FILE - Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox

Virginia Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights

(The Center Square) – Four of the Republican candidates for governor of Virginia made their case to voters in the Faith & Freedom Coalition Governor's Debate in which they discussed education, policing, taxes and the economy.

Candidates mostly focused their criticism on the Democratic leadership in Richmond and the lead Democratic candidate for governor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, rather than each other. The tone for the Republicans centered around reopening the state’s economy, cutting taxes, ensuring police have adequate funding and protections and upholding educational rigor in public schools.

“I’m running to protect the American Dream,” Sergio de la Pena, the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under former President Donald Trump, said in the debate. “...We keep putting forth the same type of candidate and we keep losing… because we’re not expanding the voting base.”

De la Pena touted his work with the Trump campaign and his outreach to Hispanic voters in the commonwealth. He said the state needs to set a different tone on education by rooting out Marxist thought from the curriculum, such as critical race theory, and expanding school choice options for parents.

Schools and businesses need to open back up, De la Pena said. As governor, he said he would focus on three main priorities for the state economy – reducing taxes, reducing regulations and reducing spending.

“As soon as I’m your governor, everything opens back up,” De la Pena said.

Candidate Peter Dolan emphasized he has specific plans to improve the state economy, such as phasing out the state income tax to 0%, expanding school choice opportunities and making the state’s police force the best trained in the country.

“[Phasing out the state income tax is] going to be a game changer for our economy,” Dolan said.

Dolan said the abolition of the income tax would help businesses prosper and put more money into the hands of families and businesses. Dolan also supported ending critical race theory in public education.

“We are going to get critical race theory out of our classrooms,” Dolan said.

Glenn Younkin touted his status as a Christian and a conservative, as well as a businessman, rather than a politician. He advocated for cutting taxes, promoting school choice and election reform, which would include mandatory voter I.D. laws. He said he is a Republican that can win in November.

“We are going to rebuild, revitalize and reinvigorate Virginia’s economy like never before,” Younkin said.

Younkin said one of the biggest challenges for police is they require more funding and Democrats have been trying to get rid of qualified immunity for officers, which he said is something the state cannot eliminate. He criticized the Department of Education’s consideration of ending accelerated math and getting rid of the advanced high school diplomas. He said the state should expand its charter school system.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, the former speaker of the state house, touted his ability to win in a Democrat-majority district in which nearly one-third of the population is made up of ethnic minorities. He touted his career in the House of Delegates, which included his work to pass a $1 billion tax cut and his fight against abortion expansion.

Cox criticized Democratic leadership for increasing taxes, passing environmental restrictions, which he classified as a “green new deal” and the parole board’s promotion of releasing criminals that should not be released.

“I don’t want to see us become California,” Cox said.

The state is expected to have a $900 million surplus, which Cox said he would give back to Virginians as governor. He said he would work with businesses and trust their input and criticized the current Democratic leadership of not properly consulting them.

Cox also criticized critical race theory and the effort to get rid of accelerated math and advanced diplomas. He said the governor has a strong influence over the curriculum, which he will use to prevent these changes.

The nominee will be selected at the May 8 convention. The Republican will face off against the Democratic nominee whose current frontrunner is McAullife.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.