RICHMOND — Republican Glenn Youngkin distanced himself from the most controversial elements of a rally for his Virginia gubernatorial campaign headlined Wednesday by former president Donald Trump and his onetime White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
Asked about the flag, Youngkin initially ducked the question but later issued a statement saying it was "weird and wrong" to pledge allegiance to it. But the fact that he was forced to answer questions about it highlighted his ongoing challenge in appealing to Trump's base without alienating moderate voters.
Trump phoned in as a surprise guest at Wednesday's gathering, which Bannon led in person. Youngkin did not attend the rally, saying he had a conflict, but publicly thanked organizer John Fredericks for planning it. His running mate, Winsome E. Sears, had been billed as a speaker and showed up, but she ducked out before the program began.
Speaker after speaker repeated Trump's false claim that President Biden stole the 2020 election — including Trump himself, who incorporated it into his prediction that Youngkin will beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe on Nov. 2.
"We won in 2016. We won in 2020 — the most corrupt election in the history of our country, probably one of the most corrupt anywhere," Trump said. "But we're going to win it again."
Bannon whipped up the crowd of several hundred by predicting Trump's return — in 2024, if not before.
"We're going to build the wall. We're going to confront China," Bannon said, to cheers. "We're putting together a coalition that's going to govern for 100 years."
At a rally in Warrenton on Thursday, a reporter asked what Youngkin thought about pledging allegiance to a flag associated with the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Youngkin initially dodged the question.
"This is our American flag, and this is the flag that we should always pledge allegiance to," he said, pointing to a banner on display at Eva Walker Park. He then said he had to step away to greet supporters.
"It wasn't just any flag, sir," WUSA's Bruce Leshan pressed once Youngkin returned. "It was a flag that the organizers said specifically had flown over the Jan. 6 insurrection."
"I wasn't involved and so I don't know," Youngkin said. "But if that is the case, then we shouldn't pledge allegiance to that flag."
Early Thursday evening, Youngkin released a statement saying: "It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6. As I have said before, the violence that occurred on January 6 was sickening and wrong."
In a tweet after Wednesday's rally, McAuliffe denounced the event.
"Glenn Youngkin was endorsed again tonight by Donald Trump at a rally where attendees pledged allegiance to a flag flown at the deadly January 6th insurrection. Beyond disturbing, this is sick. And Glenn is honored to have Trump's endorsement," McAuliffe wrote.
Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam (D) held a news conference Thursday, addressing Youngkin directly at times as he urged him to denounce the conspiracy theories he has flirted with during the campaign.
"This, Mr. Youngkin, is not a game," Northam said. "When political candidates purposely reject facts and the truth and fan the flames of conspiracy, all in pursuit of power, they are taking very, very dangerous steps. If you want to lead this state, Mr. Youngkin, you need to make a choice. You can be part of our democratic institutions or you can use falsehoods to try to destroy them, but you can't do both."
A political newcomer and former private equity executive worth upward of $300 million, Youngkin launched his bid for the GOP nomination this year by warmly embracing Trump. He refused for months to acknowledge that Biden had legitimately won the White House and made "election integrity" the focus of his campaign.
Youngkin reached out to swing voters after securing the GOP nomination in May, briefly putting aside inflammatory themes in favor of kitchen-table issues such as schools. But he never fully pivoted from Trump, who remains popular with Virginia's GOP base even after losing the state as a whole last year by 10 percentage points.
Youngkin's schools agenda, for instance, zeroed in on culture-war fare such as his opposition to critical race theory and to mask and coronavirus vaccine mandates. He recently renewed his call to audit voting machines — something the state already does — even though he has acknowledged Biden's win and admitted in a debate that there was no significant fraud in past Virginia elections and that he doesn't expect Democrats to cheat this fall.
On Thursday, Youngkin sidestepped when asked if he'd like Trump to campaign for him in person.
"The person that is going to be campaigning here for the next two-and-a-half weeks is Glenn Youngkin," he said. "I'm on the ballot."
For his part, though, Trump mused about campaigning with Youngkin.
“We’ll have to do one together, where we’re all live together,” he said during the call-in. “I sort of like that idea.”
Trump created a stir hours before the rally with a written statement that some Republicans feared could depress turnout in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election: "If we don't solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in '22 or '24."
Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s statement and whether it impacts the party’s effort to get Republicans to the polls in November. But Fredericks, the rally organizer, said he thought Trump was merely warning voters that they have to get more involved to protect the sanctity of elections, such as serving as a poll watcher.
“What we’ve learned is voting isn’t enough,” Fredericks said. “You have to vote and you have to protect your vote. The couch is no longer an option.”
Although Youngkin skipped the event, held at a suburban Richmond restaurant, Fredericks said Youngkin had thanked him “profusely” for arranging it and supplied him with campaign signs to hand out; Youngkin’s campaign spokesman declined to comment on the rally or Fredericks’s assertion.
In the home stretch of the Nov. 2 race against McAuliffe, the political newcomer and former private equity executive seems to be making more overt appeals to Trump fans — even as he distanced himself from the rally.
Youngkin made peace in recent days with former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who in late August had called Youngkin a “RINO,” meaning “Republican In Name Only,” for refusing to appear on his podcast. Youngkin came on the show last weekend and pledged to pursue a “Virginia First” agenda, echoing Trump’s “America First” rhetoric.
Youngkin also has begun campaigning alongside Virginia’s most prominent proponent of the false theory about the stolen 2020 election, state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) — a pariah among fellow Senate Republicans, who joined Democrats in censuring her this year after she called the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “patriots.”
Youngkin’s campaign seemed skittish about any association with Chase as recently as August. She announced that month that Youngkin had tapped her to represent him at an antiabortion rally on the North Carolina border, a claim his campaign declined to confirm or deny at the time. But last week, he campaigned with Chase at his side in Martinsville and Chesterfield.
Youngkin’s recent moves have surprised some political observers, who would have expected him to have nailed down the GOP base by now and moved on to wooing suburban moderates in the mode of other blue-state Republican governors, such as Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.
Bannon’s appearance Wednesday in suburban territory where Trump has been toxic was a head-scratcher to some, particularly as a U.S. House committee investigating the events of Jan. 6 seeks Bannon’s testimony. The committee subpoenaed him on Sept. 23 and on Thursday announced that it will move to hold him in criminal contempt for not complying with the subpoena.
“I’m not sure what Steve Bannon in Henrico gets [Youngkin] other than to remind Democrats why they don’t like Republicans,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst. “He’s apparently in the process of defying a congressional subpoena — and proud of it. That’s sort of the curious part of this.”
But Holsworth said it’s possible that Youngkin has found a way to thread the pro-Trump/never-Trump needle, potentially pointing a way forward for other Republicans ahead of next year’s congressional midterms.
“He has not gone the full Larry Hogan-Charlie Baker route,” Holsworth said. “He’s tried to find culture-war issues that he thinks will play in the suburbs. He’s attempted to [win over] suburban defectors without a full distancing from Trumpism. That’s kind of the unique part of his candidacy. And if it works in Virginia, that is going to be very troubling to Democrats nationally.”
Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Youngkin may be able to pull off the balancing act — in part because his buttoned-down demeanor is nothing like Trump’s.
“He still doesn’t come off as scary in the way Trump did. He still has sort of a Mitt Romney and, they hope, Bob McDonnell vibe,” she said, referring to the last Republican to win statewide in Virginia, who won the governorship in 2009 on a pragmatic “Bob’s for jobs” slogan.
Events like the Bannon rally could easily go unnoticed by swing voters, who are more likely to see commercials pitching Youngkin as an apolitical business leader who wants to get his state on the right track, Taylor said.
“The overarching message still does not seem to be one of a full Trump embrace,” she said. “Are there signals he is sending out to conservatives? Yes. But if you are not a plugged-in voter and you’re just trying to decide, I’m not sure that’s what they’re going to see.”