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The race for governor of Virginia is neck-and-neck

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The race for Virginia governor ends in a little more than a week, and the contest appears to be close between the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, and the Republican, Glenn Youngkin. For some people, that's a bit of a surprise in a state that had looked like it was turning increasingly democratic. As Jahd Khalil of member station WVTF reports, it all comes down to voter turnout.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: Ken Schaal (ph) knows the highway leading to Hanover's polling place is good real estate, but it's not the easiest place to put a sign.

KEN SCHAAL: I think I've got a little bit too much wind, and I've got to go get some more ties.

KHALIL: He's a retired solar contractor living in the conservative county north of Richmond. He's setting up signs for Democrats running in Virginia's elections.

SCHAAL: Pound the stake in and zip-tie it on, basically.

KHALIL: What made you want to put up a sign?

SCHAAL: There's way too many Republican signs out there, which indicates enthusiasm.

KHALIL: A recent poll by Monmouth University said Democratic enthusiasm actually has gone down since September. Presidential elections get a lot of spectacle. Off-year elections like this one get less attention. But Virginians are voting for the state's governor. Candidates for other statewide offices and the House of Delegates are on the ballot, too. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe is trying to win back his old seat. He's a Democrat running against Republican Glenn Youngkin, who wants to hold political office for the first time.

ROBERT CORNELIUS: Kind of slowed down a little bit now.

KHALIL: At Hanover, folks are taking advantage of chilly but sunny weather and of early voting.

CORNELIUS: But, yeah, it's a beautiful day to be out.

KHALIL: Robert Cornelius is the vice chair of the Hanover Republican Committee. Republicans haven't won statewide office in Virginia since 2009. But a lot of them think this is their year.

CORNELIUS: The current general assembly has put a lot of laws in place that don't represent a lot of voters out in Virginia.

KHALIL: Republican early votes are up, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks election data and provides political analysis. But plenty of Democrats are coming out, too. Holly Young (ph) thought she would be out of town, so she's in Richmond casting her vote early.

HOLLY YOUNG: We felt really strongly about the governor election being really close this year - or seems to be close. I don't love the Democratic nominee, but I felt like we really have to vote. It's very important.

KHALIL: Young says she's noticed a lack of McAuliffe signs around the state. That bothers her. She says Republicans have often held power in Virginia, so this isn't the time for Democrats to take recent victories for granted.

ERNEST MCGOWEN: If you think something is inevitable, if you think that someone is going to win, then you're not going to want to pay the cost of behavior or of your time.

KHALIL: Ernest McGowen is a professor of political science at the University of Richmond. He says it makes sense that both candidates may seize on the narrative of low enthusiasm.

MCGOWEN: The guy that may lose and that is lower in the polls has to say the election is close to get that enthusiasm up. And the person that may be ahead in the polls has to say the election is close so they don't have that apathy.

KHALIL: With such a close race, outside groups are focused on voter turnout, too.

NATHANIEL STINNETT: I'm Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project.

KHALIL: Stinnett tries to get environmental voters from the sidelines into consistent voters.

STINNETT: We actually use a little bit of peer pressure. We let them know, oh, there are lots of people on your street who are going to be voting, or turnout is going to be high.

KHALIL: With the pandemic, year-over-year turnout comparisons are especially difficult to make. And when Virginians voted for governor four years ago, the rules around early and absentee voting were much more restrictive. About half a million people have already cast their ballot, both Democrats and Republicans. So at this point, it's anybody's race.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.