McAuliffe, Youngkin’s dead heat may be decided by Virginia voters’ views on education

The Virginia governor's race has become a big-name, big-dollar fight. It pits a former chairman of the democratic party, Terry McAuliffe, against a former private equity CEO, Glenn Youngkin. The gubernatorial election is a test of Democrats' enthusiasm as well as the Trump legacy in a swing state. As Lisa Desjardins reports, one lightning-rod issue could be the deciding factor: public schools.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is Election Day eve in many parts of the country. The Virginia governor's race, in particular, has become a big-name, big dollar fight.

    It pits a former chairman of the Democratic Party against a former co-CEO of a private equity firm, and is also a test of Democrats' enthusiasm, as well as the Trump legacy in a swing state.

    As Lisa Desjardins reports, one lightning rod issue has emerged, public schools.

  • Dana Jackson, Virginia Voter:

    A fall day in Northern Virginia, time for wine and catching up with friends.

  • Woman:

    There's so much food here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And in the final days before the state's gubernatorial election, some time to talk politics too.

  • Dana Jackson:

    I was more focused on presidential election, not realizing at the time how important local and state elections are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For this group of moms, that means the politics of education.

  • Kim Putens, Virginia Voter:

    I am confrontational. And I will stand up for my children.

  • Kaite Muller, Virginia Voter:

    Because they know our kids matter. And our kids have been politicized. And that's not OK, not even a little bit.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Women like this from Virginia's suburban counties are critical for both Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday. Suburban voters in the state narrowly backed Donald Trump for president in 2016, before swinging to Joe Biden last year.

    Now polls show the race for governor is a dead heat. In Northern Virginia, the deciding issue for a quarter of voters is education, a 10-point jump from September alone.

    You're a swing voter.

  • Dana Jackson:

    Yes, I'm a swing voter. I'm the person that politician sort of love and hate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dana Jackson, whose daughter is now in high school, is an independent. She's voting Republican this year. And she sees others like her.

  • Dana Jackson:

    I have some friends that are Democrats who have never voted red in their life. And this time they voted every red box they could find. I mean, they were raising hell about Trump and…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They opposed President Trump. But here they are now voting for the Republican candidate.

  • Dana Jackson:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Because of schools.Dana Jackson: Yes, because of schools. Schools have been the great equalizer.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    During the last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced classrooms to go virtual, she helped organize rallies to reopen schools.

  • Dana Jackson:

    I think that our children's lives are at stake literally. Our children were locked out of school last year. And it was detrimental to this area. It was detrimental to all of the states that had lockdowns for children.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That debate has flared at school board meetings across the state and country. After contentious meetings over the summer, Northern Virginia's Loudoun County instituted a new policy. The dozens of people wanting to speak to the school board now file in one at a time and address a mostly empty room.

  • Joe Mobley, Virginia:

    How stupid they think ants are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The anger was palpable at last week's meeting. Most were upset about two recent sexual assaults.

  • Amanda Shallant, Virginia:

    This board in the school system puts children last.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As well as vaccine mandates.

  • Stephanie Markey, Virginia:

    We will not relinquish, relinquish our right to privacy, our body autonomy and our parental rights to care for our children exactly as we see fit.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And how history is taught, including the idea of Critical Race Theory.

  • Tiffany Polifko, Virginia:

    Would you stay quiet hangs his head in shame or your darker-skinned child acknowledges her victimhood because the school knows best?

    Glen Youngkin, (R), Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate: We got to win because our children can't wait.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On the campaign trail, both men vying to be the state's chief executive have taken up the education mantle.

  • Fmr Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA):

    We have got to take our education system to the next level.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrat McAuliffe, a former governor, vows to raise teacher pay and expand pre-K programs. But something else he said about education at a debate has haunted him.

  • Fmr Gov. Terry McAuliffe:

    I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Conservatives pounced.

  • Narrator:

    Terry went on the attack against parents.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republican Youngkin, a businessman and father of four, has pushed for school choice.

  • Glen Youngkin:

    Virginia parents have a right to make decisions on their children's education.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But some parents, like Todd Kaufman, whose daughter is a high school senior, say Youngkin twisted McAuliffe's words. Kaufman wants parents to have a say, but thinks day-to-day classroom decisions are for educators.

  • Todd Kaufman, Virginia Voter:

    Parents that have never joined the PTA, have never been involved in the school, all of a sudden, they're upset that there is public schools deciding the curriculum.

    I mean, that's how that works, right? There are experts for a reason. We have educators for a reason. We elect a school board for a reason. We trust that they're the experts.

    And I really appreciate you guys all coming out here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kaufman feels so strongly, he and others formed a group, Loudoun For All. They go to school board meetings to push back against conservative concerns that he thinks Republicans are manipulating for the election.

  • Todd Kaufman:

    Focus on the fear. Youngkin has definitely embraced that and has pushed that. And the fact that it's all based on misinformation, the fact that it's based on at times downright lies doesn't really matter.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats hope this new ad from Youngkin could actually help them.

  • Woman:

    It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This mother is talking about Toni Morrison's book "Beloved," saying she wanted a warning of its violent and sexual passages. The book about slavery was part of a college-level course.

    Soon after the ad ran, McAuliffe's campaign started handing out "Beloved" at his rallies.

  • Fmr Gov. Terry McAuliffe:

    He has been endorsed by Trump no nine times.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    McAuliffe also is trying to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, paint him as too extreme. Trump has endorsed, but not campaigned with the GOP nominee.

    Farida Jalalzai is a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

  • Farida Jalalzai, Virginia Tech:

    Maybe that's a lesson that the Republican Party has learned and taken to heart is trying to soften the stance, soften the image that some really started to associate with the Republican Party by the very fact that Trump had been in office for four years.

    Because Virginia is trending Democratic, this should have been a race really that was perhaps more easily in favor of McAuliffe.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At stake is not just the state's political landscape, but national momentum. That's why McAuliffe has campaigned with big names, like President Biden and Vice President Harris. They know Virginia is the most important blue gain the party has had in recent years, a foothold in the South.

    What happens here will either give Democrats a sigh of relief or give Republicans a bold new playbook.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins in Loudoun County, Virginia.

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