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Youngkin’s tricky dance with ‘election integrity’ complicates run for Virginia governor

GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in Ashburn, Va., in late June. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin will address an "election integrity" rally Saturday, a politically risky event that Virginia's two other statewide GOP candidates are skipping.

His appearance at the rally — organized by a supporter of former president Donald Trump who was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection — will come just days after Youngkin was captured on audio tiptoeing around a supporter's fantastical claim that Trump could be restored to the White House this month or next.

Youngkin took flak all week not only from Democrats accusing him of promoting Trump's "big lie" but also from Republican activists who said he was not taking a strong-enough stand in support of the former president.

Their reactions point to the high-wire act Youngkin is trying to pull off — a preview of the challenge Republicans in swing states across the country are likely to face in the 2022 midterms.

“Let’s get off the fence,” Paul Thiel, a longtime tea party activist from Mechanicsville, said Monday at a demonstration outside the Capitol in Richmond, calling for an audit of the state’s 2020 election. “Say, ‘We want an audit.’ What is wrong with that? . . . Talk about it. Let’s hear it.”

Thomas Kasperek of Sterling, who organized the Richmond rally, said Youngkin’s call for “election integrity” was too vague.

“We’re still trying to figure out what he means by it,” said Kasperek, 64, who plans to attend the Saturday rally at Liberty University with hopes of pinning Youngkin down on the matter. “Will you and do you support a full forensic audit of the state of Virginia, yes or no?”

Youngkin’s campaign did not immediately respond to a question about whether he supports an audit of Virginia’s presidential election. Joe Biden won in the state by 10 points.

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Even as he reaches out to suburban moderates, Youngkin must keep the Republican base fired up. And Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud fire it up like nothing else.

A political newcomer and former Carlyle Group executive, Youngkin made “election integrity” the centerpiece of his bid for the GOP nomination. But even then, he tried to walk a fine line.

During the convention battle, he never said that Biden stole the election, but he also refused to acknowledge that the Democrat had legitimately won it. He would say only that Biden was the president, had been sworn in and was sleeping in the White House.

Shortly after securing the nomination, he publicly acknowledged for the first time that Biden had legitimately won. He also said he would shift his focus to “kitchen table” issues such as schools, jobs and public safety.

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But he has put plenty of red meat on that table, including inflammatory cultural issues, such as with his opposition to critical race theory and certain transgender rights in schools. And he has continued to push for “election integrity,” calling for the state to tighten restrictions on voting by requiring photo identification, for instance.

He has struggled to pull off the balancing act at times.

On July 29, Youngkin took questions from supporters at the grand opening of his Fredericksburg campaign office. A woman he called on suggested Trump could be on the verge of returning to the White House, according to audio first reported by HuffPost on Monday and obtained independently by The Washington Post.

“I agree that Trump won, that it was all fraud,” the woman said. “And if Trump comes back in August or September and all of our Virginia [congressional] races that were stolen also, will that change anything to get people out of office and back in — get our people back into office?”

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Youngkin seemed to indulge the premise of her question, taking issue only with her timetable and citing a slow-moving judiciary.

“Ma’am, I don’t know the particulars about how that can happen, because what’s happening in the court system is moving slowly and it’s unclear,” he said. “And we all know the courts move slowly.”

Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a comeback, slammed Youngkin’s response.

“Glenn has been spreading Donald Trump’s lies since the day he launched his campaign,” McAuliffe tweeted. “Now he’s entertaining the idea that Trump could be reinstated as President.”

Youngkin later issued a written statement suggesting that he had “politely” tried to set the woman straight. He also said that Biden would be in office for the next 3 1/2 years, although in a way that bashed the Democrat.

“I’ve said that Joe Biden is legitimately our president so there is no question here,” Youngkin said. “As I tried to say politely the other day, there is no legal proceeding that will change the fact that Joe Biden and his liberal allies are dragging our economy down with their bad policies until 2025, and instead of litigating the past we must be focused on winning in November to stop those policies here in Virginia.”

On Saturday, Youngkin intends to go through with plans to speak at the “election integrity” rally — without his ticket mates.

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

On advertisements last month, Youngkin, Republican attorney general candidate Jason S. Miyares and lieutenant governor candidate Winsome E. Sears were all listed as headliners for a banquet on the closing night of the two-day rally.

But early this week, Miyares and Sears said they were not attending, as first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. By then, Democrats had spent days calling on all three to drop out of an event that they said was meant to promote Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.

Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita said he had a scheduling conflict.

“The campaign never publicly said that we would attend the Saturday event at Liberty,” LaCivita said. “We had double-booked and are looking forward to being with Harold Pyon Saturday night,” she added, referring to the Republican challenging Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax).

“We were triple-overbooked,” Sears campaign manager CJ Jordan told the Times-Dispatch. Jordan declined to comment to The Washington Post, pointing to her statement to the other newspaper.

Melvin Adams, a regional GOP chairman who organized the Liberty rally and stood outside the U.S. Capitol while other Trump supporters stormed it on Jan. 6, confirmed that Youngkin was still scheduled to appear at the event, which is closed to the press. He declined to comment further.

On Thursday, Youngkin’s campaign confirmed his participation to The Post, saying he would “say a few words” about his support for requiring voters to show photo IDs.

Youngkin’s campaign has said he had agreed only to “stop by” the 5th District GOP event, which had been offered to him as a chance to meet with grass-roots volunteers. Adams has said that is largely how he had pitched the event to the campaign, without specifically mentioning its focus on “election integrity.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a recording of Youngkin as a video. The recording was audio only. The article has been corrected.