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Opinion Virginians see through Glenn Youngkin’s double talk

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin gestures toward Democratic opponent during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Sept. 16. (Steve Helber/AP)

Glenn Youngkin, the GOP’s nominee for Virginia governor, exemplifies the dilemma many Republicans face: To please the MAGA base and the former president, he has to adopt views that the electorate rejects. His solution — trying selectively to hide his views — is not working.

Youngkin — enthusiastically endorsed by former president Donald Trump, the only former president to have incited a violent insurrection to steal an election — has been pushing a “voter integrity” bill, a dog whistle meant to reassure the MAGA crowd that he’s with them on the “Big Lie” that President Biden’s election was illegitimate. In the recent interview with Axios, Youngkin wouldn’t say if he would have voted to certify the 2020 election. After his remarks set off a backlash, Youngkin retreated later in the day to say he would in fact have certified the election. That surely won’t please Trump and his fellow insurrectionists.

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But he hasn’t been as enthusiastic as Trump would like, which has peeved the MAGA cult leader. In a recent interview with radio host John Fredericks, Trump said of Republicans like Youngkin who don’t “embrace the MAGA movement”: “When they try to go down a railroad track, you know, ‘Hey, oh yeah, sure, love it, love it. Oh, yeah, love Trump. Love Trump. OK, let’s go, next subject.’ When they do that, they never win. They have to embrace it.” Youngkin will invariably scramble back to show his fidelity to Trump.

Youngkin has had an especially tough time on the coronavirus pandemic. He has urged people to seek exemptions from the vaccine mandate. In his recent debate with Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe, he hedged his position, arguing that he’s for vaccines but opposes vaccine mandates proposed by the Biden administration. This allowed McAuliffe an opening to claim that Youngkin would “unleash” covid-19. Youngkin has also praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a staunch opponent to vaccine mandates.

Meanwhile, Youngkin is taking heat for ads featuring doctors who have advocated against masks and made big donations to the Republican Party. Another ad featured a teacher who publicly railed against vaccine mandates and rules to accommodate transgendered youth. In other words, Youngkin is trying to seem like he supports public health measures to end the pandemic without giving up his anti-vaccine mandate base.

Youngkin’s views on abortion have also complicated his charade that he is a moderate business-oriented Republican. In July, he was caught on tape trying to reassure antiabortion activists. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” he said. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” In short, if Virginians find out what he really thinks, he’ll lose.

McAuliffe continues to lead the race. The latest Monmouth Universitypoll found he has a five-point lead, as he did last month. “When the potential electorate is limited to voters who cast ballots in the 2017 gubernatorial election, McAuliffe holds a 51% to 43% margin, which is nearly identical to the winning Democratic margin that year,” the pollsters found. “Youngkin does have an advantage among voters who describe themselves as being more enthusiastic about this year’s race compared to past gubernatorial elections.”

The election is reminiscent of the California recall contest, in which Democratic voters became engaged late in the race due to the Republican candidate’s Trumpian stances on abortion and vaccine mandates. For Republicans running under the Trump cloud, the campaign is a zero-sum game. When they try to disguise or soften their Trumpian views, the former president squawks, forcing the candidate to worry that Republican voters will stay home. When the GOP candidate tries to pump up the base, he risks alienating everyone else, given how unpopular the MAGA radical agenda really is. And when Republicans try to have it both ways, they inevitably get “caught,” convincing both sides they cannot be trusted. Trying to mollify Trump while simultaneously pretending to be an old-school, “normal” Republican may prove an impossible task.