RICHMOND — As Gov. Glenn Youngkin crisscrosses the nation, stumping for Republicans and raising his own profile ahead of a possible 2024 presidential bid, he is straddling the GOP’s “big lie” divide.
Youngkin’s political team touts his ability to play to both sides as proof of the political newcomer’s versatility and ability to unify a deeply fractured GOP; Youngkin himself often says he’s appealed equally to “forever Trumpers and never Trumpers.” But even some Youngkin fans fear the strategy that helped him win the Executive Mansion — sending mixed messages on many issues, including elections, abortion and race — won’t stand up to the national spotlight.
They see his political contortions as perilous to his reputation and, perhaps, democracy.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), vice chairwoman of the House Jan. 6 committee, praised Youngkin over the weekend for “doing a good job” as governor and not buying into “the toxin of Donald Trump.” But she blasted his support for Lake while ruminating on the dangers posed by election deniers and more mainstream figures willing to countenance their lies.
“Partisanship has to have a limit. There’s got to be an end,” she said in an onstage interview Saturday at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, a celebrated political gabfest where Youngkin appeared Friday morning.
Youngkin put more stock in party loyalty in Austin, part of a two-day swing out West that included campaigning Thursday in Kansas for Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt, who as the state’s attorney general urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear lawsuits brought by Pennsylvania and Texas challenging the 2020 results.
“You’re comfortable,” moderator David M. Drucker asked Youngkin, “supporting Republicans that have issues or dispute the outcome of the last election?”
“I am comfortable supporting Republican candidates,” Youngkin replied. “And we don’t agree on everything.”
Although it’s not unusual for politicians to set aside certain policy differences as they stump for fellow Rs or Ds, Youngkin has demonstrated uncommon flexibility on an issue that for others, like Cheney, represents a bright line. He has campaigned for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon in Michigan, who has indicated she does not believe Joe Biden won her state, for instance, but also has plans to help Christine Drazan in Oregon, a Republican running for governor who rejected Trump’s false claims about 2020.
The political acrobatics are entirely on brand for Youngkin, a former private equity executive and political newcomer who came across as a sunny Boy Scout in last year’s campaign even as he flirted with the conspiracy theory that drove a violent mob into the U.S. Capitol.
Youngkin never claimed the 2020 election was stolen but refused for the first four months of his bid to acknowledge Biden had been legitimately elected. His response to repeated questions on that point was studiously coy: Youngkin would say only Biden had been sworn in and was living in the White House.
He conceded Biden’s legitimacy only after securing his party’s nomination, and continued playing to election deniers by demanding greater “election integrity” in a state Trump lost by 10 points and engaging as a key surrogate a state senator who was censured after she called Jan. 6 rioters “patriots.”
Youngkin’s willingness to champion Lake has delighted some Trump supporters but disappointed the governor’s moderate fans, who either overlooked his dalliance with deniers or expected him to break it off once elected to help the party turn the page on Trump.
“Frankly on election night I either said on TV or tweeted out [that] he would be a remarkable 2024 alternative for Republicans,” said David Jolly, a political analyst and former Republican congressman from Florida. “I thought there was something exceptional about him.”
Jolly sees Youngkin differently now in light of his support for Lake, among the most vocal supporters of Trump’s false election claims.
“It’s with disappointment, but I think it’s an indication of someone trying to be a mirror of the party, not a leader of the party,” Jolly said.
Youngkin’s office declined to make him available for an interview. As recently as Friday in Austin, Youngkin has said he is not even “thinking of 2024,” but his actions suggest otherwise. Beyond barnstorming about a dozen states, Youngkin has formed two political committees and met with megadonors in New York. This week he’ll host a two-day donor retreat outside Charlottesville.
A Youngkin political strategist declined to comment on the criticism or speak on the record about Youngkin’s rationale for supporting Lake, a former local TV news anchor who has said she would not have certified Biden’s victory had she been governor in 2020. The strategist pointed to Youngkin’s interview in Austin as a response.
“How do you square, given your approach to politics, campaigning with somebody … that undermines American and state institutions by insisting we can’t trust the outcome and not pledging to honor the outcome of future elections?” Drucker, senior political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, asked at the event.
Youngkin replied at length without directly answering Drucker’s question, echoing a rationale he offered to justify stumping for Maine’s Paul LePage despite the latter’s racially incendiary rhetoric: “What I firmly believe is that all states deserve a Republican governor.”
Youngkin has to convince “the more Trumpified wing of the party that he’s a team player” to have any shot in the Republican presidential primary, said Amy Walter, publisher and editor in chief of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Does he want to try to fight in the Larry Hogan lane of, ‘I‘m going to be the most anti-Trump candidate?’ ” she asked, referring to the Republican Maryland governor and unabashed Trump critic. “First of all, that lane’s pretty crowded. Second of all, there aren’t that many votes in that lane.”
Despite the intense focus on “election integrity” on his way to the Executive Mansion, Youngkin has not brought major changes to Virginia’s system. The divided General Assembly sent only bipartisan election bills to his desk, including one requiring that absentee ballot results be reported by precinct.
In an appearance at a Loudoun County voter registration event last week, Youngkin seemed intent on assuaging doubts by inspecting voting machines and calling the state’s elections process “safe and secure.”
But in a brief gathering with reporters afterward, Youngkin also supported the decision by Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) this month to create an “Election Integrity Unit” made up of more than 20 attorneys, investigators and paralegals to prosecute election law violations.
“Anything we can do to improve [the] process and to improve people’s faith and trust in that process is warranted,” Youngkin said.
Youngkin’s willingness to hit the campaign trail for election deniers is no surprise to Bill Kristol, a longtime conservative commentator and Virginia resident who split with the GOP over Trump.
“For all the talk about a ‘balancing act,’ where’s the balance? What big lie, election denying, extremist Republican has Youngkin refused to endorse?” Kristol said in an email to The Washington Post. “Is there even one? Youngkin seems to be party first, no questions asked, down the line.”
Some moderate allies privately fret that Youngkin is tainting his national image before it is fully formed. But at least a few cut him some slack, including former Virginia congressman Thomas M. Davis.
“I think for most Republicans, the election issue, it’s in the past and they are focused now on restoring fiscal sanity, or business requirements,” Davis said. “It’s hard to get a litmus test and say, ‘This Republican is acceptable or not.’ ”
Youngkin’s two-step has generated little backlash from members of the party’s MAGA wing, who seem willing to shrug off his support for Trump defiers so long as he’s on board with a few of their favorites.
Youngkin gets “big points” for stumping for Lake and LePage, said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaigns in 2016 and 2020. “And when he does that [for Lake and LePage] and then he goes to see Brian Kemp, we’re like, ‘Who cares?’ ”
It would be a different story, “if he only saw the RINOs,” Fredericks said, meaning Republicans in name only.
State Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), the censured legislator Youngkin deployed as a surrogate, was thrilled to hear Youngkin will back Lake and, therefore, willing to hold her nose about his support for Kemp.
Chase has been on the outs with fellow Senate Republicans since her bipartisan censure in late January 2021, but Youngkin has nurtured a bond with the self-described “Trump in heels.” Just last week, he treated Chase to an unorthodox, private bill-signing for veterans tax-break legislation that she did not actually author.
Chase came away from their meeting with photos of herself and Youngkin, which she promptly blasted out in an fundraising appeal. She also said she got a promise from the governor to join a “roundtable” of fellow election deniers that she’s assembled from the Defense Department, intelligence community and the field of computer engineering.
“He’s tried to be a unifier who brings everyone together,” Chase said in an interview. “He’s really trying hard to be all things to all people.”
Chase could wind up disappointed. Asked about the roundtable, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said, “We can’t confirm the governor’s attendance at this time.”