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Biden impact? Decision day in tight Virginia governor's race

The first major test of how voters feel about Joe Biden's presidency is unfolding in Virginia.

RICHMOND, Va. — The nation's most closely watched off-year election was wrapping up Tuesday in Virginia, where voters were choosing between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin in a campaign that has become partly a referendum on President Joe Biden's first year in office.

A year after Biden captured Virginia by 10 points, the governor's race was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats. Instead, McAuliffe, a prominent figure in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, has been locked in a dead heat with former business executive Youngkin as he tries to reclaim the post. 

The bruising campaign has centered on issues including Youngkin's ties to former President Donald Trump, the future of abortion rights and culture war battles over schools. 

But the results may ultimately be interpreted as an early judgment of Biden. Just how close the race is indicates just how much his political fortunes have changed in a short period of time. 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.

"I think we're going to win in Virginia," Biden said at a news conference in Scotland, where he was attending an international climate summit. But he also acknowledged that the race was very close and "the off-year is always unpredictable."

"I don't believe — and I've not seen any evidence that — whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I've got my agenda passed or not, is gonna have any real impact on winning or losing," Biden said. "Even if we had passed my agenda, I wouldn't claim we won because Biden's agenda passed."

But both candidates said the implications of the first major election since Biden moved into the White House would be felt well beyond Virginia.

At one of his final events of the campaign on Monday, McAuliffe insisted "the stakes are huge." Youngkin said the election would send a "statement that will be heard across this country."

Voting proceeded largely without incident across the state. McAuliffe and Youngkin were largely out of sight on Tuesday ahead of election night parties planned in the critical northern Virginia suburbs that each campaign is counting on to propel them to victory.

Voters said a range of issues influenced their decision at the polls.

In Norfolk, 29-year-old Cassandra Ogren said she voted for McAuliffe in part because of his support for abortion rights and her concern about restrictions recently enacted in Texas, where a new law mostly bans the procedure. But she was also motivated by Younkin's ties to Trump, who had endorsed him.

"Anyone endorsed by President Trump is not someone I want representing me," Ogren said. 

For Barbara and Winton Smithwick, the governor's race was almost entirely about rebuking the former president and "anyone who supports Trump." 

"It was more against Trump than for McAuliffe. It really was," said Barbara Smithwick, 85, a retired nurse, who, like others, also cited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol building as an event that influenced her decision.

Schools, meanwhile, were at the forefront of many Youngkin voters' minds. His pledge to ensure parents have greater say in what their kids are taught became a centerpiece of his campaign — possibly foreshadowing similar arguments GOP candidates will use across the country next year.

That push grew out of a McAuliffe comment during a debate that "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." Youngkin ran TV ads of that statement repeatedly. 

Bennett White, 24, a Youngkin voter in Norfolk, cited the remark. He said he was concerned about McAuliffe's education policies and didn't want "our next generation of leaders to be looking at their peers in the lens of race." 

"My mom's a teacher," White said. "I just want to make sure that my mom is safe in the classroom and that her ideals and everyone's ideals are protected, and we're not turning into brainwashing academies." 

Elsewhere on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was trying to win reelection against Republican former State Assemblymember 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 were also at stake. And a ballot question in Minneapolis could reshape policing in that city, 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 of the governor's campaign in Virginia. That's in part because previous races in many states have sometimes foreshadowed voter frustration with a 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.

But McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013, a year after Obama was reelected, marking the only time the state has picked a governor from the sitting president's party since 1976. He's trying to repeat that feat on Tuesday.

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