Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin met for their second and final debate Tuesday night at the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College, trading barbs over tax policy, the COVID-19 pandemic, crime and policing, abortion, the economy, education and climate change.
Moderator Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News, opened the debate by asking about COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which McAuliffe has made a central piece of his campaign communications to draw a contrast with Youngkin. Youngkin said he and his family have been vaccinated and he considers it the best way to protect people from the virus.
“But I don’t think we should mandate it,” he said. His stance on mandatory vaccination changed when Todd pressed him on whether he supported mandates for vaccines for diseases like mumps, measles and rubella, making an apparent distinction between the long track record of those shots and the new COVID-19 vaccines.
McAuliffe fired back that Youngkin had said in interviews and at rallies that people who don’t want to get vaccinated shouldn’t.
“You can’t be governor saying things like that,” McAuliffe said. “That is disqualifying.”
The name-calling continued throughout the night as both candidates accused each other of spouting lies and McAuliffe called Youngkin a Trump wannabe.
“He is bought and paid for by Donald Trump,” McAuliffe said. “He wants to bring Donald Trump-style politics to Virginia, and we’re not going to allow it.”
Although Youngkin attempted to distance himself from Trump by reminding McAuliffe that the gubernatorial race was between the two of them, there was no avoiding the subject after Todd asked him whether he would endorse Trump if he were to run for president in 2024.
“If he’s the Republican nominee, I’ll support him,” Youngkin said.
With the 2020 racial justice protests, police funding debates and rising crime rates front-and-center in the campaign, McAuliffe cited support from police, businesses and Republicans. He said he presided over low crime rates and was proud to have been the first governor to be named an honorary sheriff by the Virginia Sheriff’s Association in 2017. Youngkin pressed McAuliffe, though, on rising crime rates, including homicide, during his term as governor and over the past four years.
“I will do the right thing,” Youngkin said, ticking off his own law enforcement endorsements and adding that he intended to invest in police, protect qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that critics contend shields abusive police officers from accountability, and repair a broken mental-health system. “We’ll make our community safe again.”
Qualified immunity has been a sticky subject for McAuliffe, who said he supported eliminating it while he was trying to win the Democratic primary but reversed course in the first debate with Youngkin.
“If there is a law enforcement officer who breaks the law, they get zero protection,” McAuliffe said, when asked to explain his change of heart.
Bipartisanship was another focus of the evening, with McAuliffe highlighting his work as governor under a Republican-controlled legislature and Youngkin striking a moderate tone by saying Afghan refugees should be welcomed.
“We should, in fact, make sure that those that stood shoulder to shoulder with us are welcome,” Youngkin said of refugees. “That they’re processed appropriately, and that they can have a home in Virginia”
About 10 minutes into the debate, Princess Blanding, a police reform activist who is on the ballot as a third-party candidate, interrupted the event. Despite being on the ballot, Blanding was not allowed to participate in either of the debates.
“Their censorship of my candidacy is racist, it is very sexist, it is very oppressive and it is a form of voter suppression,” Blanding said while talking with reporters outside the debate, according to a video posted by a CNN reporter. “Their goal is to make sure that Virginians don’t know that I exist so that they feel that they have to choose between the lesser of two evils.”
Todd called for a commercial break following Blanding’s interruption, during which she said she was removed from the venue by security.
“Guess what, I refuse to play by the games and the rules of the duopoly,” Blanding said in response to a question about whether shouting down a debate was the best way to be heard.
With only five weeks until the Nov. 2 elections, McAuliffe has a 5-point lead over Youngkin in the polls, according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute. A University of Mary Washington poll released last week gave Youngkin the edge among likely voters, 48 percent to 43 percent.
“To borrow from Mark Twain, the reports of the end of Virginia’s status as a swing state are greatly exaggerated,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of UMW’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, in a statement. “The large number of undecided voters at this stage demonstrates that either major party candidate can become the next governor of Virginia.”