The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two Republicans running statewide in Virginia back Lee statue removal, with varying degrees of enthusiasm

The dismantled Robert E. Lee statue is hauled away on a flatbed trailer after its removal from its base on Monument Avenue in Richmond on Wednesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The Robert E. Lee monument that came down this week left something surprising in its wake — two Republicans running statewide in the former capital of the Confederacy who support its removal, albeit one with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee for governor, and Winsome E. Sears, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, agreed with the decision to take the monument down, according to their respective campaigns.

That’s a shift from when Virginia Republicans made the preservation of Confederate monuments a rallying cry in the race for governor four years ago and in a U.S. Senate contest in 2018. It was not that long ago that even the state’s leading Democrats supported keeping them in place.

Youngkin, a political newcomer who has avoided taking positions on thorny issues ranging from abortion to President Biden’s legitimacy, ducked when asked in a radio interview before the removal if he would have given the old general the boot as governor.

“We have a court ruling and so the statue’s going to come down,” he told WRVA’s John Reid on Tuesday, on the eve of Lee’s departure from Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue. “And I do hope, John, that they put it someplace like a battlefield or a museum so that we won’t forget our history. And I do hope that we, in fact, recognize how wrong the graffiti and the violence was around statues, and that we have to stand up for law enforcement, not demean them and defund them.”

When pressed for Youngkin’s position on removal, Youngkin spokesman Matt Wolking in a series of emails eventually wrote, “He agrees with the decision.”

Mike Allers, a spokesman for Sears, who would be the first Black woman to hold statewide office in Virginia, issued a statement robustly cheering the towering statue’s demise — as a rebuke to Southern Democrats as the party of Jim Crow.

“Today is the day where the historic symbols of Oppression by the Democratic Party are over,” it said. “We must move Virginia forward in a brand new inclusive direction full [of] opportunity and promise for ALL Virginians!”

Robert E. Lee statue is removed in Richmond, ex-capital of Confederacy, after months of protests and legal resistance

Youngkin and Sears find themselves at odds on the subject with former president Donald Trump, who issued a statement Wednesday night bemoaning the ouster of “the magnificent and very famous statue.”

“Our culture is being destroyed and our history and heritage, both good and bad, are being extinguished by the Radical Left, and we can’t let that happen!” wrote Trump, who lost Virginia by 10 points last year but remains highly popular with the Republican base that the GOP ticket needs to turn out in force on Nov. 2. At the same time, Republicans need to win back suburban swing voters who have been turned off by Trump, setting up a precarious balancing act for the party’s three statewide nominees.

A spokeswoman for the third — Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), who is running for attorney general — did not respond to inquiries on his position. Like most Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly, Miyares voted against a bill last year giving local governments the authority to remove Confederate monuments on public property.

All three Democrats running statewide — Terry McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a comeback; Del. Hala S. Ayala (Prince William), who is running for lieutenant governor; and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who is seeking a third term — have supported efforts by outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to remove the monument. Herring’s office successfully represented Northam against legal challenges brought by a handful of Monument Avenue residents who had wanted it to stay put. The state Supreme Court cleared the way for removal last week.

“These monuments have clearly become flash points for hate and division, just like we saw in Charlottesville in 2017, and it’s time they came down,” McAuliffe said in a written statement Wednesday.

A narrow majority of Virginians favor dismantling symbols of “Lost Cause” mythology, according to public polling, but that’s a fairly recent development. Many leading Virginia Democrats — including McAuliffe as governor and Levar Stoney, the Black mayor of Richmond — did not support removal until 2017, after White supremacists staged a deadly rally in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plans to remove its own Lee monument from a park.

In June of 2015, following the shooting deaths of nine members of a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C., McAuliffe announced that he would phase out a state-sponsored license plate featuring an image of the Confederate flag, calling the symbol “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful.”

But he did not call for removing monuments then, saying are all parts of our heritage. And the people that were in that battle, the Civil War, many of them were in it obviously for their own reasons that they had for that. But leave the statues and those things alone.

McAuliffe announced he had a change of heart in 2017, hours after attending a memorial service for Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old who died after a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Charlottesville rally.

Meagan Flynn, Emily Guskin and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.