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Virginia, meet Glenn Youngkin — the Republican nominee for governor who both parties are racing to define

Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — A few months ago, most Virginians had never heard of Glenn Youngkin. Today he's the standard-bearer for the state's Republican Party, the GOP's multimillionaire nominee for governor who arrived with a blank slate and a blank check.

Youngkin, 54, is the candidate many analysts said was most likely to strike fear in the hearts of Democrats, who are looking to preserve their two-year grip on consolidated power in Richmond.

As the former co-CEO of private-equity giant the Carlyle Group, Youngkin has an estimated net worth upward of $300 million, no political baggage and a polished public speaking style. He's a 6-foot-5-inch reset button for a GOP that has not won statewide in Virginia since 2009.

But Youngkin faces a crucial test that has tripped up Virginia Republicans for years:

The Pivot.

Everything hinges on how Youngkin executes the turn from wooing the party faithful with a warm embrace of former president Donald Trump to appealing to a broad, diverse electorate across this increasingly blue state. Trump lost twice in Virginia — big in 2016 and bigger in 2020. National eyes will be on the state this year to see how both parties deal with the Trump factor ahead of next year's midterm congressional elections.

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On Tuesday morning, after Youngkin emerged victorious from the GOP nominating convention, his delicate maneuver became more difficult when Trump jumped in with a rousing endorsement.

“Glenn is pro-Business, pro-Second Amendment, pro-
Veterans, pro-America, he knows how to make Virginia’s economy rip-roaring, and he has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump said in a statement posted to his website.

Democrats were standing by to gleefully trumpet the connection. "Glenn Youngkin endorsed Donald Trump's 'Big Lie.' Now Donald Trump is endorsing Glenn Youngkin," tweeted state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond), one of five candidates for the party's gubernatorial nomination in a June 8 primary.

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Fellow candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe — the main target of Republican attacks — quickly pounced with an ad linking Youngkin to Trump as a "far-right extremist."

The Trump endorsement "helps define [Youngkin] in some ways better than we could ever hope to on Day 1 of the general election," said Marshall Cohen, political director of the Democratic Governors Association.

While all seven Republican contenders for the governor's race supported Trump, the ties with the former president are a potential liability for a candidate who otherwise has an enormous skill set, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political analyst.

"He could flop, but he has the best chance of reversing the trend we've seen in recent years. Now it's a tightrope — how does he maintain the Trump supporters while speaking like Larry Hogan?" Holsworth said, referring to the Republican governor who is popular in deep-blue Maryland and has often criticized Trump and the far right.

But one top Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the party's prospects, said the early Trump endorsement makes Youngkin more formidable, not less.

"Youngkin can say, 'Well, that's done — the party's unified, now let me go forward and define myself the way I want,' " the strategist said.

The situation is far different than it was four years ago for GOP nominee Ed Gillespie, who spent most of his gubernatorial campaign trying to convince Trump's base he was the real deal — in the process undercutting his more natural appeal to moderates, the strategist said.

Since the Trump seal of approval is a given for Youngkin, he can spend the rest of the race making the case that "I'm a moderate business guy. Look how nonthreatening I am," the strategist said.

On the stump and in TV ads, Youngkin generally presents himself as an upbeat, "morning in America"-style Republican who wants to make Virginia a better place to raise a family and run a business. Touting his support for gun rights and opposition to abortion, he says liberal Democrats in control of the legislature and Executive Mansion have driven Virginia into a ditch, and he's got the executive know-how and conservative values to "pull her out."

But he has also played to Trump's false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election, refusing to acknowledge that President Biden legitimately won the White House and making "election integrity" a focus of his campaign. Ahead of the convention, Youngkin mailed Republicans a wallet-size card marked "The Youngkin Election Integrity Task Force, Member."

His ads highlighted a video clip of Trump praising Youngkin by name for helping negotiate a trade deal with China.

On the stump, he often lauds Trump for creating a "rip-roaring economy."

His appeals to Trump voters took on a harder edge in the days ahead of the convention, when he barnstormed the state with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and appeared on TV with Fox News's Tucker Carlson, claiming that Virginia is eliminating accelerated math in the name of equity — something state education officials have flatly denied.

"Listen to what Tucker Carlson and I have to say about the liberal takeover of our schools in Virginia," he tweeted four days before the convention, along with a video clip of his appearance. "Vote for me for governor on Saturday (May 8) and we'll stop the left's attack on our children's education, our Pledge of Allegiance, & our Commonwealth."

Just ahead of the convention, Youngkin won the endorsement of Corey Stewart, who championed Confederate monuments as the GOP's unsuccessful challenger to Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in 2018. Youngkin did not personally acknowledge Stewart's endorsement, but his campaign alerted local GOP chapters around the state.

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Dave Rexrode, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, traveled to Richmond this week to watch workers count votes from the party's ­"unassembled" nominating convention and left upbeat about the nominee.

"I think he brings the experience of an outsider that can kind of come in and take a different look at state government, who is going to bring a positive and optimistic message to the trail that focuses on reforming government and providing greater opportunity and prosperity for all Virginians," Rexrode said. "He's a happy warrior who is focused on solving problems and not playing the partisan games we see in Washington, D.C."

Several Republicans said they thought Youngkin played it smart ahead of the convention by refusing to take surveys from interest groups such as gun rights organizations or the conservative Family Foundation, since they would have pinned him down on hot-button issues.

But that left some wondering why he would appear with far-right figures such as Cruz and Carlson at the tail end of the contest, creating videos that Democrats were sure to turn into TV commercials.

"He did hurt himself with the Ted Cruz move and with that hardcore-right messaging at the end," David Ramadan, a former Republican state delegate now teaching at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. "It helped him close the deal but definitely also hurt him for November."

Ramadan, who has been a vocal Trump critic, called the former president's endorsement the "kiss of death."

Youngkin's campaign said Tuesday that the endorsement was a surprise, though the candidate did not directly address it. "Our campaign is bringing everybody together to bring a new day to Virginia," he said in a statement on the matter.

His campaign also acknowledged that a video in which Youngkin touted praise he had received from Trump for working on a China trade deal had been removed from his YouTube landing page, but said it was only because of the need to highlight other videos that are aimed at introducing him to voters.

On Tuesday evening in Richmond, some 700 supporters packed into a warehouse bedecked with American flags for a kickoff rally with Youngkin.

They waved "#WinWithGlenn" signs to the pounding strains of "Don't Stop Believin' " and "Fortunate Son."

"I love his energy. I love his business background," said Tony Pham, 47, a Henrico County resident who served as Trump's acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for four months at the end of last year.

Pham said his first choice for governor had been business executive Pete Snyder but that he was pleased Youngkin won the nod. "I love the fact that he brings a fresh perspective to this campaign, to this party."

A few minutes later, as "Start Me Up" thundered from the loudspeakers, Youngkin took the stage, let out a "Woo!" and promised to "get our commonwealth back" from the Democrats.

To deafening cheers, Youngkin promised the crowd that Republicans would march forward to take back the governor's mansion, the General Assembly and eventually Virginia's congressional delegation.

"Everybody's going to say: 'I thought Virginia was blue. Wait a minute, I thought Virginia was blue,' " Youngkin said. "Our shared values are going to bring us together like never before folks, and we're absolutely going to sweep through our commonwealth . . . and we're going to do it together."