With less than two weeks to go until Election Day in Virginia, roughly $48 million has been shelled out to run TV, digital, and radio ads in the commonwealth’s hotly contested gubernatorial general election – a closely watched statewide race with likely national implications.
And the campaigns of the two major party candidates - former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin – are responsible for the lion’s share of the ad spending.
McCauliffe’s dished out $24.5 million to run ads during the general election, according to data from AdImpact, a leading national ad tracking firm, with Youngkin spending $20.5 million.
McAuliffe and Youngkin have each spent at least $1 million per week since the start of September to run ads, with the former governor topping the GOP nominee each week. This week McAuliffe’s outspending Youngkin by a more than two-to-one margin - $3.1 million to $1.4 million.
Both national and state issues are impacting the race in Virginia, which along with New Jersey are the only two states to hold gubernatorial contests in the year after a presidential election, ensuring they get outsized attention from coast to coast. But a look at the ads by the two campaigns that are currently flooding the TV airwaves and digital devices suggests that the issues of education and abortion, and former President Donald Trump, are front and center in the commonwealth showdown.
"Virginia parents have a right to make decisions on their children’s education. That’s the Virginia I grew up in," Youngkin says in his campaign ad that’s currently in heavy rotation across the state.
And Youngkin, a first-time candidate and former CEO of a large private equity firm, charges that "Terry McAuliffe wants to change that."
His commercial then uses a viral clip from the second and final debate between the two candidates where McAuliffe, who’s running for his old job, said "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
Youngkin, emphasizing his campaign’s closing message, says in the spot that "I’ll always stand up for Virginia’s parents." According to AdImpact, the Youngkin campaign is spending over $600,000 this week to run the ad.
Public school education has traditionally been a leading issue in gubernatorial contests across the country. But amid a year and a half of frustration over school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and the push by conservatives nationwide to target race-focused curriculum, including this year’s well publicized battles over critical race theory in Virginia’s Loudon County, Republicans see education as a winning issue to recapture suburban voters who fled the GOP during former President Trump’s White House tenure.
And that was before McAuliffe’s unforced error at the final debate, which Republicans have repeatedly spotlighted over the ensuing weeks.
McAuliffe’s campaign is spending nearly $300,000 this week to run a spot that touts his plan to "lift everybody up," which includes his proposals to give pay raises to teachers and increase broadband throughout Virginia."
Two other McAuliffe ads in heavy rotation right now take aim at Youngkin over his stance on abortion, and on linking the GOP nominee to Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia among many voters.
One of the spots uses visuals of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by right wing extremists trying to upend congressional certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory over Trump, and of the white supremacist protests and violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017 that grabbed national attention.
The commercial uses then-President Trump’s controversial comments during the Charlottesville violence that "you also had very fine people on both sides." The ad then cuts to Youngkin saying he was "honored to receive President Trump’s endorsement."
"As election day in traditional midterm bellwether state Virginia grows close, we have seen the race become increasingly nationalized. Trump, abortion, and education have been some of the most prominent topics in advertising as the race nears its conclusion" AdImpact’s Ben Taber told Fox News.
While nearly all the ad spending has been by the campaigns, in the closing weeks some outside groups have also been shelling out money to run spots.
The Democratic Governors Association infused roughly $625,000 to run ads this week and next week on behalf of McAuliffe, with the American Federation of Teachers spending approximately $615,000 to support the former governor. A political action committee allied with the leading anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List said they’re spending over $1 million to target McAuliffe over his stance on the issue.
There's a long-running trend of voters in the commonwealth defeating the gubernatorial nominee of the party that controls the White House. McAuliffe broke with that tradition in 2013 with his election as governor in the year after Obama was reelected. McAuliffe was unable to run for reelection in 2017 because Virginia governors are barred from serving two straight terms.
Republicans haven't won statewide in Virginia in a dozen years, and now-President Biden carried the state by 10 points last November.
But the one-time battleground remains a very competitive state, and is seen as a key bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The close contest for governor has national Democrats on edge as they defend their razor-thin majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in next year’s contests.