At the same time, Democrats — still a month from their June 8 primary — were doing some adjusting of their own. The Democratic Governors Association, which typically stands by until its party crowns its nominee, launched an online ad tying Youngkin to Trump and the “big lie” that Biden stole the White House. The Democratic Party of Virginia kicked off a “Where Trump Leads, Glenn Follows” rally on Richmond’s Capitol Square, with plans to take it around the state.
Strap in, Virginia: The 2021 governor’s race is suddenly at full speed. It’s already clear that this year’s contest — which will help define the national political landscape heading into the 2022 midterm congressional elections — is likely to be a strange, expensive, surprising affair.
Republicans get a one-month head start with a historically diverse ticket chosen in their May 8 convention. Because they don’t yet have a Democrat to run against, they picked one — former governor Terry McAuliffe, who leads in fundraising and polls and is the Bill and Hillary Clinton surrogate the GOP loves to bash.
Democrats, meanwhile, seem set on running against Trump, which is made easier because all the GOP candidates have embraced the former president — but harder because, well, Trump isn’t actually in office or on the ballot.
Whether Trump dominates or disappears from the race could depend on Youngkin’s Republican running mates and Trump himself, who endorsed him the day after his win.
“Clearly he’s getting restless down there in Mar-a-Lago, sending out press releases that are essentially tweets,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Does it matter if he’s not in the White House?”
One of Youngkin’s ticket mates could complicate efforts to downplay the connection. Winsome Sears, who bested two better-funded candidates for the lieutenant governor’s nomination, led a national group of Black Trump supporters last year. Her campaign signs featured a photo of herself dressed up as if for church, but armed with an assault rifle.
Yet Sears, an immigrant from Jamaica and former Marine, also presents an opportunity for the GOP, as does the party’s nominee for attorney general, Del. Jason S. Miyares (Virginia Beach), the son of a Cuban immigrant.
Democrats were grappling with the notion that the Republican ticket could wind up more diverse than their own.
“Whom do you think the Democrats are praying that you don’t send up as the Republican lieutenant gubernatorial candidate? That would be me,” Sears said in an interview days ahead of the convention with SUVGOP, a suburban Republican group. “I am destroying their narrative. I am an immigrant. I am Black. I am a woman.”
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, credited Republicans for the unprecedented diversity of their slate of nominees.
“I don’t discount the historical moment for the Republican Party,” Bagby said in an interview. “But I’m really concerned about diversity related to their policy, and what it does to the diverse constituency that we serve in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Youngkin is running on the premise that Democrats, who control the state House and Senate as well as the Executive Mansion, have driven Virginia into a “ditch,” partly with pandemic-era shutdowns of businesses and schools. He also criticizes them for raising taxes and tightening restrictions on guns while loosening them on abortion and voting. He touts his outsider status and expertise as a former executive as strengths.
“Virginia is being tested,” he says on his campaign website. “This has been a tough time, with loved ones lost, jobs lost, and a country divided. What Virginia needs now isn’t another politician — or worse, the same politician.”
The last line is a dig at McAuliffe, whom Youngkin has treated as the presumptive nominee, making him the subject of frequent attacks.
Flipping the script
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whom the state constitution prohibits from serving back-to-back terms, pushed back on Youngkin’s claim that Virginia has suffered under Democratic leadership. In an interview Thursday, Northam noted that the state has achieved one of the nation’s lowest coronavirus death rates and an economic recovery that saw state revenue increase by a historic 41 percent last month. He also mentioned expanding Medicaid, raises for teachers, gun-control laws, protections for women’s rights, getting schools safely reopened and expanding access to voting.
Northam, who has endorsed McAuliffe in the race, said he had not been familiar with Youngkin before the former Carlyle Group executive burst onto the political scene as a potential gubernatorial candidate late last year.
“All I’ve seen now is what you’ve seen — that he’s aligned himself with the politics of Trump and bringing in folks like Ted Cruz into Virginia. I think he’s going to have a lot to answer for,” Northam said, referring to the U.S. senator from Texas and Trump ally who barnstormed the state with Youngkin just ahead of the GOP convention. Northam, while typically mild-mannered, called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” while running for governor in 2017.
“Virginians have consistently rejected Donald Trump’s politics and policies of fear and division and conspiracy theories, and they’ll do that again this fall. I’m confident in that,” Northam said Thursday.
Republicans have already tried to flip the script — highlighting Trump’s ties to McAuliffe, who was a record-breaking fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton before entering the governorship, his first elective office.
The Republican Governors Association blasted out a Fox News story that Trump, once a reliable Democratic donor, donated $25,000 to McAuliffe’s failed 2009 bid for governor. Years earlier, Fox noted, McAuliffe played golf with Trump, and as governor, he pledged to work with the newly inaugurated president at the National Governors Association dinner in February 2017, where Trump called him a “friend.”
Carroll Foy seized on that line of attack by sending reporters the same Fox report. But Trump himself seemed to undercut the notion that he and McAuliffe are friends by bashing the Democrat in his endorsement of Youngkin.
“Glenn is running against Bill Clinton’s longtime enabler, Terry McAuliffe,” Trump wrote. “Terry McAuliffe was the Clintons’ bagman in more ways than one, from the cover-ups to the get-rich-quick schemes, and his deals with Communist China look suspicious.”
McAuliffe shot back on Twitter: “Glenn Youngkin spent his campaign fawning all over Donald Trump, and now Trump has returned the favor by wholeheartedly endorsing him. Virginians have rejected Donald Trump’s hate, conspiracy theories, and dangerous lies at every turn, and we’re going to do it again to his hand-picked, extreme right-wing candidate Glenn Youngkin this November.”
A risky play
Some Republicans and independent analysts question how much Democrats can make the Trump label stick to Youngkin, who shares some of the former president’s policy views but not his bombastic personal style. They say Democrats risk looking like they’re stuck in the past if they stay focused on a president who’s out of the White House, if not entirely out of the limelight.
“It’s not as if they’re both on the ballot at the same time,” said former Republican governor George Allen. “The thing is with President Trump, if it comes up, my view is you talk about his policies of lower taxes, productive energy, strong national defense, reasonable regulations . . . or judges. You talk about the policies, not the personality.”
Of course, Democrats have objected to Trump’s policies as much as his norm-shattering behavior as president. His false claim that he won the election, they say, was not a mere personality quirk but a threat to democracy, one that led his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a failed bid to overturn the election.
While Youngkin never said the election was stolen, Democrats say he fed that narrative by sidestepping questions about Biden’s legitimacy and by making “election security” a centerpiece of his campaign. When asked on the campaign trail whether he thought Biden had been legitimately elected, Youngkin would respond by saying only that Biden is the president and sleeps in the White House.
Taylor, of the Cook Report, said the “big lie” and the resulting riot could resonate with voters, especially in the bluer Washington suburbs, where the local TV news is the national news. But she also said it’s hard to say how much sway it will have by Election Day.
“You have President Trump still focused on this and one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the House ousted this week,” she said, referring to Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who lost her No. 3 leadership slot for rejecting Trump’s unfounded election fraud claims and blaming him for the Capitol insurrection.
“I do think that swing voters especially are going to want to see a denunciation of what happened,” Taylor said. “Come November, is that going to be the most pressing issue on voters’ minds? I’m not sure it’s the most pressing issue now.”
Allen said Youngkin handled the legitimacy question “deftly” ahead of the nominating contest. But he was pleased to hear that on TV on Thursday, Youngkin had flatly stated: “Joe Biden was legitimately elected our president.”
“Now you’re in the second half,” Allen said. “We play different in the second half of the game.”