“It’s about bringing people together,” Youngkin said in an interview here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, as the sun set after a full day of campaigning, “as opposed to this idea of walking the line.”
But make no mistake: He faces a careful balancing act, the outcome of which could offer a window into how Republicans can run their campaigns without Trump on the ballot during a midterm election year that history shows also presents considerable obstacles for the party that controls the White House.
Youngkin, 54, a former private equity executive who is seeking political office for the first time, is locked in a closer-than-expected race against Terry McAuliffe, 64, a former Democratic Party leader who is seeking a second act as Virginia’s governor.
“We control the House, the Senate and the White House,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “We need this infrastructure. I can tell you as a former governor, it is absolutely critical for our bridges and roads, so let’s get it done and quit talking.”
The November contest will help answer whether the commonwealth still has the capacity to deliver a statewide victory for a Republican candidate or if it has become solidly blue terrain as the last four presidential elections have indicated.
“The Republican Party has figured out one thing over the last 12 years — that’s how to lose,” Youngkin said. “We’ve got to win.”
The Trump factor
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states in the country that hold gubernatorial elections the year after a presidential campaign. The races can provide an early glimpse at the mood of the electorate, particularly for the President’s party.
The dysfunction and divide on display inside the Democratic Party, along with Biden’s falling approval ratings over the summer months, has raised the optimism of Republicans in Virginia far higher than many party officials once anticipated.
A key wildcard in the race is Trump and the degree to which he could be used to fire up his Republican base or to unite the Democratic one.
“Donald Trump wants to use this election to begin his comeback in this country,” said McAuliffe, who invokes Trump’s name far more than most any Republican does, seeking to paint his rival as a clone of the former President.
Yet it’s an open question how successful the attempts to insert Trump into the race have been.
For his part, Youngkin rarely mentions Trump by name. He said he is seeking to build a coalition of “forever Trumpers, Never Trumpers, single issue voters, libertarians, Tea Party folks,” along with Democrats and independents who have become disillusioned with the party’s leftward shift and its ability to govern.
He’s testing just how big the Republican Party’s tent can be, but his approach is already raising questions from Trump, who told a Richmond radio station last week, “The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement.”
Asked about the former President’s comments during an interview here, Youngkin downplayed any sentivity or concern.
“He knows exactly where I stand,” Youngkin said. “I’m a Virginia-first candidate. I’m on the ballot. It’s Glenn Youngkin running in Virginia.”
Yet Youngkin’s positions are coming under closer scrutiny, including his belief that vaccinations should be required for measles, mumps and rubella, but not for Covid-19. He struggled to explain his reasoning during a debate on Tuesday, but insisted during a CNN interview on Wednesday that science, not politics, was driving his views.
“There’s nothing about politics in this for me,” Youngkin said, trying to steer the question away from mandates for teachers and health workers to children. “Should it be mandated for young children? I think we should just step back and the best way to do that is to encourage everybody to get the vaccine.”
Pressed again about his opposition to mandates for the Covid-19 vaccine, which several polls show are supported by a solid majority of Virginia voters and leading business groups, Youngkin did not elaborate before an aide whisked him away for the next campaign stop.
But during his remarks at an event for Republican candidates on a farm here, Youngkin highlighted his opposition to mandatory vaccinations as a key distinction with his Democratic opponent.
“Terry McAuliffe wants people who don’t get the vaccine to lose their job. He wants to fire them,” Youngkin said, going on to call it an example of government overreach.
For his part, McAuliffe said his rival’s opposition to vaccine mandates was disqualifying.
“I think it’s probably the most defining issue,” said McAuliffe, who from 2014 to 2018 led Virginia, the only state in the country that does not allow governors to serve two consecutive terms.
‘A big race for the country’
In the final month of the campaign, both candidates are seeking to portray the other as too extreme for mainstream voters. They’re quarreling over their respective ideas to lift the economy, along with fights over the Second Amendment and election integrity.
Early voting is already underway, the first time it has been offered for a governor’s race, which officials in both parties say could increase turnout from the 2.6 million people who voted in the 2017 governor’s race. It remains to be seen whether the turnout approaches the 4.5 million people who took part in the 2020 presidential race in Virginia, where Biden defeated Trump by 10 percentage points.
“The votes are there,” McAuliffe said. “We just need to alert everybody that there are high consequences if you do not vote.”
The final month of the race is filled with at least some degree of uncertainty, particularly with the legislative gridlock in Washington that McAuliffe is increasingly speaking out against, seeking to distance himself from the bickering and inaction.
“This is a big race for the country,” McAuliffe said. “It can send a signal that the Democrats, going into ’22, can have a wind behind their backs.”
As for Youngkin, he is seeking to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with Democratic policies, taxes and spending, but is focusing far more on McAuliffe. He said the race should be squarely about Virginia — an implicit effort to keep the race from becoming a referendum on the national Republican Party.
At many campaign stops, the former president that Youngkin routinely brings up is neither Trump nor Biden, but Bill Clinton.
“If Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton had a son, it’s Terry McAuliffe!” Youngkin said to booming applause here from a Republican crowd about the longtime Clinton ally. “He is a creature of the swamp.”
It’s a partisan punchline that needed little explanation in this state just across the Potomac River from Washington.