Abortion, schools take center stage in Virginia governor's election ad wars

Key Points
  • Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glen Youngkin have spent a hefty total of $47 million on campaign ads that tout their candidacy or take jabs at the other for their stances on local and national issues. 
  • Data shows that their most expensive and most aired television ads are about abortion and schools.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia for a second term, answers questions from reporters after casting his ballot during early voting at the Fairfax County Government Center October 13, 2021 in Fairfax, Virginia.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

National issues such as abortion and schools have taken center stage in the tight governor's race in Virginia as the candidates spend millions on television advertising. 

The commonwealth's competitive race for governor is viewed by many as a harbinger of what's to come in the 2022 midterms, and the race is already proving to be a testing ground for some of the biggest national issues that could influence next year's elections.

Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glen Youngkin have spent a hefty total of $47 million on campaign ads that tout their candidacy or take jabs at the other for their stances on local and national issues. 

McAuliffe has been outspending his Republican opponent at $25 million to $22 million on TV, radio and online ads, according to data obtained from CNBC from AdImpact. These ads make up over half of McAuliffe's $44.4 million and Youngkin's $42.2 million in total campaign spending.

Their most expensive and most aired television ads are about two highly contentious issues sitting at the forefront of national politics, according to AdImpact. This includes abortion, which comes amid Texas' new law that bans the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy, and schools amid national debates on curriculum and mask mandates. 

Abortion rights

While there is no law in place restricting abortion rights in Virginia, McAuliffe's campaign has seized on Youngkin's open opposition to abortion as a threat to a woman's right to choose. 

Youngkin's stance contrasts McAuliffe's promise to be a "brick wall" against any legislation that would limit abortion access. 

Three of McAuliffe's most expensive ads, which cost from $510,000 to $922,000 to produce and run, have attacked Youngkin for his abortion stance. They are among the former governor's most aired ads on broadcast or cable television, with each airing over 1,100 times, according to AdImpact data. 

The most expensive out of the three is a minute-long ad that includes a hidden-camera video showing Youngkin's response to a question about defunding planned parenthood and banning abortion. 

Youngkin said he can't fully discuss his stance on abortion as it could risk losing "independent votes," but pledged to go "on offense" to ban abortion if he becomes governor and Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives. 

The video characterized Youngkin's remarks as "admitting his far-right agenda." 

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during a campaign event in McLean, Virginia, U.S., July 14, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Another ad includes a video from the first gubernatorial debate where Youngkin was asked if he supports including a right to abortion in Virginia's constitution, to which he said, "No, I do not." 

The ad also said the Supreme Court would likely overturn Roe v. Wade, which would return the issue of abortion to the jurisdiction of the states, as it was before the Roe decision. If Youngkin were elected, the ad argues, he would effectively ban all abortions in Virginia. 

A poll released Wednesday from Monmouth University shows that 17% of likely voters in Virginia see abortion as one of the most important issues in deciding their vote for governor. In terms of which candidate would handle abortion better, voters are evenly drawn. 

About 35% said McAuliffe would handle it better while 33% said Youngkin would. 

School controversies

Youngkin's campaign has seen schools as a pathway to victory amid a crusade against mask mandates and critical race theory. 

The Republican candidate's campaign has slammed McAuliffe for opposing parental control over public-school curriculum in particular. Three of Youngkin's most expensive television ads attack McAuliffe for this stance, and have been aired up to 4,200 times. 

One of Youngkin's most expensive ads, which cost approximately $1.5 million to produce and air, includes a clip from the first gubernatorial debate where McAuliffe expressed that he does not think parents should decide what schools should teach. 

"I'm not going to let parents come into schools and take books out and make their own decision," McAuliffe said. His comment during the debate came after an argument between the two candidates over a veto McAuliffe signed as governor of legislation that allowed parents to opt out of allowing their children to study material deemed sexually explicit. 

The ad characterized McAuliffe as "putting politics over parents" and "failing our kids." 

Candidate for Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe speaks during his campaign rally in Dumfries, Virginia October 21, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Another ad of Youngkin uses the same video of McAuliffe from the first gubernatorial debate, calling his stance on parental control "wrong." It also touts Youngkin's own efforts, which includes his plan to create 20 "innovation schools" to "empower parents with educational choice."

"I'll always stand up for Virginia's parents," Youngkin said in the ad. 

The Monmouth University poll shows that 41% of likely voters in Virginia see schools and education as one of the most important issues in deciding their vote for governor. 

In terms of which candidate would handle schools and education better, Youngkin has a narrow one percentage point lead. 

Approximately 39% said Youngkin would handle it better while 38% said McAuliffe would. 

Other fault lines 

Other national and local issues play central roles in both candidate's television ads. 

For instance, many of Youngkin's ads either attack McAuliffe for pushing for police reform or Virginia's high crime rates when he served as governor. And several of McAuliffe's ads attack Youngkin for opposing vaccine mandates. 

About 25% of McAuliffe's television ads also link Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed the Republican candidate. The ads focus on their overlapping stances on Covid-19, election integrity and education. 

Overall, roughly 75% of McAuliffe's television ads include attacks on his GOP opponent. 

Youngkin has a more of a mix of positive and negative ads, including biographical ads that underscore his business-approach to politics due to his 25 years of experience as a former CEO of the Carlyle Group

With Virginia's Election Day just under two weeks away, both candidates are likely to ratchet up their campaign advertising to motivate their partisan bases.

The Monmouth University poll found the candidate's neck and neck with support among likely voters identical at 46%. And the disparity in enthusiasm between supporters of Youngkin and McAuliffe has grown to a 23 percentage point gap in the poll, at 49% to 26%.

"The next two weeks will see a lot more mobilization, continual appeals for turnout and nonstop commercial ads from the two candidates," said Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.