In bellwether Virginia vote, it all hangs on COVID
Penny Lane Pub owner Terry O'Neill has been pouring pints in Richmond, Virginia for more than 40 years(AFP)

It is mid-afternoon on a Saturday in downtown Richmond's Penny Lane Pub and the post-pandemic crowd, like the head of a well-poured pale ale, is bubbly but thin.

Owner Terry O'Neill has plenty of time between serving drinks and swapping banter with regulars to reflect on the damage Covid-19 has done to business.

"It's never going to come back to what it was. We were doing 150 lunches. We're down to 40," says the grandfather-of-five who is a former bouncer at The Cavern Club, the Liverpool nightspot frequented by The Beatles.

Washington politics can seem far away from the daily struggles of people in Richmond, but Virginia is seen as a reliable indicator of where the parties are headed in national elections.

All eyes have been on the state for weeks because it holds its election for the governor's mansion on November 2, a too-close-to-call race between Democratic establishment candidate Terry McAuliffe and brash Trumpist Glenn Youngkin.

Now in his 80s, O'Neill bought the Penny Lane with his wife Rose in 1979 after 10 years in New York. Signed photographs and record covers adorn the walls, alongside memorabilia from his beloved Liverpool Football Club.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, the native Briton was only able to keep the business afloat thanks to government Covid relief.

"We would never be here now if it wasn't for the loans they sent us. It was my nightmare," he tells AFP.

While next week's vote is in large part about how well Virginians think their state is run, the old capital of the Confederacy is also a crucial national battleground for President Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the man he evicted from the White House and the most likely Republican challenger next time around.

'Topsy-turvy'

Traditionally conservative Virginia has swung left since the turn of the century. Four of the last five governors have been Democrats and Biden won the state by 10 points in 2020.

The gubernatorial race has been tightening for weeks, with McAuliffe's lead evaporating in the final stretch.

The Democrat has tried to make the race a referendum on Trump, while Youngkin has focused on Republican red meat such as mask mandates and the school curriculum.

Richmond's Democratic mayor Levar Stoney describes central Virginia -- with its rural counties, suburbs and diverse urban areas -- as "a microcosm of America."

"We are preoccupied by some of what's driving some of the American conversation right now. That's Covid-19 and the impacts that this virus and the pandemic have had on our economy, jobs, public education and our way of life," he tells AFP.

"It's been a little topsy-turvy since last March so there's a lot of folks who are still suffering."

Stoney sees the election as a precursor for the November 2022 midterms, with the parties getting an early shot at testing messages to deliver on the national stage.

But he adds: "Virginia voters are going to be voting on Virginia issues, on Virginia candidates."

And the issue that comes up time and again when locals voice their concerns is the faltering US recovery from Covid-19.

Like every other state, Virginia saw its economy obliterated by the pandemic but business has been perking up, with tax revenue soaring by 18 percent year-on-year last month.

"On a day when there is some sort of political event we see a lot of people in town," says Jonathan Kas, a 35-year-old musician who works at the Circle Thrift and Art Space store downtown.

"But it's sometimes hard to gauge, because we were also closed for a year stretch of the pandemic. We didn't actually have any business in store."

A week out from the election, the McAuliffe camp is touting the gains made by national Democrats -- including Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan -- but his team is worried about low turnout.

'Passionate'

Many Richmond residents interviewed by AFP pointed to friends and colleagues who were politically engaged while not necessarily committed to mainstream candidates.

"I'm mostly around the students because I go to VCU," said Kayla "Bobbie" Fluitt, a 19-year-old theater major at Virginia Commonwealth University, interrupted by AFP during her dance group's roadside rehearsal.

"A lot of them are very interested in politics and what's going on in the area."

Fellow dancer Chandler Dmitri Bradley, a 25-year-old astrologer, knows people who are "heatedly passionate" about local issues.

But for many, the mood in Richmond reflects the mood of the country, and there are encouraging signs for McAuliffe and Biden that Trumpism will prove a thorn in the side for Youngkin.

Beth Schmierer, 42, has lived in Washington for the last 20 years but was in Richmond ahead of the election to visit family.

"I think it's easy to mirror yourself after Trump, which is what the candidate is doing, because people love the strongman and the populist and will vote for him. It's very unfortunate," she told AFP as she finished lunch outside a cafe on a balmy, autumnal afternoon.

"So I don't think we've seen the last of Trump or his supporters."