TYSONS CORNER, Va. — Abortion emerged as a front-burner issue in the Virginia governor’s race on Wednesday, as the impact of a new near-total ban on the practice in Texas reverberated in one of the year’s marquee political contests.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018 but was limited to one term by the state’s constitution, is running again and made sure to mention the Texas law while speaking at a business group luncheon.
“I cannot tell you how dangerous this is for women,” McAuliffe told about 300 attendees at an event organized by Virginia Free, a pro-business advocacy group. McAuliffe said that laws like the one in Texas are “crippling for business,” and spent most of his address talking about the ways he helped boost the commonwealth’s economy during his time as governor.
“I am the most pro-business Democrat you will ever know,” McAuliffe crowed in a peppy speech punctuated with applause lines.
The Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, did not mention the abortion law in his speech to the group and declined to give his opinion on the Texas law during a press conference afterward. He did go after McAuliffe for his views on abortion, calling them “extreme.”
“My opponent’s going to use these topics to divide us,” Youngkin said.
In July, video of Youngkin — taped by an activist at a fundraiser — showed him saying he cannot win the governor’s race if he talks about abortion too much.
“I’m gonna be really honest with you — the short answer is, in this campaign I can’t,” Youngkin said. “When I'm governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
Former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican, told Yahoo News that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to rule on the Texas law — allowing it to stand for now — “is going to move [the abortion issue] to the front and center of the race.”
“You heard McAuliffe hitting the social issues harder. That’s traditionally worked for Democrats on a statewide basis,” Davis said.
But polling shows McAuliffe with only a slight lead over Youngkin, who is little known to most of the state’s voters.
Youngkin, who has never served in government, knocked McAuliffe as “a dangerous 40-year political operative” and scoffed at his claims of being pro-business.
“He actually believes that businesses are going to come to Virginia with him as governor? They’ve been making the decision to go to Texas for so long. Texas has been absolutely running past Virginia,” he said.
Youngkin said he is pro-life, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
The candidates also clashed in their separate comments on vaccine mandates and "right-to-work" laws.
Youngkin said he is a “strong proponent” of vaccination and is “encouraging Virginians in every corner of the state to go get the vaccine,” but said that if elected he would overturn current Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to require state employees to be vaccinated, which took effect Wednesday.
“We can do so much better without mandates. We can educate, we can make available, we can encourage,” Youngkin said. “I would not mandate that people have to get the vaccine, but I would go to work to make sure they understand the absolute benefit of it.”
He said that the COVID-19 vaccines are different from other vaccines already mandated for schoolchildren, such as those for measles, tetanus, mumps and rubella. “There’s lots of difference in those vaccines,” Youngkin said. The COVID-19 vaccine “is a vaccine that people don’t fully understand yet. We haven’t done a good job educating people on it.”
But the FDA has given full approval to the COVID-19 vaccine, and 174 million Americans are fully vaccinated; another 30 million have received one dose.
McAuliffe told the luncheon audience that Youngkin’s refusal to back a vaccine mandate was “disqualifying.”
“That’s not how we are going to end and destroy COVID-19,” he said. The Democrat noted that in Southern states where vaccination rates are low and schools are resisting having students wear masks, some schools are closing, such as in one Texas school district, where two teachers died from COVID-19 in one week.
Liberty University, a conservative Christian college in southwestern Virginia, had not mandated vaccines or mask wearing and had to switch to virtual classes this week after cases spiked on campus and school officials said that the “only local hospital is reaching capacity for ICU COVID treatment.”
The pro-business crowd was especially interested in the two candidates’ positions on right-to-work laws, which make it harder to unionize and are currently in place in Virginia. Youngkin told reporters that McAuliffe “will get rid of right-to-work in Virginia.”
McAuliffe supported right-to-work as governor but said in April that if a bill to abolish the laws came to his desk, “I would sign it.” But he also said at the time that such a piece of legislation has no chance of getting through the Virginia Legislature, even with Democrats in the majority. On Wednesday, he said simply that “right-to-work’s not changing.”
“I don’t spend my time on things that can’t get done,” he said. “That bill’s never coming to my desk.”
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