Trump is a complication for Republican hopes in Virginia
Former President Trump is threatening to complicate Republican Glenn Youngkin’s bid for governor in Virginia, where the ex-businessman is trying to extend his support to the very suburban voters who fled from Trump in 2020.
Youngkin has said he is “honored” to receive Trump’s endorsement, noting the former president “represents so much of why I’m running.”
But in a sign of how unpopular the former president is in the commonwealth, Youngkin’s campaign also recently cut an ad tying his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, to Trump, highlighting a 2009 campaign donation the former governor had received from him.
The contrast highlights the tightrope Youngkin must walk in a state that has turned bluer over the years — and it underscores why Trump’s insistence on weighing in on the race could prove frustrating to Youngkin and his allies.
“They’re dancing on the edge of a knife, and so far they have no cuts. So very deftly and astutely they have navigated their way through this,” said John Fredericks, a conservative Virginia talk show host who chaired both Trump’s presidential campaigns in the state.
Youngkin has established a presence on Virginia airwaves through an aggressive advertising campaign introducing himself as a unifying force who will stand up to the commonwealth’s political establishment. The Republican candidate has also made a number of appearances on Fox News in an effort to introduce himself to conservatives.
“There’s still an introduction level to him despite the advertising edge he’s had and despite running in a contested [convention],” said one Virginia Republican strategist. “He still needs to establish himself.”
Last week, Youngkin made news on the campaign trail by stumping for two days with potential 2024 GOP contender Nikki Haley, who has criticized Trump in the past. The two campaigned in Richmond and Northern Virginia, two areas where Youngkin will face an uphill climb against the Democratic base in November.
The Republican candidate also made news last week in announcing he would not take part in this month’s Virginia Bar Association debate, citing a $250 donation the journalist Judy Woodruff made to the Clinton Foundation’s Haiti earthquake relief fund, led by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, more than a decade ago. McAuliffe has ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“They lost nothing, and all the entire Trump base that hates the fake news, and hates NPR, and thinks Judy Woodruff is a part of the fake news media, they got excited and applauded him,” Fredericks said, adding the move was “absolutely brilliant.”
But other Republicans say what they call Youngkin’s broad appeal is not a product of the candidate altering his messages for different voting groups, but of his policies.
“He’s not your typical Republican,” said a second Virginia-based GOP strategist. “It’s not a matter of walking the line or saying one thing to one group and another to the next group like Terry does.”
“He’s a conservative, but he’s also taking on substantive issues that are important to moderate Democrats,” the strategist said, citing human trafficking, academic excellence and veterans plans as examples.
McAuliffe and his Democratic allies have gone all-out on working to tie Youngkin to Trump, pointing to Trump’s losses in Virginia in 2016 and 2020.
McAuliffe told The Hill that he “got a kick out of” the ad Youngkin’s team released tying him to Trump.
“Poor Glenn doesn’t know what to do,” McAuliffe said. “Trump is viscerally disliked in this state. I have beaten Trump every time here. I ran Clinton operations and I ran the Biden operations here in Virginia, and we have crushed him.”
Youngkin’s team fired back in a statement to The Hill, calling McAuliffe “slimy and dishonest.”
“Terry McAuliffe is a total fraud who took $25,000 from Donald Trump, hugged Donald Trump, toasted Donald Trump, and now pretends like he hasn’t been friends with him for nearly three decades,” said Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s press secretary. “Now, Terry McAuliffe wishes he was running against someone else because he knows he can’t beat Glenn Youngkin and can’t stand on real issues.”
The race is shaping up to be a tight one, with most polls showing Youngkin narrowly trailing McAuliffe. A JMS Analytics survey released last month showed McAuliffe leading Youngkin 46 percent to 42 percent, within the poll’s 4.2-point margin of error. Meanwhile, a poll from the right-leaning firm WPA Intelligence showed McAuliffe leading Youngkin 48 percent to 46 percent. That poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
The Cook Political Report moved the race from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic” last month, a sign of its growing competitive nature.
Some Republicans concede that Democrats have an upper hand in the race, citing McAuliffe’s high name ID as a former governor and the Democratic direction Virginia has moved in. However, they argue that could change once Youngkin is full introduced and established as a candidate.
“Unfortunately for me as a Republican and as a Virginian, [Democrats] have more margin for error, so they don’t need to run a perfect playbook. They can get the message half right and still win,” said the first Republican strategist. “This is the safe play for them, but they may come back to regret that in October when Youngkin has firmly established himself as Glenn Youngkin, an outsider and a businessman and a change agent for Virginia.”
The statewide campaign will be thrust into the national spotlight once again this week when President Biden stumps with McAuliffe in Arlington on Friday.
But there appears to be no sign or plans for Trump to stump alongside Youngkin.
“Trump plays overwhelmingly well in certain areas of the state,” said the second Virginia-based GOP strategist. “So I think that if he were to come, there are ways to utilize him that have the maximum impact.”
Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson said last week that he would welcome Trump to the commonwealth if he decided to make the trip.
“Of course we’d welcome the former leader of the Republican party, that’s the Virginia way,” Anderson told The Courthouse News Service. “Mr. Trump has a mind of his own. If that takes him on a visit to Virginia, who knows.”