But Youngkin, a wealthy political newcomer, may benefit from a political climate similar to the one that helped win the governorship for Republican Bob McDonnell in 2009, the last time the GOP triumphed statewide in Virginia.
McDonnell capitalized on a backlash against a newly elected Democratic president — Barack Obama — and the intense desire of Republicans to have a winner. At the time, the GOP had lost the governorship in two straight elections to Democrats Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both now U.S. senators).
Youngkin, 54, who was raised in Virginia Beach and now lives in Great Falls, appears to be an effective retail campaigner who is comfortable onstage. With a personal fortune estimated at $254 million from a career that lifted him to co-CEO of the large, D.C.-based Carlyle Group investment firm, he has plenty of money for ads and field operations.
“If Virginia was going to elect a Republican, this is the type of year that they would do it,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter produced by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We see the Democrats as favored, but it’s not going to be a slam dunk. They’ll have to work for it.”
A Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the campaign, said, “It will be a very competitive race.”
Youngkin appears likely to face former governor Terry McAuliffe in the general election. Democrats choose their nominee in a primary June 8, and polls show McAuliffe with a commanding lead.
In winning the GOP nomination at a convention May 8, Youngkin did a better job than his rivals at fulfilling the contradictory demands required today of a Republican candidate in Virginia. That means being sufficiently pro-Trump to appeal to the party faithful in rural areas, without appearing so extreme as to forsake any chance of winning over suburban moderates in Northern Virginia, and the Norfolk and Richmond areas.
For instance, a centerpiece of Youngkin’s campaign was a five-point plan for “election integrity.” That appealed to Trump supporters who continue to insist — against overwhelming evidence — that Democrats stole the presidential election for Joe Biden.
But before the convention, Youngkin stopped short of joining Trump in alleging that Biden’s win was somehow illicit. Youngkin dodged the question. Now, since locking up the nomination, he has shifted and acknowledged that Biden was legitimately elected.
Youngkin also has said it was “sad” Virginia had expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, but he tempered that position by adding that it was unrealistic to reverse the expansion.
“Youngkin didn’t go out of his way to embrace some of Trump’s most fringe statements the way some other candidates did,” said David Wasserman, an election analyst for the Cook Political Report.
A knowledgeable Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said the keys to a Youngkin victory were threefold:
● Rev up the GOP base to get 79 percent of a presidential-year turnout in bright-red areas such as the Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia.
● Win at least a narrow victory in the Norfolk media market.
● Win at least 42 percent in Northern Virginia.
“The challenge for the Republicans is I think it’s going to be hard to be palatable and competitive in Fairfax County while keeping those big Trumplike margins in southwest Virginia,” Coleman said.
Democrats already have started running ads linking Youngkin to Trump and his policies. They point to what Trump described in a written statement as his “Complete and Total Endorsement” of Youngkin.
They note a Youngkin statement to supporters on March 15, posted on Facebook, in which he said, “Someone forwarded me this email [that] said Terry McAuliffe was picking on me and said, ‘You know here comes another guy who’s like Donald Trump,’ and I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ ”
Democrats also are highlighting Youngkin’s positions against gun control and abortion rights, and his criticisms of the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus relief package passed in March.
But Youngkin may have some leeway to distance himself from Trump. He’s expected to emphasize “kitchen table” goals such as lowering taxes and reopening schools, just as McDonnell did in 2009.
GOP voters are so eager to win that they may cut him some slack. They’re frustrated seeing Democrats control both the executive and legislative branches in both Richmond and Washington.
“One thing that really helped us in 2009 was that Republicans had not won in a while,” said J. Tucker Martin, who was McDonnell’s communications director and now is a senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting.
“We had voters who were willing to give Bob McDonnell what he needed to do in terms of messaging and positioning,” Martin said. “I think you see the same situation now with Virginia Republicans. There’s a real desire to win.”
Much depends on the level of Biden’s popularity in November, and on whether Youngkin can paint the Democrats as having moved too far to the left on issues such as government spending, police restructuring and teaching “critical race theory” in schools.
“Biden has earned good marks so far from voters, but early approval ratings of this kind can be hard to maintain, even nine to 10 months into an administration,” Wasserman said. He pointed to “warning signs” such as the risk of inflation, urban crime and conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Assuming McAuliffe is the Democratic nominee, the GOP will try to persuade voters that he is a divisive figure, partly for talking so much about Trump. It will say he has moved to the left with his party since earning a reputation as a pro-business governor after winning in 2013.
That may be a hard sell, given that voters feel they already know McAuliffe.
“It’s going to be difficult [to tarnish him] because McAuliffe ended up as a popular governor, with strong support across the commonwealth,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Still, Youngkin can appeal to independent voters by arguing that the pendulum has swung too far to the left in both Richmond and Washington. Democrats will err if they take this race for granted.