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Youngkin continues delicate dance around Trump

Two people speak
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin campaigns in Stafford County. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin has called the 2020 election “certifiably fair.” 

Many of his most prominent supporters don’t agree. He appeared alongside members of Congress, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who voted against certifying the Electoral College count. The businessman is campaigning with state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), who has called for a 50-state audit and characterized the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 as “patriots.” And Youngkin has become a favorite of former President Donald Trump, who said last week that Youngkin will “do all of the things that we want a governor to do” as he repeated false claims about the 2020 vote.

Youngkin says those people don’t necessarily represent his views.

“There are no surrogates for me,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “Please recognize there is nobody who speaks for me. People have their own views and many of them I disagree with.”

Youngkin has faced a difficult dilemma from the outset of his campaign: turn out the reddest parts of the state without alienating suburbanites who have handed Democrats every statewide election since 2009.

The first-time candidate’s maneuvering may be working. Polls show him neck-and-neck with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the final two weeks of the campaign despite McAuliffe’s persistent attempts to tie Youngkin to a former president who lost Virginia by ten points last year.

Trump remains an inescapable part of the political landscape. He called in to a “Take Back Virginia” rally last week organized by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former senior advisor, and John Fredericks, a local conservative talk show host. Before the rally, Youngkin publicly thanked Fredericks on his show for hosting the event; after it, he was forced to answer questions about a particularly jarring moment.

The crowd pledged allegiance to a flag that host Martha Boneta said was “carried at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on January 6th.” In a statement the next day, Youngkin called the gesture “weird and wrong.” McAuliffe seized on the moment, spinning it out into TV and digital ads.

“He has spent this entire campaign promoting Donald Trump's crazy conspiracy theories about the 2020 election,” McAuliffe said in a rally with First Lady Jill Biden on Friday.

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Terry McAuliffe campaigns with First Lady Jill Biden, one of several Democratic heavy-hitters who've come to Virginia to stump for the former governor. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The six-foot-five Youngkin looks — and talks — like a suburban dad making the rounds at a PTA meeting. At a recent rally in Suffolk County, he mingled easily with everyone from four-year-olds to military veterans.

Many people in the crowd, like Annette Sudbeck, harbor doubts about the last election, which election experts said was free and fair. But few want to linger on it. Sudbeck gives other reasons for supporting Youngkin.

“It's those conservative values, right?” Sudbeck said. “Freedom of speech, our right to vote, free enterprise.”

Youngkin spent most of his speech riffing on themes that could resonate with the MAGA faithful, like banning critical race theory from schools. There’s no mention of election integrity or Trump himself.

Chuck Hansen’s not sold. On paper, Hansen’s exactly the kind of person who’d go Youngkin’s way. He’s a right-leaning resident of Midlothian, where the GOP was once dominant. He served as a speechwriter for former Gov. George Allen and worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill before gravitating toward corporate work. But he’s voting for McAuliffe.

When I look at Youngkin, and the fact that he's aligned with Trump, and that Trump took many, many steps to overturn a fair election, there's no contest,” Hansen said, adding that he’s not sure he can trust Youngkin if the outcome of the 2024 election is called into question: “Is he going to be like the Georgia and Texas and Arizona Republicans, who are looking for ways to rig the system?”

Republicans say they’re simply reinstilling the public’s faith in elections. Left unsaid is how that faith was shaken.

In the final stretch of the race, Democrats are calling up heavy-hitters like former President Barack Obama to Virginia. Their pitch: A vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump.