A Youngkin defeat, by contrast, will demonstrate that Trump is lethal with middle-of-the-road voters, precisely what fence-sitting Republicans need to hear.
Virginia’s voters — especially moderate Republicans who want to build a better party and independents who want less polarized politics — need to send a message: Betting the future on the extremism Trump peddles and the lies he tells is a dangerous, ultimately doomed wager.
The same signal must be sent about Youngkin’s hope that railing against teaching “critical race theory” in public schools is the ticket to victory.
I use those quotation marks to note that this increasingly popular Republican talking point is deeply manipulative.
As Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, told me in an interview on Wednesday, critical race theory has “never been taught” in Virginia public schools, and “it’s not supposed to be taught.”
Moreover, harping on critical race theory is an effort to rip apart parents on a serious issue that should be discussed calmly, thoughtfully and respectfully: How can schools offer students an accurate rendering of the American story?
A good curriculum would honor the country’s triumphs and its commitment to freedom while being honest about a past that denied that very same freedom to Black Americans for centuries through slavery, segregation — and, until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, a withholding in many states of the most basic right of citizenship. A great nation does not lie to itself about its grievous sins and failures.
McAuliffe is right that Youngkin’s use of critical race theory is both a racial “dog whistle” and antithetical to a reasoned discussion. Youngkin, McAuliffe argues, is “stirring up parents, creating frictions where frictions should not exist.”
Surely Virginia’s citizens don’t want their state to become a showcase for the damage done when a Trumpist and right-wing minority is allowed to dominate the agenda at local school board meetings.
There’s one other kind of divisiveness voters should think about: the nature of Youngkin’s attacks on incumbent Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for lockdowns of churches during the pandemic. Youngkin’s explanation for Northam’s decision? “I knew he did not start out every morning like I do, which is in prayer.”
Yes, he really said that. As it happens, Northam adviser Mark Bergman told me, Northam is a member of an African Methodist Episcopal Church and is “very much a man of faith.” Exploiting religion in this self-satisfied way is straight out of the Trump handbook, as is the evidence-free, deeply personal attack.
The biggest danger to McAuliffe, in what polls show is a very tight race, is less that Youngkin will vastly outstrip recent Republican candidates in his capacity to win votes than that too many Democrats will stay home.
At a rally last Sunday in Fairfax for McAuliffe and the Democratic ticket, loyalists who have been knocking on doors described to me what Karen Torrent, a former state Senate candidate from Falls Church, called “a little bit of an apathy problem.”
Myles Harmon, a retired government lawyer from Burke, saw the difficulties of enacting President Biden’s Build Back Better program as a downer for the party — one reason Democrats in Washington finally seem to be acting with some urgency. “Everyone is still exhausted, discouraged and unawake,” Harmon told me. “A lot could happen soon with Biden’s agenda, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
McAuliffe’s campaign is plainly aware of the turnout problem it faces, rooted in the present but also in history. As my Post colleague David Byler pointed out, in 10 of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Virginia, the party that won the presidency lost the state’s governorship a year later. As it happens, McAuliffe, who won narrowly in 2013, is the exception.
Unfortunately, that’s not an exaggeration. As long as Republican politicians refuse to break with Trump, his name will be on every ballot. You can be sure that if Youngkin wins, Trump will be the first to remind us of this.