The Commonwealth of Virginia has taken over the national political spotlight. On Tuesday, Democratic nominee and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe will face off against the Republican nominee, businessman Glenn Youngkin, to become Virginia’s next governor. With a combined $80.21M spent in advertising by campaigns and issue groups, the Virginia governor race has become 2021’s most expensive, easily surpassing other contenders including the New York City Mayoral race ($63M) and the recall attempt of California Governor Gavin Newsom last month ($61M). Garnering perhaps the most media attention of any election since the 2020 Presidential Election, Tuesday’s results will be telling towards the Democrats’ staying power. In addition to Virginia-specific issues, hot-button national issues such as abortion and vaccine mandates dominated debates and advertisements. McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s Governor from 2014 through 2018, held a consistent lead in the polls throughout the general election until mid-October, highlighted by a 7.9 point lead in early August. On October 28, however, Youngkin led the polls for the first time, and has continued to lead by between 1 and 2 points in the days since.
Current Virginia Governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, was ineligible to run for reelection, as a Virginia Governor is barred from serving two consecutive terms. They can, however, run in future elections. McAuliffe is attempting to become the third Virginia governor since 1830 to be elected to a second nonconsecutive term. Due to Northam’s ineligibility for 2021, both the Democratic and Republic nominations were wide open to a large pool of candidates. Six campaigns and thirteen issue groups spent a combined $13M leading up to the Republican gubernatorial convention and the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The Republican Party of Virginia decided to hold a convention instead of a primary to select their nominee. Twelve thousand participated in the May 8 gubernatorial convention, in which Youngkin defeated former New Media Strategies CEO Pete Snyder in the sixth round of the ranked-choice voting, 55% to 45%. During the leadup to the convention, the Youngkin campaign spent $2.61M, outspending Snyder by $550K.
The Democratic nominee was chosen one month later, as McAuliffe received 62% of the vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 8. McAuliffe defeated Jennifer Carroll Foy (20%), a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Jennifer McClellan (12%), a member of the Virginia State Senate. In his ads, McAuliffe emphasized his experience as governor, noting that his administration created 200,000 jobs, and that he was best posed to defeat Youngkin and lead Virginia out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the nominations of McAuliffe and Youngkin, spending took off. In the general, we have seen a total of $66.31M spent across broadcast, cable, radio, satellite, and digital media. In addition to large spending sums by the two campaigns, 32 issue groups placed advertisements during the general. Of the total spent, there is a slight spending edge in money favoring McAuliffe at 52%. Since August 29, both campaigns have spent at least $1M on advertisements each week.
During the general, the McAuliffe campaign outspent the Youngkin campaign by $2.7M. The top two spending issue groups, Restoration PAC and Free to Learn, both supported Youngkin. Restoration PAC, who spent $1.45M, suggested “McAuliffe is too dangerous for Virginia,” running ads citing Virginia’s increased murder rate during the McAuliffe administration. McAuliffe also benefited from issue groups, including large coordinated buys with the Democratic Governors Association ($940K) and the American Federation of Teachers ($761K). Of the top ten spending advertisers during the general, seven supported McAuliffe.
Education became a main focus in the election following the September 28 debate. McAuliffe stated “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” referring to whether parents should be informed about explicit content in educational materials. Youngkin responded stating, “You believe school systems should tell children what to do…I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” McAuliffe was widely criticized for his comment and the Youngkin campaign took advantage, as it became a central theme of their advertisements over the month of October. While McAuliffe claims he was taken out of context during the debate, the Youngkin campaign has continued to focus on education, with a recent ad stating “McAuliffe pushed left liberal bureaucrats into our schools and pushed parents out…Virginia students and teachers are in danger.” On October 22, Free To Learn, an education issue group, launched an ad criticizing McAuliffe’s stances on education, stating the former governor “spent years minimizing the role of parents.” In total, Free to Learn spent $1.02M criticizing McAuliffe.
Democrats outspent republicans in five of Virginia’s nine media markets during the entire race, though none were by a large margin. The Washington DC market saw the most total spending, seeing more than $43M combined, with a slight edge in pro-McAuliffe spending. During the entirety of the race, the McAuliffe campaign spent $39.94M on advertising while the Youngkin campaign spent $30.91M. Despite McAuliffe’s spending advantage, a recent poll by The Trafalgar Group has Youngkin leading by 2 points. While Republican presidential nominees won Virginia every year from 19768 to 2004, the Commonwealth has voted blue in each presidential election since 2008. Despite President Biden receiving 54% of the vote last November, Youngkin will attempt to change the tide and become just the second Republican Virginia governor since 2002. With $80.21M spent on this race, all eyes will be on Virginia on Tuesday.