe said he supports "the laws that we have on the books today," which only allows a woman to receive an abortion after the second trimester in select circumstances when three doctors agree the woman's life or health is significantly endangered. However, he was asked about a specific proposed bill that would reduce that to just one doctor's opinion. McAuliffe said in rural areas of the state, there often aren't three doctors.
"That really puts women in rural communities at a real disadvantage. So if they came up with a solution -- and a woman's life has to be in danger, has to be certified -- and if you have a legitimate doctor that says this woman, her life is in danger, of course I would support that," he said. "I'll do anything I can."