Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor treads a slippery political path

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Republican Glenn Youngkin has had to entertain some far-fetched ideas from supporters as he seeks to become the next governor of Virginia.

During one campaign event in late July, a voter suggested that Donald Trump could be reinstated as the president due to fraud in the 2020 election and potentially help elevate Virginia Republicans who lost their seats as well.

Youngkin could have pointed out the obvious truth: that there is no constitutional mechanism for Trump to return to office and the former president has presented no valid evidence of widespread fraud in the election. Instead, he said this: “I don’t know the particulars about how that can happen, because what’s happening in the court system is moving slowly, and it’s unclear. And we all know the courts move slowly.”

The bizarre exchange, first reported by HuffPost, underscores the very fine line Youngkin is trying to walk in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, which will be held on 2 November. The self-described “political outsider” and former investment firm executive is attempting to appeal to Virginia’s independent voters without angering a Republican base that remains loyal to Trump.

It is a tough needle to thread and one that is being replicated in many areas of the US where Republicans must hold on to their Trumpist base while also seeking to court the suburban voters many see as the key to winning close races. As the Republican party has shifted further and further to the right, it has become an increasingly difficult task.

Youngkin especially has his work cut out for him in Virginia, which has been trending toward Democrats in recent years. No Republican presidential candidate has carried the state since 2004, and Trump, who has already endorsed Youngkin, lost Virginia by 10 points in last November’s presidential election.

And yet, a Monmouth University poll released on Tuesday showed Youngkin trailing Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe by just five points, 47% to 42%, indicating the race remains competitive. The race for control of the Virginia house of delegates, where all members are up for re-election this year, is similarly close. Democrats, who control the Virginia House, have a three-point advantage over Republicans in the state’s legislative races, according to Monmouth.

If Youngkin can pull off a victory in Virginia, his success could provide a roadmap for Republican candidates running in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans’ hopes of capturing the House next year may hinge on their ability to appeal to the sort of voters Youngkin is trying to win over in northern Virginia’s rapidly growing suburbs.

“There are lots of places like northern Virginia where Democrats have really done better than they used to across the country,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “So if there’s softness for them in those kinds of places, you think that might translate to softness in, say, suburban Philadelphia and the Twin City suburbs.”

But the northern Virginia suburbs have become Democratic strongholds, especially in recent years. Youngkin has the advantage of running in an off-year election with a Democratic president in office: the party that lost the White House usually wins the Virginia gubernatorial race. However, the state’s Democratic drift in the past decade presents a significant challenge for Youngkin.

“The tradeoffs in the electorate in recent years have just been really good for Democrats in Virginia,” Kondik said. “That doesn’t mean that Glenn Youngkin can’t win. It’s just that there are big-picture factors that are working against him.”

Youngkin has tried to appeal to more moderate voters by focusing on “kitchen table” issues since winning the gubernatorial nomination in May. On Monday, Youngkin rolled out his “day one game plan” that included cutting state taxes and overhauling “broken” government agencies.

“We need a whole new approach to absolutely uproot the liberal bureaucracy that has taken hold of Richmond and to make government accountable to the people again,” Youngkin said at his rollout event in northern Virginia. (The Youngkin campaign did not return the Guardian’s request for comment.)

But within days, Youngkin’s policy announcement was overshadowed by the supreme court’s decision to allow a Texas law banning most abortions to remain in effect. The controversial ruling gave McAuliffe’s campaign another opportunity to attack Youngkin over his views on reproductive rights.

“Time and time again, Glenn Youngkin has shown he is too dangerous and too extreme for Virginia,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “From his far-right plans to ban abortion and decimate essential services, to his constant peddling of anti-vaccine rhetoric and Trumpian election lies, Youngkin has made it clear: he is a threat to the health and safety of Virginians.”

The supreme court news demonstrated the challenges that Youngkin will face as he tries to keep voters’ attention on his economic agenda.

Youngkin himself has acknowledged that abortion is an issue where he needs to tread carefully in order to stay in the good graces of more moderate voters. At a June campaign event, Youngkin was recorded saying he was “staunchly, unabashedly pro-life” but was hesitant to make the issue a focus of his campaign.

“When I’m governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” Youngkin said in a clip shared with the American Independent. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

At times, Youngkin’s strategy for appealing to a wide swath of the Virginia electorate seems to come down to saying as little as possible about the issues that fire up the Republican party’s pro-Trump base. But his silence has led to attacks fromright and left.

Youngkin’s calls for “election integrity” epitomize this dynamic. Youngkin’s initial refusal to explicitly say Trump could not be reinstated in July led to the McAuliffe campaign accusing him of endorsing dangerous conspiracy theories. Youngkin’s campaign later said he was trying to “politely” correct the voter’s misperceptions about the 2020 election.

But some far-right Republicans have simultaneously criticized Youngkin for not coming out in favor of conducting an audit of the 2020 election results, a tool that has been gaining popularity among Trump’s most ardent supporters.

“To be honest, what evidence is there that he’s trying to walk the line to appeal to non-Trump supporters?” said the conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who has endorsed McAuliffe.

“His idea of walking the line is to be quiet, and I suppose that’s politically understandable. I can see why his consultants would tell him that, but I think it’s weak, and it doesn’t give me any confidence that he could make any tough decisions as governor.”

As Virginia voters consider who to support in the gubernatorial race, they will need to decide whether Youngkin’s silence, in fact, speaks volumes.