TYSONS CORNER — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are relying on their pro-business credentials in the battle to become Virginia’s next governor, but they posed sharply different visions on how to make the state better for business in appearances before an influential business advocacy group on Wednesday.
McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a second term, said progressive policies — such as protecting women’s access to abortion and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation — will be critical to attracting and expanding businesses in Virginia.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive seeking office for the first time, promised to protect the state’s right-to-work status, and vowed to ease regulations on business and create 400,000 jobs as the “jobs governor of Virginia.”
The candidates spoke at an event hosted by Virginia FREE, a pro-business advocacy group that exerts influence over Virginia’s elections through its members, who traditionally have favored Republicans. It was only the second time both candidates have appeared together.
McAuliffe came into the room with an incumbent’s advantage, garnering a cheery welcome from the crowd of Virginia business leaders, and praise from the event’s host, Executive Director Chris Saxman, a former GOP lawmaker, who described McAuliffe as the “one of the best pro-business governors Virginia has ever had.”
Youngkin’s remarks were somber and at times religious, urging prayer for the 13 U.S. service members killed by a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan, Americans and Afghan allies left behind after the military withdrawal and people in the hurricane-battered American South.
McAuliffe immediately raised the threat posed to Virginia and its attractiveness to business by laws to restrict access to abortion, such as the one that was just allowed to take effect in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a request to halt the law, which essentially bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
“I can’t tell you how damaging that is,” McAuliffe said. “It’s crippling for business.”
McAuliffe reminded the audience how he had vetoed 120 bills passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that he said would have discriminated against women and other people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I could not build a new Virginia economy unless we were an open and welcoming state,” he said.
Youngkin tried to side-step the issue in remarks to the media after the luncheon that attempted to depict McAuliffe’s views on abortion as “extremist.”
“I am pro-life,” he said, explaining that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
McAuliffe also played to his strength with the Northern Virginia business audience, reminding them that he had, working with Republican legislators, bolstered the Port of Virginia and Washington Dulles International Airport, sealed a deal to widen Interstate 66 outside of the Capital Beltway at no cost to the state, and provided funding to rebuild the Metro system.
He also extolled Virginia’s status as the best state for business by cable television CNBC for the second consecutive time, while Youngkin questioned whether the state had earned the status.
“Virginia has not and is not performing like the best,” the Republican nominee said.
But on a key issue for business groups, the state’s “right-to-work” policy, McAuliffe was mum.
Youngkin seized on the issue during his remarks, taking a jab at McAuliffe and energetically vowing to protect the policy.
“If we lose our fight to hold onto Virginia’s right-to-work status, it will absolutely torpedo our business climate,” Youngkin said to enthusiastic applause from the business crowd.
After the event, pressed by reporters, McAuliffe sidestepped the question of whether he supports repealing right-to-work, saying it’s moot because it doesn’t have political support in the legislature. Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, also wouldn’t commit to a position on the repeal of right-to-work.
Youngkin pitched himself as the right leader to grow Virginia’s economy, vowing to wield the power of the governor’s office to attract new jobs and lower the cost of doing business here. He contends Virginia lagged the country in creating new jobs and replacing jobs lost during the pandemic over the past two Democratic administrations.
Youngkin explicitly promised to create 400,000 new jobs during his term, and attract 10,000 new startup businesses.
Youngkin derided the cost of living in Virginia, saying it is too high and promising to fight for a wide-ranging package of tax cuts for individuals and a tax holiday for small businesses. Youngkin said Virginia’s regulatory environment is overly burdensome to businesses.
He placed some blame on federal and state unemployment benefits, which he said have “removed the incentive” for people to fill available jobs. The pandemic has prompted many workers to walk away from their jobs, some from dissatisfaction with their wages and benefits, and others for lacking support like child care.
Enhanced federal unemployment benefits — an additional $300 layered on top of the state’s check — expire this weekend.
Winsome Sears, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor who also spoke Wednesday, said she herself is closing down her electric and plumbing services business because she can’t hire workers.
Youngkin said it’s the most common complaint he hears on the campaign trail.
“When the government stands in the way of work, when Virginia has regulations that restrict freedom and entrepreneurship, with Virginia’s high cost of living, it makes it difficult to actually achieve our dreams,” Youngkin said. “Government becomes the problem, not the solution.”
During the event, McAuliffe doubled down on calls for businesses to require their employees be vaccinated, describing the approach as necessary to ensure Virginia and its economy can quickly recover from the pandemic.
Youngkin, meanwhile, continued to argue that individuals should not be required to be vaccinated — by their employers or the government. Youngkin said if he were elected governor, he would undo Gov. Ralph Northam’s vaccine mandate on the state’s workforce.
Youngkin blamed lagging vaccination rates on the government, saying lack of public education and access, particularly among underserved communities, are to blame.
“I am a strong, strong proponent of people getting the vaccine. I’ve gotten the vaccine, my family has gotten the vaccine. We know that’s the best way to stay safe,” Youngkin said. “It’s not a decision that I will impose on people. I believe that people have the ability to make that decision for themselves.”