Youngkin, McAuliffe Clash over Vaccine Mandates, Abortion in First Virginia Gubernatorial Debate

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, right, gestures as Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP Photo

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin squared off against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in their first debate on Thursday, one day ahead of early voting beginning for the Old Dominion’s contentious off-year election.

The debate, which took place at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, included Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group, often referring back to his prioritization of jobs and the economy and McAuliffe repeatedly associating Youngkin with former President Donald Trump.

The evening opened with heated exchanges over coronavirus vaccine mandates. Moderator and USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page asked Youngkin about President Joe Biden’s “sweeping new vaccination requirements” and if Youngkin would challenge the president’s vaccine mandate in court.

Youngkin, who has consistently opposed forcing individuals to take the vaccine, stated, “I have been a strong, strong advocate for everyone to get the vaccine. I do believe that individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own.”

Pressed on if he would challenge the legality of Biden’s latest federal mandate, Youngkin said, “I don’t believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine. Again, I would encourage everyone to get the vaccine, but I don’t believe he has the authority to do so.”

McAuliffe has in recent weeks become unabashedly vocal about his support for vaccine requirements. During the debate, McAuliffe reiterated he wants to see employers mandate their employees be vaccinated and said he wants to see schools require students who are 12 years old and older to be vaccinated.

McAuliffe concluded, “I am for requiring mandate vaccinations. He’s not. He likes to do PSAs. PSAs aren’t going to get you anything.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, gestures during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) gestures during a debate in Grundy, Virginia, September 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Youngkin, during the topic of vaccines, cited McAuliffe’s statement in August that the government should “make life difficult” for individuals who opt against inoculation. “I think Virginians have suffered enough not to have a governor make their life difficult,” the Republican candidate stated.

Another set of combative exchanges came on the topic of abortion, an issue dominating headlines nationwide after the Supreme Court upheld Texas’s law on prohibiting abortions when an unborn baby’s heartbeat is detected, which is usually at about six weeks gestation.

Youngkin described the Texas bill as the “standard right now that we’re all looking at” though he said he would not sign it as it is currently written because he finds the bill “unworkable and confusing.”

Youngkin reasserted his position as being against abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

He pointed to McAuliffe calling state Democrat legislation from 2019 that proposed loosening restrictions on late-term abortions a “commonsense bill.”

“My opponent doesn’t want to talk about this topic tonight because he actually called legislation that would enable abortion — paid for with taxpayer money — all the way up through and including birth … he called that legislation commonsense legislation and said he would sign it,” Youngkin said. “Friends, my opponent wants to be the abortion governor, and I want to be the jobs governor.”

McAuliffe, for his part, repeated his claim that he had been and would continue to be a “brick wall” against abortion restrictions, saying, “I believe a woman ought to make a decision about her own reproductive rights.”

The candidates at times exchanged light insults with each other. Youngkin asked at one point, “Terry, are you okay? … I think you’re up on two wheels. … Next thing you know you’re going to be yelling at a sheriff.” McAuliffe was filmed this week berating a sheriff for asking McAuliffe if he supported the “defund the police” movement:

Later, upon Youngkin interjecting during one of McAuliffe’s responses, the former governor retorted, “Excuse me, it’s my turn. … This isn’t a Carlyle boardroom. It’s my turn.”

The candidates also sparred over law enforcement policies — though they both agreed to maintain qualified immunity for police officers — tax plans, and election integrity.

Page at one point highlighted the McAuliffe campaign’s focus on tying Youngkin to Trump after the former president endorsed Youngkin for governor.

Page asked McAuliffe, “To watch your campaign ads, Virginia voters might well think Donald Trump is on the ballot. … Why have so many of your paid ads and your rhetoric mentioned Trump in an election focused on the people of Virginia?”

McAuliffe quickly replied, “Sure, because my opponent’s a Trump wannabe,” and proceeded to elaborate on the “damage” he believes Trump has caused to the country.

Virginia’s gubernatorial election takes place November 2. The winner will replace current Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is term-limited and unable to seek reelection.

Watch the full one-hour debate on WTVR here.

Write to Ashley Oliver at


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