RICHMOND — Glenn Youngkin vowed, as he pursued the GOP nomination for Virginia governor, to steadfastly oppose abortion and roll back restrictions on gun rights.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly included the Family Foundation of Virginia in a list of groups whose surveys Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin had declined to answer. The foundation has not yet sent surveys to candidates. This version has been corrected.
But more recently, Youngkin has gone relatively mum on guns and abortion — issues that are highly animating to conservative Republicans but threaten to turn off the suburban swing voters needed to win increasingly blue Virginia.
Virginia, meet Glenn Youngkin — the Republican nominee for governor who both parties are racing to define
At a rally Monday night in Prince William County, one of the Northern Virginia suburbs where Youngkin needs to hold down Democratic margins, he focused on the classic trio of kitchen-table issues: jobs, schools and public safety. He made one veiled reference to gun rights, promising to defend unspecified constitutional amendments. He said nothing about abortion.
Asked during an interview with The Washington Post on Friday how he would like to change state laws on guns and abortion, Youngkin repeatedly evaded the topics. When pressed, he noted that he is “pro-life” and that he will “stand up for our constitutional rights.” But to every request for specific policy goals on abortion and guns, two of his signature issues, Youngkin offered the same jobs-schools-safety mantra.
“I said the things I’m going to focus on right out of the box — getting our job machine cranked up, focusing on schools and focusing on law enforcement,” he said. “Right out of the box, that’s where we’re going to spend our time. And I know the media wants to absolutely try to find these wedge issues that separate people.”
Youngkin’s campaign said he remains focused on the themes rolled out in his launch video, including his up-by-the-bootstraps biography and his professional success as a former Carlyle Group executive.
“Glenn’s top priorities have remained the same since day one,” campaign spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said.
Youngkin’s move to play down abortion and guns has given Democrats, who choose their nominee in a June 8 primary, an opening.
“Youngkin must stop hiding from his extreme positions and immediately tell Virginians whether he would sign state-level protections for Roe v. Wade into law,” said Manuel Bonder, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
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Youngkin’s decision to steer away from polarizing social issues follows another post-convention shift: After winning the nomination, he conceded for the first time publicly that President Biden had legitimately won the White House. Before that, Youngkin had studiously avoided saying whether he believed that Democrats had stolen the election — a view that is popular among former president Donald Trump’s supporters, but not as a whole with Virginians, who gave Biden a 10-point win in 2020.
The only detailed policy proposal he has issued would promote “election integrity” by requiring the state to update its voter rolls and test its voting machines, make voters show government-issued photo ID and require a witness signature on mail-in ballots.
Like his new tack on Biden’s legitimacy, Youngkin’s post-convention reticence on abortion and guns has the potential to dampen enthusiasm among some conservatives. It could raise doubts, particularly for a first-time candidate with no voting record, about Youngkin’s commitment to those causes, said Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, which advocates for gun rights.
“I think he should be coming out strongly, speaking about guns and giving exact positions on guns,” Van Cleave said. “That way, you can really stir up the gun owners. If you don’t talk about it, you leave people wondering.”
But some conservative Republicans — hungry for a win after losing every statewide contest for the past dozen years — seem to be greeting Youngkin’s messaging shift as a smart way to appeal to a wider, general-election audience.
“There are lots of people who don’t care about guns or abortion, or they don’t even care if you raise your child transgender,” said Don Blake, president of the Virginia Christian Alliance. “They care about the economy.”
Blake, who said he met privately with Youngkin for 45 minutes ahead of the convention, said he’s confident that Youngkin will not abandon his commitment to “moral issues.”
“He’s not being squishy because we already have him on record saying this stuff,” Blake said.
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said conservatives do not need to see detailed policy proposals from Youngkin to prefer him over the eventual Democratic nominee.
“Pro-life Virginians have seen what the extreme left will do when it has power, and I believe they will turn out in huge numbers for anyone who will stand up to Planned Parenthood and the radical left,” she said.
Ahead of the convention, Youngkin did not shrink from abortion or guns.
“I will not sign a piece of legislation that has anything to do with imposing limitations on our Second Amendment,” Youngkin said three months ago in a Facebook Live interview with the College Republican Federation of Virginia.
He also said he would support rolling back gun-control legislation passed by Democrats last year after they took control of the House of Delegates and state Senate. Those measures include a “red flag” law intended to take weapons away from people deemed by a judge to be in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. Others restrict handgun purchases to one per month and require criminal background checks for all firearms sales.
“We have to actually stand up against all of the legislation that has been passed by the Democrats,” he said. “As your governor, we will not just stand up, but we will push back — we will push back.”
On abortion, he told Breitbart News Daily in April, “I’m pro-life, and what my religious foundation in the cornerstone of my life teaches me is to protect life before birth and after birth.”
“These are not squishy issues. These are absolute issues,” Youngkin continued in the Breitbart interview. “If we don’t stand up for our Constitution, if we don’t stand up for the rights guaranteed under our Bill of Rights, if we don’t stand up for life, then who will?”
Aside from his “election integrity” plan, though, Youngkin has spoken in broad strokes. Even now, his campaign website has no “issues” page — a standard feature on the pages of all six of his Republican rivals and all five of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Before the convention, Youngkin avoided getting pinned down on specifics by not answering surveys from interest groups such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the National Rifle Association — a first in recent memory for a successful statewide GOP nominee.
Youngkin justified the decision to skip surveys by noting that Trump refused to answer them, as well.
“We certainly weren’t happy,” said Van Cleave, of the Citizens Defense League. “Pretty much everybody [in the Republican contest] answered except for him.”
None of the Democrats filled out Van Cleave’s survey, either, but that was not a surprise since they all support gun control. Youngkin’s nonresponse has left him wary.
“We’re always on the lookout for the ‘Second Amendment-but’ people — ‘I support the Second Amendment, but nobody needs to have a rifle that holds more 10 rounds,’ ” he said. “Or, ‘I support the Second Amendment, but all guns should be licensed and registered.’ . . .We’re looking for heroes. We’re looking for people who are willing to go out and stand up for our rights and protect them. That will get people excited.”
More on the 2021 Virginia election
Latest news: Virginia politics
Governor: Terry McAuliffe (D) | Glenn Youngkin (R) | What to know | Poll shows tight race | First debate | Summer fundraising hauls
Lieutenant governor: Hala S. Ayala (D) | Winsome E. Sears (R)
Attorney general: Mark Herring (D) | Jason S. Miyares (R)
House of Delegates: Four Democratic incumbents, one Republican ousted in primaries
Voting: Virginia Republicans push early voting in race for governor