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Vaccine mandates and abortion bans fuel Virginia's first gubernatorial race debate

Virginia candidates spar over COVID, abortion
Virginia gubernatorial candidates spar over COVID-19, abortion 08:32

The same campaign topics that dominated in the weeks leading up to California's recall election were front-and-center days later in the first debate of Virginia's gubernatorial race.  

Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin and Democratic candidate and former Governor Terry McAuliffe deeply differed over their views of COVID-19 vaccination mandates and abortion laws during Thursday night's debate. 

On President Biden's vaccine mandate, which requires federal workers and contractors and employees of large companies to be vaccinated, Youngkin doubted whether the president "has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine." Other GOP governors have expressed the same views, though Youngkin didn't specify if he would challenge the administration in court. 

McAuliffe, who served as Virginia's governor from 2013 to 2017, has voiced support for Mr. Biden's mandates and said he wants every Virginian to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He also accused Youngkin of spreading "anti-vax" rhetoric. 

"He told college students, 'If you don't want to take the vaccine, just fill out an exemption.' I think that's life threatening," McAuliffe said.

"I support the vaccine. I stand up for the vaccine. But I respect individuals' ability to make that decision," Youngkin responded.

When asked, McAuliffe said he would add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of required vaccines for students above 12 years old. 

Virginia Governor Debate
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Steve Helber / AP

The debate then moved to the subject of Texas' restrictive abortion law, which has been a major topic of conversation on both sides of the aisle in recent weeks. Earlier this summer, The Washington Post reported that a video showed Youngkin saying he would "go on offense" to defund Planned Parenthood and ban abortions if he were elected. In the video, he also said his anti-abortion stances "won't win my independent votes that I have to get."

"I am pro life. I believe in exceptions for rape and incest when the mother's life is at risk," Youngkin said Thursday night. "My opponent ignores the truth. He's the most extreme pro abortion candidate in America today."

Youngkin said he wouldn't sign a bill as restrictive as the one in Texas, reiterating his belief in the aforementioned exceptions. He also called Texas' law "unworkable." He didn't specify on if he'd sign a bill that would include those two exceptions but said a "pain threshold bill… would be appropriate."

In recent days, Youngkin's campaign has looked to paint McAuliffe as the "abortion governor," pointing to his previous support for legislation that allows for an abortion during the ninth month of a pregnancy. McAuliffe doubled down and called himself a "brick wall" for women's rights. 

"I vetoed all the bills that he would propose to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood," McAuliffe said, referencing actions he took during his first term as governor. "I support the laws that we have on the books today."

Currently, Virginia law bans abortions during the third trimester unless three doctors certify further pregnancy would kill or harm a woman. McAuliffe showed support for a bill that would trim that requirement to just certification from one doctor. 

Virginia Governor Debate
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, greets his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, after a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Steve Helber / AP

The two also criticized each other through their party's standard bearers: Mr. Biden and former President Donald Trump. 

After appealing to the Republican base during the commonwealth's convention process with his "Election Integrity Taskforce," Youngkin said he doesn't believe there's been "significant fraud" in Virginia elections but called the issue of fraud "a democracy issue."

"I've said it over and over again that Joe Biden's our president. I wish he wasn't. I wish he handled Afghanistan better, I wish we didn't have runaway inflation. But when he came to campaign with you Terry, you embraced him," Youngkin said.

McAuliffe's campaign ads and mailers have previously highlighted Youngkin's endorsement from Trump. On Thursday, McAuliffe called him a "Trump wannabe." 

"He's following all of Trump's policies, his economic advisor is Trump's economic advisor," McAuliffe said. "We know the damage that Donald Trump has done to this country. If he had taken this COVID crisis serious much earlier, hundreds of thousands of Americans would be alive today. And thousands of Virginians."

McAuliffe and Youngkin have released dueling plans for Virginia's economy. Thursday night, the two differed on the state's "right to work" law. Youngkin defended the law that doesn't require employees to join a union, while McAuliffe didn't say whether he'd repeal it. 

The fundraising between the two has been competitive in recent months. Between July and August, McAuliffe raised $11.5 million and has $12.6 million cash on hand. Youngkin raised $15.7 million, including a $4.5 million self-loan, during this same period. His campaign posted $6 million cash on hand. 

Early voting in Virginia starts on Friday. Election Day is November 2. 

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