Glenn Youngkin may be riding a wave of “white backlash” all the way to the Virginia governor’s mansion, a leading polling expert in the state said, as the Republican led the former governor Terry McAuliffe into election day.

Asked why education was a key factor in Youngkin’s stronger-than-expected showing in a state recently dominated by Democrats, Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said: “One of the candidates decided it was his ticket to the governor’s mansion and he may well be right.”

Speaking to MSNBC, Sabato pointed to the core of Youngkin’s appeal on education: a promise to ban critical race theory in schools. Critical race theory, or CRT, is an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society. It is not taught in Virginia schools, regardless of Youngkin’s promise to ban it.

“The operative word is not critical,” Sabato said. “And it’s not theory. It’s race. What a shock, huh? Race. That is what matters. And that’s why it’s sticks.

“There’s a lot of, we can call it white backlash, white resistance, whatever you want to call it. It has to do with race. And so we live in a post-factual era … It doesn’t matter that [CRT] isn’t taught in Virginia schools. It’s this generalised attitude that whites are being put upon and we’ve got to do something about it. We being white voters.”Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin at a campaign event in Leesburg, Virginia Monday. 

Though he has campaigned on an issue popular on the right, Youngkin has tried to achieve an appearance of distance from Donald Trump, the former president who lost Virginia to Joe Biden by 10 points. On Monday, a last day of frenetic campaigning, Youngkin did not participate in a Trump tele-rally staged on his behalf.

McAuliffe, a Clinton ally who was governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018 – the state does not allow consecutive terms – has seen a lead evaporate. Defeat would sound alarm bells for national Democrats, particularly given a struggle to pass Biden’s spending bill and a bipartisan infrastructure deal which has seen his approval ratings fall to the lowest level of his presidency.

Cultural issues have dominated the Virginia race, with Youngkin also promising to give parents more control over how public schools handle gender and Covid-19, and McAuliffe vowing to protect voting rights and abortion access.

Polls showed Youngkin succeeding by appealing to independents alienated by Trump. His strategy could offer a road map for Republicans in the 2022 midterms, where control of Congress and the fate of Biden’s agenda will be at stake, without alienating hard-liners.

Youngkin, 54 and a former private equity executive, campaigned as an advocate for parents who want more say in their children’s education, capitalising on anger among conservatives who believe schools are overreaching in the name of diversity. Speaking in Richmond on Monday, he promised he would usher in “a Virginia where our government stops telling us what to do all the time”.

McAuliffe, 64, handed Youngkin a political gift when he said in a debate in September: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

He has also sought relentlessly to tie Youngkin to Trump, attacking him for hesitating to say whether Biden won the presidency legitimately. Youngkin acknowledged Biden’s victory but also called for an audit of Virginia voting machines, prompting Democrats to accuse him of validating Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories.

Both Biden and Barack Obama campaigned for McAuliffe. Youngkin has mostly avoided discussion of Trump, who has not visited the state. In his tele-rally, the former president told voters Youngkin would protect suburbs and did not repeat his lies about voter fraud.

McAuliffe responded on Twitter, saying Trump was “pulling out all the stops to win this race because he knows Glenn will advance his Maga agenda here in Virginia. Tomorrow, Virginia will choose a better way”.

At final rallies, Youngkin attracted a larger crowd. In Fairfax, McAuliffe said: “Guess how Glenn Youngkin is finishing his campaign? He is doing an event with Donald Trump here in Virginia.” That was a lie.

In their final word on the campaign, Sabato’s team at UVA moved their prediction from “leans Democratic” to “leans Republican”.

“Our sense is that the race has been moving toward Youngkin,” Kyle Kondik and J Miles Coleman wrote, “in large part because of the political environment. McAuliffe’s Trump-centric campaign also just doesn’t seem as potent in a non-federal race with the former president no longer in the White House.”

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