By Dan Merica, CNN
The off-year elections in Virginia this November will serve as possibly the most revealing test of whether strict coronavirus policies, like vaccine mandates and mask requirements, are good politics in a contested election.
No issue has defined Virginia’s statewide races more than how the Commonwealth’s government should fight the coronavirus, with the two gubernatorial candidates at the top of the ticket — Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin — routinely sparring over the usefulness of vaccine mandates, masks requirements and how to boost an economy impacted by the pandemic. That clash continued Wednesday when McAuliffe, during an event in Charlottesville, said he was “all in on vaccinations” and saw his disagreements with Youngkin as “a real difference in this campaign.” Matt Wolking, a Youngkin spokesman, responded by calling McAuliffe “a wannabe dictator who said he will fire Virginians who won’t follow his vaccine orders and openly brags about wanting to make life difficult for people.”
But perhaps the contest that has exposed the most gapping divide between Democrats and Republicans in Virginia on Covid is the lieutenant governor race between Democrat Hala Ayala, a member of the commonwealth’s House of Delegates, and Republican Winsome Sears, a former member of the legislative body. While Youngkin has at times tried to moderate his position on vaccines, telling audiences he is vaccinated and urging people to get the shot even has he refuses to back mandates, his Republican running mate has said it was time to “leave people be” on vaccines and, in an interview with CNN, declined to say whether she is vaccinated.
“My life is very public. It’s just the way it is. But I want to hold certain things close,” she said about her vaccine status, saying once people start asking about these things, you get to a “slippery slope.”
The candidate added that vaccine mandates threaten medical privacy, asking rhetorically, “What are we going to ask for now, HIV status? What else are we going to ask for?”
“We have to be very careful. We live in a freedom loving society, America,” she said. “And if we’re not careful, we’re going to start asking for other things, because we have already determined that this is everybody’s business.”
These positions stand in stark relief to Ayala, who has backed vaccine and mask mandates in certain settings, pledged to follow science as lieutenant governor and speaks openly about her decision to get vaccinated.
Still, Ayala avoided attacking Sears when asked about her comments on Wednesday.
“I hope she gets the vaccine if she hasn’t already,” Ayala said of Sears, adding that her push to get people vaccinated is “about saving lives” during what has been a “devastating” few years in Virginia.
“We’re not going to stand by and allow it to continue,” she said. “So, we need to get vaccinated. We definitely need to follow CDC guidance. And I don’t think this has to do with any politics. This is about public health and safety.”
The disagreement over Covid policy between Sears and Ayala further define the debate between their running mates and complicates Youngkin’s position. The businessman-turned-politician has fought against vaccine mandates, suggesting instead that public pressure — like a public service announcement he has been running — from leaders like himself will increase vaccinations. But the fact that his own running mate has not disclosed her vaccination status points to the limited power to public service announcements and public pressure.
McAuliffe, asked on Wednesday about Sears, used the lack of disclosure against Youngkin, and described it as “disqualifying to be running for lieutenant governor.”
“I mean, come on,” he said. “It is a simple yes or no question… I think Glenn Youngkin ought to ask his running mate, are you vaccinated and if you aren’t, why not?”
A campaign dominated by coronavirus
While campaigns in Virginia have focused on a range of issues, including the economy, crime and education, covid has consistently been the dominant issue. The commonwealth, with roughly 13,000 deaths, has been hard hit by the pandemic, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has fought the virus with stringent covid rules.
A string of polls have shown that the coronavirus pandemic ranks among the top two issues on the minds of Virginia voters, with a recent Monmouth University poll showing 32% of Virginians said it was their most important issue, just behind 39% who said the economy.
This popularity has forced Youngkin to toe a difficult line between based Republican beliefs who have rallied in opposition to vaccine and mask mandates and more popular position that favor some vaccine and mask mandates in schools, health care and other public settings. The Republican, while urging some people to get the vaccine, has also told Virginians that if they don’t want to take it, they shouldn’t have to and urged people to “respect people’s ability to express their liberty” and not get vaccinated.
This positioning will be critical for Youngkin. The same Monmouth poll found 62% of Virginians backed face masks and social distancing guidelines, with 59% saying they support statewide vaccine mandates for certain professions, like health care and schools. And the issue is notably important to suburban voters, like those in vote-rich Northern Virginia, many of whom fled from Republicans and Trump in 2016 and 2022.
Even with Youngkin’s sometimes careful rhetoric, Democrats see his messaging on the coronavirus as his largest liability — and got a strong proof point in September when California Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated a recall attempt against him by running almost exclusively on the strict Covid measures he had implemented.
“Virginians overwhelmingly have shown strong support for Terry’s leadership on vaccine requirements,” said Christina Freundlich, spokeswoman for the McAuliffe campaign. “We expect Youngkin’s dangerous, Trumpian positions to be a driving motivation for Virginians to vote for Terry and Democrats this fall.”
McAuliffe has devoted considerable time to attacking Youngkin’s views on Covid, not only calling the Republican “anti-vax” at nearly every event but devoting seven television and digital ads to the issue.
Youngkin, who is vaccinated and has said he believes the vaccine is safe, has largely looked to avoid the topic, choosing instead to focus his campaign on a mix of issues that motivate the Republican base, like complaints about what is being taught in schools and crime, and more upbeat messaging about being a political outsider and bringing a businessman’s approach to government.
“I am a big proponent of everyone getting the vaccine. In fact, I’ve gotten the vaccine. My family has gotten the vaccine. We think it’s the best way for people to stay safe,” Youngkin told CNN in September. “But the vaccine is something that I believe people should be able to make their own decision on, not imposed on it.”
The clearest sign of Covid’s dominance in the race has been the two gubernatorial debates.
In the first event, Youngkin said he personally supports that vaccine, but cast the decision to get it as a personal one, not something that should be mandated by the state government. He also leaned heavily on the fact that he is running coronavirus public service announcements urging people to get the shot.
McAuliffe attacked Youngkin as anti-vax and said he would back up employers who mandate vaccines and would call for such mandates for people working in health care and in most education settings and for those pursuing higher education.
As for Youngkin’s PSA, McAuliffe blithely responded, “Who cares about PSAs? Half the people wouldn’t know who you are on TV.”
Covid dominated the second debate, too, with the two rekindling their fight and focusing on mandating vaccines for state workers.
“He’s going to send a child to a school where a teacher’s not wearing a mask and a teacher is not vaccinated? That is disqualifying to be governor,” McAuliffe said.
Youngkin said McAuliffe’s characterization was “the most egregious untruth my opponent continues to say about me,” but later said that he does not think the state government “should mandate” the vaccine and doesn’t want to run teachers and health care workers who oppose being vaccinated out of their jobs.
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