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Youngkin to participate in ‘election integrity’ rally at Liberty University

RICHMOND — GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is scheduled to appear at a two-day "election integrity" rally early next month, a move that elections analysts say could hurt the political newcomer among suburban swing voters who will be crucial to victory in the fall.

Youngkin made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign as he pursued the GOP nomination this year, hoping to court Republicans who agreed with former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election. But he has largely pivoted to other topics since then, aiming to woo suburban moderates who were turned off by Trump and must come back to the GOP fold for Youngkin to win this increasingly blue state.

Youngkin and the rest of the GOP’s statewide ticket are scheduled to headline an Aug. 7 banquet on the closing night of a rally at Liberty University organized by a regional GOP chairman who was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection but says he did not enter the building.

“Join together with like minded patriots as we strategize and energize to win in Virginia again!” reads the invitation to the event, which will feature speeches, meet-and-greets and panel discussions, including one titled, “Understanding 2020 and cleaning up voter data.”

A former Republican congressman derided the event as “conspiracy-palooza,” while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe called on Youngkin to withdraw from it and denounce Trump’s unfounded claim that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election.

“I call on you to immediately withdraw from this ‘election integrity’ rally and disavow this dangerous, deadly conspiracy theory once and for all,” McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a comeback, said in a statement Tuesday.

Youngkin’s campaign said he had only agreed to “stop by” the 5th District GOP event, which had been offered to him as a chance to meet with grass-roots volunteers; organizer Melvin Adams agrees that’s how he’d largely pitched the event to the campaign, without specifically mentioning its focus on “election integrity.” At the same time, a Youngkin spokesman said the candidate was not backing off his stance that the state’s election laws need tightening.

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“Terry McAuliffe opposes requiring a photo ID to vote, which undermines the integrity of our elections and makes it easier to cheat,” Youngkin spokesman Matt Wolking said in a statement. “Glenn Youngkin will restore Virginia’s photo ID law and make sure it is easy for every eligible person to vote and harder to cheat.”

McAuliffe supported a change in state law, made in 2020 after he left office, that did away with a requirement that voters show photo ID at the polls, expanding the list of acceptable identification to such things as utility bills.

Youngkin, a former Carlyle Group executive, refused to acknowledge that President Biden had legitimately won the White House until after securing the GOP nomination in early May.

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By appearing at the rally and seeming to once again elevate “election integrity” to a marquee issue, Youngkin risks alienating the swing voters who largely abandoned the GOP while Trump was in the White House, said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst.

“Most Virginians think the last election was perfectly fine and Joe Biden won it by 10 points,” Holsworth said, referring to the president’s margin in Virginia. “Clearly what he wants to do is simply to speak about his support for photo ID and minimize the stance he took on the broader concept during the nomination battle. But it’s unlikely that McAuliffe and the Democrats are going to let him do that.”

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Former congressman Denver Riggleman, who has become a vocal critic of fellow Republicans who have not denounced conspiracy theories related to the election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, called the Liberty event “conspiracy-palooza” in an interview with The Washington Post.

“My guess is that polling is showing that ‘election integrity’ — and I’ll put that in quotes — is the number one issue for [Republicans] right now,” Riggleman said. “So Glenn and the Republican ticket have to show up or they’re going to be seen as weak on supporting President Trump and the whole narrative of ‘Stop the Steal.’ ”

Youngkin’s campaign attempted to turn the tables on McAuliffe, noting that as Democratic National Committee chairman in 2001, he repeatedly said former vice president Al Gore was the rightful winner of the 2000 presidential election. McAuliffe spokesman Jake Rubenstein dismissed that claim as a “misleading” attempt to deflect attention.

Adams, who organized the rally as chairman of the 5th District committee, said its purpose was mainly to train volunteers and teach potential GOP poll watchers “how to observe and to make sure that there’s integrity in the process.”

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Adams has previously expressed doubt in the 2020 election results and was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 with his wife, Sandy Adams, district director for Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). Good, who successfully challenged Riggleman for the nomination in 2020 after Riggleman presided over a same-sex wedding, will speak at the rally on Aug. 6, along with Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.), who represents a neighboring district.

But Adams said Tuesday that the rally would be forward-looking and focused on Virginia, not 2020. He said it has not been determined yet if the event will be open to the media.

“There are a few things we learned last time around even in Virginia, some processes that were not perfect, some little holes in the boat we can help to plug, and that’s what this focus is about,” Adams said, although he declined to list specific examples in Virginia of alleged problems. “Were they significant enough that they would have skewed the election? We’re not going there.”

Del. John J. McGuire III (R-Goochland), a prominent surrogate for Youngkin who often introduces him at events, defended “election integrity” as an important issue.

McGuire — who also acknowledged publicly for the first time in an interview Tuesday that he had attended the Jan. 6 rally, but did not enter the building — noted that many polling places showed Trump up early in the evening before abruptly shifting for Biden. “Republicans were leading everywhere, and then all of sudden, [Democrats] were way ahead,” he said.

Election officials have said that phenomenon stemmed from last year’s unusually partisan split in voting methods — Republicans favored in-person voting, and those ballots were quickly tabulated on machines, while Democrats favored absentee ballots, which in many cases were processed afterward.