This Mini-Trump Doesn’t Want to Be Seen With the Real Thing
Glenn Youngkin is trying to let his money speak for him in Virginia, while keeping a low profile and just enough distance from Donald Trump to avoid scaring off suburban voters.
The race for governor in Virginia has become a culture war centered around Donald Trump, with popular former governor Terry McAuliffe vying for a comeback by warning that, “We can’t let Trump use Virginia to pick himself up”—as polls showing an ominously tight race with early voting already underway.
If Republican Glenn Youngkin wins, it will send shock waves through our politics as the first electoral test of the endurance of the Big Lie and an aggrieved ex-president’s role in the titanic struggle for control of Congress in 2022.
A former private equity investor, Youngkin has courted the Trump base with his call for “election integrity” and promise to audit Virginia voting machines, along with what he calls a “movement” for parents to take back control of schools and his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. At the same time, Yougkin has appealed to moderates in the vote-rich suburbs by promising to rebate taxes and eliminate the state tax on food, but without saying how he would replace the lost revenue that helps fund education.
This tap dance might have worked, until Steve Bannon showed up at a Richmond rally for his campaign last week where Trump allies pledged allegiance to a flag that allegedly was at the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump phoned in to say he was looking forward to appearing in person with Youngkin, who didn’t attend the rally and initially said he couldn’t offer any comment because he wasn’t there. His campaign did provide the Youngkin signs. He later called the rally “weird and wrong.”
The Nov. 2 election is the first key indicator of where politics is headed post-Trump, and whether a Republican win could serve as a springboard for the ex-president’s comeback. Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, told The Daily Beast, “People in Virginia may simply want a change after eight years of Democrats. Even if that’s so, what matters is the perception. It’s the first battle of the 2022 campaign. If Youngkin wins, it’s good for Trump, no question about that.”
It also may be interpreted as a referendum on critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia public schools but has been the subject of a relentless disinformation campaign to convince parents that their children are being used to advance controversial ideas they don’t support. Youngkin would like Virginians to think that the state’s school boards are at the center of the culture war. “This is the latest in a whole series of efforts to weaponize school district policies by conservatives to gain political advantage,” says Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media at Mary Washington University. In a super-polarized electorate with few voters who haven’t made up their minds, “It’s a rile-up-the-base strategy,” he says.
A recent poll conducted by the University of Mary Washington that asked Virginians to rate their school board’s COVID policies found that 18 percent thought they were too strict, 40 percent found them “about right,” and 20 percent said they were too lenient. Asked to give letter grades on the state’s COVID policies, enacted by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, 11 percent gave an F, another 11 percent gave a D, “and the rest feel pretty good,” says Farnsworth.
Youngkin has come farther than any recent Republican in mastering the fine art of keeping the base close without saying things that alienate the rest of the electorate. Quentin Kidd, who oversees polling at Christopher Newport University, says, “Youngkin is walking a spider web between two tall buildings where one is the base, and the other is suburban voters he needs to win.”
But that Richmond rally may have ensnared Youngkin in his own web of deception. Trump told rallygoers he’d love to campaign in person with Youngkin, which leaves the candidate in a tight spot. He doesn’t dare offend his endorser, but appearing with Trump would likely alienate suburban voters and ensure his defeat.
“If Youngkin wins, we know what Trump will say,” Farnsworth continues. “It will be because of Trump, and if he loses, it will be because Trump wasn’t permitted to do enough.”
While Joe Biden carried Virginia by 10 points in 2020, the president’s sagging popularity has helped Youngkin make it to within the margin of error in recent polls. So while Trump would claim a Youngkin victory as a referendum on himself, Youngkin might prefer the race to be a referendum on Biden.
That’s why Youngkin has been “running a Rose Garden campaign with limited events,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. McAuliffe is known for his boundless energy, and he’s doing six or seven open press events a day in this final stretch while Youngkin doesn’t even do that in a week, says Bennett. One reason for his limited schedule is that Youngkin is new to politics, having spent his life in private equity, but the bigger reason is he doesn’t want to get asked really hard questions about Trump. “He’s running a smart media campaign,” says Bennett. “He’s letting the media and his money speak for him.”
Ultimately, this is a perception war, says Jack Pitney, who was at the Republican National Committee as a political operative in 1989 when Democrat Doug Wilder won the Virginia governor’s race. Wilder was the first African American to serve as governor since Reconstruction, and the first Black elected governor. Democrats were ecstatic not only for breaking a barrier but for what it signaled about 1992, the next presidential election: a party that was back after more than a decade in the wilderness.
Each side has their talking points, says Pitney. The winning side in Virginia will say this is a great sign for 2022. The losing side will say all politics is local, a line that would have worked in another time—but not in Virginia, not this time. For better or worse, Virginia has gone national.