Former president Richard M. Nixon advised aspiring Republican politicians to run to the right to get nominated, then move toward the center to get elected. In the pre-Trump era, that was the GOP formula in two-party competitive districts, states and in presidential campaigns. It was pure pragmatism, not hypocrisy. Democrats would do something similar: court the left to get nominated, then tack to the center for the November election.
In Virginia, both parties did this for years. At times, one party or the other would lurch too far right or too far left and pay an electoral price. And occasionally they would take a lesson from their beating.
The Trump era, though, has upended the traditional campaign formula for Republicans, as candidates don’t merely go right for the nomination, they pledge fidelity to former president Donald Trump and to his key policies. Pivoting to the political center and effectively disowning the former president guarantees a significant loss of support among Trump-loyal voters. Sticking with Trump throughout, though, is a guaranteed electoral suicide mission.
Political neophyte Youngkin is in a seemingly no-win situation, requiring the kind of skillful political pivot and persuasion of moderate swing voters that would challenge the deftest, most experienced politician. Yet Virginia Republicans believe that Youngkin gives them their best hope to end their losing streak because he is largely unknown, politically inexperienced and, many believe, able to create his own political image as a mainstream conservative unburdened by Trumpism.
But here is the problem: Youngkin hired top political advisers before his long-shot no-name campaign last winter. They told him that obeisance toward the polarizing one-term president was table stakes for any Republican nomination bid and that spurning Trump and angering his solid base of hard-line supporters would doom any hope of becoming the GOP nominee. So early on, Youngkin announced an “Election Integrity Task Force,” exploiting a deep vein of resentment from Republicans who believe Trump’s falsehoods that his reelection was stolen.
Before winning the nomination last month, Youngkin also refused to say that Joe Biden was the legitimately elected president. He has promised, if elected, to bring back restrictive voter policies such as the government-issued photo identification requirement that Democrats dismantled after they won legislative majorities in the 2019 election.
Hours after the Republican Party of Virginia announced that Youngkin had won the nomination, Trump issued a fulsome “Complete and Total Endorsement!” of him. Youngkin’s response to being endorsed by the disgraced ex-president? He was “totally honored” to receive it.
Youngkin tried to pivot though. He said of Biden that, “He’s our president. He slept in the White House last night. He’s addressed a joint session of Congress. He’s signing executive orders that I wish he wasn’t signing.” Since his nomination, Youngkin has sounded a lot more like a traditional Republican than a Trump acolyte. Will the voters buy it?
Youngkin’s attempted pivot is complicated by Trump. It is one thing for a GOP nominee in the general election to soften his or her rhetoric on hot-button issues to win over moderate swing voters, but it is something entirely different to be with Trump for months and then take the former president’s base voters for granted after.
The Virginia GOP’s quest to break its 12-year drought depends entirely on a political greenhorn pulling off such a pivot. No one knows if he can, but from here until Nov. 2, we do know that Youngkin will be under constant pressure from the media to state clearly where he stands in regard to Trump personally and the former president’s priorities, including debunked claims about the 2020 elections.
And Democrats will never let Virginia voters forget that Youngkin is Trump-endorsed and proud of it.