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The issues that are resonating with Virginia voters ahead of gubernatorial election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Out of every election this month, the Virginia race for governor is the one catching the most national attention. That is partly because the race is really tight, which worries Democrats who currently have political control in the state. More than a million Virginians have cast early ballots so far, and we are going to hear what voters are saying about Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. They are the candidates.

Joining us is Margaret Barthel. She covers Northern Virginia for member station WAMU. She has been out talking to voters.

Hey, Margaret.

MARGARET BARTHEL, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I should be specific - you have been talking with Virginians who have been voting early in Loudoun County, which is a very rapidly growing suburb, very near here - Northern Virginia, just outside Washington. What are they telling you?

BARTHEL: Yeah. So Loudoun County, like you said, is this big, increasingly diverse county still somewhat split politically, but it's been more and more reliably blue in recent years. And it's really at the center of a lot of these culture wars - debates over teaching race in schools and school policies designed to protect transgender students. This has come up in the campaign. Glenn Youngkin's closing message in the race is parents matter, which is this kind of catchall phrase that gets at conservative anxiety around those issues. He's also said he'd ban critical race theory from schools, which, I should note, is not actually currently part of the state curriculum standards. But still, some voters have been really energized by the education issue. This is Kevin Sanders (ph), a self-described conservative voter. He told me what he sees as a, quote, "moral decline" in schools was what got him out to the polls to vote early.

KEVIN SANDERS: Those are issues that are always on my mind because it's not even a local issue, but to see it locally is more disturbing.

BARTHEL: So there at least some indications that Republican voters in Virginia are responding to those national talking points.

KELLY: And what are you hearing from Democratic voters? What's on their mind?

BARTHEL: Yeah, even Democrats acknowledge that these debates over education have really become the centerpiece of the campaign in the final weeks. And, of course, they're pretty frustrated about that. I talked with Juli Briskman. She is a Democratic member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. And you may actually also remember her as the woman who lost her job after she flipped off the Trump motorcade in 2017.

JULI BRISKMAN: They have succeeded in taking oxygen. So I think the things that are not being talked about are, No. 1, all the progress that we've made in the General Assembly end of Virginia.

BARTHEL: And she's referring there to things like expanding Medicaid, expanding access to the ballot itself, the state's COVID response, protecting abortion rights - all things that she believes will be under threat if Republicans win control of the governor's mansion.

KELLY: Well, and it's so interesting, Margaret, just listening to you list those issues. Does it seem as though it's national issues, local issues that are more on people's minds and going to get them out to the polls?

BARTHEL: Yeah, it's complicated. I mean, some voters were clear with me that there is a distinction between the two in their minds, but I would say that the line is blurrier and blurrier. Even the voters who talked about caring about issues relevant to homeowners or being local community members couldn't really fully avoid talking about the vitriol engulfing the schools.

BARTHEL: So - right - so it feels like there's kind of this feedback loop in the election, where something happens at a local school board meeting, and then it goes viral, and then that reaction intensifies things on the ground.

KELLY: All righty. Thank you, Margaret.

BARTHEL: Thank you.

KELLY: Margaret Barthel of our member station WAMU. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.