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Opinion Glenn Youngkin’s rookie mistake

Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, and other demonstrators protest outside of a campaign event for Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin in McLean on July 14. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Virginia Republicans were looking for a clean break and a fresh face to distance themselves from the immediate past president who remains deeply unpopular in the commonwealth. They thought they found him in newcomer Glenn Youngkin, a self-made hedge fund multimillionaire with a blank political slate who could finance his own campaign.

Desperate to end the GOP’s dozen-year drought since its last statewide electoral win, the party liked the contrast the genial former college basketball player drew compared with the ultimate political insider, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is attempting to become the first former Virginia governor in 48 years to win a nonconsecutive second term.

Youngkin hired some of his party’s best campaign pros and ran a nearly perfect nomination race to prevail over three other GOP heavy hitters, including a former House of Delegates speaker and a state senator who calls herself “Trump in heels.” Youngkin ran far enough right to earn the blessing of the party’s conservative base but not so far off the right berm that he could not plausibly steer back to the middle of the road.

He paid homage to former president Donald Trump by forming an “election reform task force” that genuflected toward the former president’s baseless claim the 2020 election was stolen from him.

And he had avoided staking himself (at least publicly) to extreme positions on hot-button cultural issues that alienate Virginia’s controlling bloc of moderate voters, mostly in the state’s populous suburbs.

As the party’s new nominee, Youngkin had branded himself as a likable, reasonable, nonthreatening alternative to partisan gridlock and the tired status quo. His feel-good early television ads made no mention of the GOP, much less Trump. In one ad, he bemoans today’s bitter tribalism, asking, “Does anyone really care what political party we belong to?”

The problem with rookies, however, is they make rookie mistakes.

Youngkin’s error is a very big one. It came during a June rally in a crowd he assumed to be friendly forces only. There, two people who appeared to be antiabortion die-hards pressed him on when he would challenge abortion rights in Virginia.

Retail Politics Rule No. 1: Never lower your guard around people you don’t personally know and trust. Those two adoring pro-lifers turned out to be liberal activists who were secretly recording the entire encounter, and Youngkin took the bait.

“The short answer is in this campaign, I can’t,” Youngkin confides to them in the video. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that, in fact, won’t win me independent votes that I have to get.”

McAuliffe could barely believe his luck. Not only had Youngkin given him a gift that could keep on giving into November by betraying Youngkin’s hidden intentions on the most contentious of issues, but the GOP nominee also named the group of voters he seeks to beguile.

The candid camera moment was made public in the same week that Trump issued his second statement in two months praising Youngkin, who had worked diligently to put Trump’s May endorsement behind him.

With his nonpartisan Mr. Nice Guy persona shredded, Youngkin wasted no time going on offense, denouncing McAuliffe and the Democrats for their “leftist, liberal, progressive agenda.” He then released a digital attack ad that actually tries to tie McAuliffe to Trump — often the sort of work left to independent but allied dark-money super PACs.

If there’s a silver lining for Youngkin, it’s timing and the low expectations voters have of politicians generally. If Youngkin had to betray his true intentions to restrict or ban abortions, the sweltering dog days of July in an off-off-year election is perhaps the least damaging time to do it.

Count on McAuliffe though to do all he can to keep Youngkin’s Trump ties and the stealth video fresh this fall. Should that sink Youngkin’s candidacy, the Virginia GOP will have learned what should be abundantly obvious after four years of Trump: that big league politics is no place for amateurs.