MANASSAS, Va. Education dominated concerns for many voters in Virginia as GOP gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin has leaned into conservative outrage over mandates and Critical Race Theory, which polls have suggested might put him in the governor’s mansion. 

“The existing institutions have failed America’s students,”said GOP voter Walter Foreman, 23, after casting his ballot. “This election is about parents rising up and demanding what’s best for their kids.” He said he agreed with Youngkin’s campaign pledge to “ban Critical Race Theory in our [Virginia] schools.” 

A Republican victory would be a feat considered impossible just months ago after President Biden won the state by 10 percentage points. But Virginia’s bellwether gubernatorial race has tightened as voters remain divided over issues like local schools’ curriculums. 

At the beginning of October, education was barely an issue on the minds of voters, with only 7% listing it as their top priority, compared to 32% who listed the economy as their top issue. 

This has changed. Less than a week before Election Day, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Youngkin are tied at roughly 45% each, with around 5% of likely voters saying they remain undecided, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released on Oct. 26.

In their final campaign pitches ahead of Tuesday’s election, both Youngkin and McAuliffe made education a central piece of their closing arguments.

“What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through a lens of race, where we divide them into buckets and one group is an oppressor and the other is a victim and we pit them against each other,” Youngkin proclaimed to a crowd of thousands in Loudoun County. 

McAuliffe has sided with most teachers and denied Youngkin’s claims that Critical Race Theory is being taught in Virginia’s public schools. 

“I am sick of them talking about these issues of Critical Race Theory. We do not teach Critical Race Theory here in Virginia,” McAuliffe maintained. “It has never been taught. It is a racist dog whistle.”

Prince William County Republicans are banking on voters viewing the election as more of a national referendum. 

“We’ve got a very highly educated population, a very involved population and a population that is impacted by national politics,” Tim Parrish, the chair of the county’s Republican Party, which includes Manassas, told MNS. “The fourteenth street bridge is all that keeps us [from] the nations’ capital, a few miles from the White House, a few miles from the most powerful legislative body in the world, the United States Congress.”

All eyes are on the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state where a Republican hasn’t won statewide office since 2009. Regardless of which candidate wins, the coalition built by Youngkin, composed of traditional Republicans and “culture warrior” Trump voters, could prove to be a blueprint for a successful GOP strategy heading into the 2022 midterms.