The crowd of about 300 Republican stalwarts in Norfolk, Virginia, included those wearing the requisite red baseball caps.
But these, just a shade different, didn’t shout “Make America Great Again.” Instead the hats were embroidered with the name of gubernatorial candidate and former private-equity executive Glenn Youngkin, who’s campaigning on a platform that hews close to former President Donald Trump’s -- but also is just a shade different.
The former Carlyle Group co-chief executive officer is seeking to carefully tap into the energy that Trump brought to the Republican grassroots while keeping the party’s most conservative element at arms’ length so as not to turn off the state’s key suburban voters.
As a first-time candidate, Youngkin doesn’t have a policy record, but he has hired pro-Trump economist Stephen Moore. While Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe is trying to tie him to Trump, Youngkin talks about the former president only when asked by conservative talk radio hosts and even ran an attack ad showing McAuliffe praising Trump.
Youngkin, whom Trump has endorsed three times, has said the former president “represents so much of why I’m running.” But when asked about specific policies he appears to answer two ways.
It’s a tightrope Youngkin has walked since winning the nomination in May.
The election in November is coming at a tricky time for Democrats as it will be seen as a harbinger of their fate in the 2022 midterm congressional elections. President Joe Biden is being buffeted by criticism over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, for inflation and for the return to masks and social distancing amid the delta variant of the coronavirus.
It also comes as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned amid a sexual misconduct and corruption scandal and California’s Gavin Newsom faces a close recall election.
The latest Roanoke College poll shows McAuliffe with a comfortable lead of 8 percentage points. And Youngkin is struggling in the suburbs. A different poll from the firm co/efficient, which found McAuliffe leading by 5 points overall, showed 51% of suburban voters backing the Democrat and 30% supporting Youngkin, with 17% undecided.
Swing voters are especially decisive in a state like Virginia, where the densely populated and growing suburbs of Washington, D.C. are largely Democratic and the rural and military-heavy southern part of the state trends Republican and has a shrinking population. Those changes make it all the more important for Youngkin to win over suburban voters.
When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said last week that students and staff in the state’s K-12 schools would be required to wear a mask this fall, Youngkin opposed the move. The state was “taking away parents’ ability to decide what’s best for our kids,” he said.
When pressed, though, the campaign clarified that he wouldn’t try to stop school districts from imposing mandates, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott have done.
Youngkin walked a careful line on abortion and on voting rights, an issue where polls show Republicans strongly back more restrictions while Democrats and independents are more concerned with access to polling places.
He campaigned heavily during the Republican primary on “election integrity,” but never endorsed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. After securing the nomination, Youngkin stated clearly for the first time that Biden won and shifted his campaign focus to jobs and education.
But Youngkin appeared at an “election integrity” rally at conservative Liberty University this month that some other Republican candidates chose to skip.
When an audience member at a campaign event in late July brought up a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump could be reinstated as president, Youngkin didn’t refute the idea, saying that he didn’t know all the details, according to a recording of the event obtained by HuffPost.
“I don’t know the particulars about how that can happen, because what’s happening in the court system is moving slowly and it’s unclear,” he said.
Since the 1970s, the state has elected a governor from the opposing party of the president in every election except one. That exception was McAuliffe, who narrowly defeated conservative firebrand Ken Cuccinelli in 2013 by hammering his controversial actions on climate change and LGBT rights as attorney general.
The campaigns are running out of time to make their case. Early voting begins in mid-September, and the two debates that the candidates have agreed on will be around that time.
Youngkin’s delicate dance was on display during a recent rally in Norfolk, his hometown.
The candidate, who went to college on a basketball scholarship, took the stage to the ‘90s techno hit “Get Ready for This,” often played as entrance music at NBA games, alongside Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw.
While Youngkin was in his element talking about reducing taxes and regulations, that wasn’t what the mostly maskless crowd was waiting for. They only leaped to their feet to applaud when he pledged to ban K-12 schools from teaching critical race theory, an academic concept that has been widely reviled on conservative talk shows in recent months.
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