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Youngkin’s balancing act with Trump pays off in Va. governor’s race

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at Rocky Run Middle School in Fairfax.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at Rocky Run Middle School in Fairfax. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Democrats went all-in on Donald Trump in Virginia this year — but the far more nuanced game played by the former president and his Republican allies carried the day in the commonwealth’s race for governor.

Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin and Trump repeatedly spoke by phone over the course of the campaign, according to people familiar with the conversations who were not authorized to speak publicly, allowing the two men to go the length of the contest without saying negative things about each other or clashing on strategy.

Trump, who is known for his public demands of fealty, allowed Youngkin to cast himself as his own man, declining to invite Trump to campaign with him and deflecting questions about his support for Trump’s more polarizing views in an effort to make inroads in the well-heeled Northern Virginia suburbs.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) spoke to supporters, stopping short of conceding to opponent Glenn Youngkin (R) on Nov. 2. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The former president instead stayed focused on turning out his own supporters — deploying his email and text message lists to coax his voters to the polls while refusing to acknowledge any daylight between Youngkin and himself. When Trump spoke about the race, he focused on core issues such as education and taxes, not the false claims about the 2020 election more likely to alienate moderate voters.

“I’ve gotten to know him so well and our relationship is so great,” Trump said about Youngkin, in a tele-town hall with supporters that was closed to the news media and public on Monday night. “The fake news media would like to say something else because they want our big, giant, beautiful base like there has never been before to not vote as much as they are going to.”

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This strategic turn lacked the scorched-earth appeal that Trump has used in the past to heighten voter enthusiasm. But it charted a clear path for Republican success in a blue-leaning state where Democrats have won every statewide contest since 2013.

It’s an approach Republicans say they hope to repeat next year as they seek to reclaim ground among college-educated and female voters that Trump abandoned in his two presidential runs.

“For the midterm, I think in each state you are going to see a different approach coming from Donald Trump,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a former Trump campaign adviser who introduced him on the call.

The dominant theory among House and Senate Republican strategists is that the party needs to do two things to win back control of the chambers next year: Maintain the support of Trump’s most loyal voters without him on the ballot and grow the suburban vote. It’s a strategy that only works if Trump stays engaged, but also pulls back on the demands that fellow Republicans pay constant homage to him and his more extreme positions.

“You want to hold the people that Trump brought into the party, but then move into the suburbs,” said former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.), who previously represented parts of Fairfax County. “You don’t embrace him but you don’t dump him, because he is still the heart and soul of the party.”

Democrats have countered by broadcasting plans to follow the playbook of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to keep those suburban voters afraid of voting Republican, using continuing voter concern about Trump, his divisive approach to politics and his role in an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to drive turnout.

Virginia was the first major testing ground of the competing theories. Trump as an issue did not appear to be enough to stop the commonwealth from reverting to historical patterns as early returns were counted. In every gubernatorial election for decades, with the exception of McAuliffe’s win in 2013, Virginia has voted for a governor from the party not holding the White House.

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“It is looking like Terry McAuliffe’s campaign against a certain person named ‘Trump’ has very much helped Glenn Youngkin,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday night predicting a Youngkin win. “All McAuliffe did was talk Trump, Trump, Trump and he lost! What does that tell you, Fake News? I guess people running for office as Democrats won’t be doing that too much longer. I didn’t even have to go rally for Youngkin, because McAuliffe did it for me. Thank you to the MAGA voters for turning out big!”

Political advisers, from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to Florida GOP consultant Susie Wiles, who has taken over running Trump’s political operation, have told the former president that setting himself up as a strong candidate in 2024 includes helping the Republican Party win back Congress and governors’ mansions.

Youngkin — aiming to distinguish himself from Trump without alienating Trump voters — worked early in the campaign to win Trump’s favor, and he received Trump’s endorsement immediately after his nomination. The calls between them were not disclosed publicly.

“The entire Youngkin campaign was built around ‘America first’ policies so it meant he didn’t have a lot to prove,” said a person familiar with the conversations who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “If you are someone who believes Trump always has to be scorching the earth then you are going to be disappointed. If you are someone who believes that winning is important then you are going to be happy.”

That didn’t mean the campaign passed without some Trump surprises. At several points, McAuliffe was able to latch on to Trump taking unexpected steps to involve himself in the race. McAuliffe advisers said donations to the campaign nearly doubled to $635,000 in one day after Trump hinted in late October that he might travel to the state — a feint Trump intended to drum up interest among his core supporters.

Trump was annoyed, one adviser said, at the coverage of Democrats trying to goad him into Virginia. But he was never serious about going, multiple advisers said. Youngkin’s advisers, initially caught off guard by the promise to come to Virginia, did not want Trump to visit the state, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Fearful Democrats look at Virginia and worry about 2022

Former vice president Mike Pence came to Virginia around the same time, an event some Youngkin allies wanted to keep quiet. They were fearful that it would drive Trump to want to come as well. Pence’s first event, as a result, was closed to the news media.

Desperate for the contrast, the McAuliffe campaign often found itself overselling Trump’s involvement in the state. When Trump called in to a talk radio rally in mid-October to praise Youngkin — where a flag used in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was displayed — McAuliffe blamed the Youngkin campaign, even though he and his campaign did not organize or participate in the event.

“Guess how Glenn Youngkin is finishing his campaign?” asked McAuliffe at his final rally of the cycle in Fairfax. “He is doing an event with Donald Trump here in Virginia.”

That was not true, either. There was only a Trump phone call from out of state to his supporters, and it did not involve the Youngkin campaign.

Trump reacted again on Monday, after the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, began buying cable ads in the market where Trump lives that said Youngkin was “ashamed” of the former president. Trump’s advisers told him that the ads were intended to provoke him, according to a person familiar with the matter, but Trump reacted anyway, blasting the group in a news release.

Rick Wilson, a former Republican strategist behind the ads, said he expected to repeat the same tactic in future campaigns. He said he was confident that the Democratic focus on Trump could be more successful in the midterms.

“If Terry McAuliffe had been litigating Glenn Youngkin as Donald Trump’s guy from the very beginning, this would have been a very different race,” Wilson said. “Democrats must make the midterms about Donald Trump. It is the only issue out there that is going to drive their base forward.”

Republicans largely held a different view of the Virginia result, seeing the lighter touch that Trump used to interact with Youngkin as a sign of the quality of his political operation, and an indication of a successful midterm election to come.

“Republicans ran an issue-centric campaign, while Democrats ran a personality-centric campaign,” said one senior Republican political operative who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Simply put, Glenn Youngkin won with President Trump’s endorsement and a forward-looking message. Terry McAuliffe lost with President Biden’s endorsement and a backward-looking message.”

Inside the Youngkin campaign, appraisal of the opponent in the closing days of the campaign was somewhat more harsh.

“He ran a great Senate race,” Youngkin consultant Jeff Roe joked about McAuliffe. “But he talked about issues no one cared about and he ran against a man who wasn’t on the ballot.”

Souring view of Biden looms large in Virginia and beyond

Youngkin made it clear from the start of the campaign that he wanted to create a distinct identity from Trump without losing Trump’s core supporters. He refused offers of help from all manner of national Republican surrogates and kept himself at the center of his campaign.

“Youngkin threaded the needle perfectly, being respectful to the former president but making clear he was his own man and running on a policy agenda about Virginia,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which knocked on doors for Youngkin.

Phillips said that when door-knocking for Senate runoffs in Georgia this year, they repeatedly heard Republicans ask why they should vote because it was rigged and that their vote didn’t count. “I don’t recall hearing that one single time here,” he said.

Youngkin spent weeks flooding local television stations with images of himself as a fun-loving businessman from the suburbs, a break from politics as usual. After embracing Trump’s record in the primary and calling for an audit of voting machines in the state, he told reporters that he would have voted to certify Joe Biden’s presidential win and refused to indulge discussions about Trump’s false election claims.

When Youngkin met with a prominent political operative this fall, he did not even mention Trump, instead focusing on how he would try to reorganize Virginia’s government and capitalize on local issues such as education, the person said. “The name Trump did not come up once,” the person said.

The strategy frustrated Democrats, who found that anger at Trump, along with concern about changes in abortion laws, were the top issues driving their base.

Trump lost Virginia by five points in 2016 against Democrat Hillary Clinton and 10 points in 2020 against Biden. But Biden’s support in the state has since collapsed, dragged down by concern over a summer coronavirus surge, rising inflation, a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and congressional gridlock. A late October Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 53 percent of Virginians disapproved of Biden’s performance, while 46 percent approved.

Exit polls in the state Tuesday found about 4 in 10 Virginia voters had a favorable view of Trump, while a slight majority saw him unfavorably.