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Glenn Youngkin is playing both sides on Covid-19 vaccines.

In his effort to win Virginia’s gubernatorial election next week, the Republican candidate is trying to appease the GOP base with strong opposition to vaccine mandates — saying he’s “really frustrated” with them and urging those who want exemptions to seek them.

But he’s trying, too, to win back more moderate suburbanites who support a strong response to the pandemic, even airing an ad encouraging people to “join me in getting the vaccine.” “We can protect lives and livelihoods here in Virginia,” he says.

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He’s not alone. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for example, has similarly said he supports the Covid-19 vaccines in general, but doesn’t support mandating them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is an even more vocal supporter of the vaccines, but has largely avoided discussion of mandates like President Biden’s plan to require the vaccine for federal workers.

Part of the reason for their very narrow, careful position: Recent polling shows that around 60% of voters support Covid-19 vaccine mandates. Among Republican voters, however, that number drops to 19%.

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“The idea of a mandate of a vaccine like this is antithetical to the Republican ideology of small, limited government and limited intrusion,” said Benjamin Melusky, assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University.

Youngkin’s Tuesday face-off with former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, will be the first major political test of the calculated position so many Republican politicians have taken on Covid vaccines — and could shed light on the political fortunes of Republicans in next year’s pivotal midterm elections. Democrats, including McAuliffe, have largely backed both the vaccines and nearly every effort to require people to take them.

“The governor’s race [is] an important test of how both parties message on Covid,” said Rosalyn Cooperman, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Is that going to be palatable to voters who have typically trended blue over the last election cycles? I think we are paying very close attention to it because of the implications it has in other races in other states moving forward.”

McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, has been more than happy to focus the race on Covid-19.

He recently announced a policy initiative entitled “Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers” and has spent time on social media and in campaign ads seeking to blast Youngkin for not doing more to support a robust response to the pandemic, even at one point calling him an “anti-vaxxer” during a television interview with WJLA in Arlington, Va.

At a gubernatorial debate last month, McAuliffe called Youngkin’s position on the vaccine mandates “disqualifying.”

“He’s going to send a child to a school where a teacher’s not wearing a mask and a teacher’s not vaccinated? That is disqualifying to be governor,” McAuliffe said.

Youngkin pushed back, calling the characterization an “egregious untruth,” and pointing out that he and his family are all vaccinated. But he also admitted to a slight inconsistency — he believes that while Covid vaccines shouldn’t be mandatory, those for measles, mumps, and rubella can. Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Karen Hult, chair at the department of political science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said the Republican Party, both in the state of Virginia and nationally, is looking to understand the extent to which a Republican candidate can move away from the dominance of the Trump administration’s insistence against mandates.

“Youngkin is trying to appeal to independent and undecided voters by saying, ‘I am a Republican that is not utterly against vaccines or against a range of things that the Trump administration [was] trying to focus on,’” she said. “It may reassure independent voters that this is a reasonable person who listens to a variety of constituent voices.”

The race itself is increasingly tight, though Democrats have won every statewide race since 2009. The latest FiveThirtyEight polling average for the state shows a deadlocked race in Virginia. Both Youngkin and McAuliffe are backed by 47% of Virginia’s voters, it shows.

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