DUMFRIES, Virginia—“For the last 15 weeks, I’ve traveled nearly 26,000 miles. I’ve had a chance to visit with tens of thousands of Virginians and what I’ve heard over and over again, over and over, is a sense of frustration, anger, but also hope and optimism,” Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin told a crowd of rally attendees last Monday.
Youngkin, who won the Virginia GOP’s nomination on May 10, is gearing up for an expensive and hard-fought race against likely Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s former governor who is expected to win his state party’s primary on June 8.
The first-time GOP candidate may have boatloads of cash—conservative estimates put his net worth at more than $200 million—but the odds are against him: No Republican has won a statewide race in Virginia in 12 years.
That said, election analysts are quick to point out that Virginia Democrats have two big hurdles to overcome this fall. One, Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. “There is not a Trump tailwind for the Democrats to ride anymore,” said Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a forecasting group that specializes in Virginia races and state legislative elections. “They would not have the trifecta, which is the House of Delegates, State Senate, and governor, if Trump lost in 2016.”
And two, this election is expected to be a referendum on President Joe Biden’s administration. Virginians have elected a governor opposite the president’s party every single election cycle since 1977 but one. (The only exception to this trend was in 2013, when McAuliffe pulled off a narrow victory against Ken Cuccinelli.) As we inch closer to November, Youngkin is betting that burgeoning backlash against the Biden administration’s policies will pull independents and moderate Democrats into his camp.
Hence his recent visit to Dumfries, a small town in Prince William County, where Joe Biden won 62.64 percent of the vote in November. Montclair Tabernacle Church was filled to the brim last Monday with GOP voters in support of Youngkin, Republican nominee for attorney general Jason Miyares, and Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Winsome Sears.
The event kicked off as many Republican rallies do these days: With a prayer. “I want you to turn your hands to the candidates because as we are praying, we are praying for victory in November,” said Diante Johnson, founder and president of the Black Conservative Federation. “We are decreeing victory in November.”
Prince William County Republican Chairman Tim Parrish made sure to snap a photo of the candidates with their eyes closed during the prayer, which was continuously interrupted by choruses of “Amen” from the crowd.
The campaign event’s location came as no surprise to Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic consultant who said Youngkin spent the early months of his campaign encouraging churchgoers to sign up as delegates for the convention.
“I’m not sure it would have been a model that would have worked in a primary, but in a convention, what made it work so well was that everyone who wanted to vote had to sign up weeks in advance to be a delegate, and so the church network gave them people to sign up,” Tribbett said. “Other candidates were going through [Virginia] doing events, fighting one by one to get people to sign up. And Glenn Youngkin was signing people in the tens and hundreds at a time.”
Church-hopping Republican candidates often have the reputation of delivering fire and brimstone speeches at their rallies, Tribbett said. But there was something peculiar about Youngkin’s stump speech last Monday: Not once did the Trump-endorsed candidate mention socialism, cancel culture, or the former president, who lost Virginia by 10 points in November.
Instead, Youngkin sought to portray kitchen table priorities as the focus of his campaign. “The Virginia we know is the best place to live and work and raise a family—the Democrats have indeed put her in the ditch,” Youngkin told the crowd before taking numerous jabs at Terry McAuliffe and his “left liberal friends.”
In Youngkin’s words, those priorities translate into defending law enforcement, (protecting qualified immunity), helping businesses “grow and thrive” (cutting red tape and lowering taxes), and revamping K-12 education (protecting school choice and accelerated math programs while kicking critical race theory to the curb).
Leading up to the convention, Youngkin ran as a staunch conservative in hopes of turning out the type of Republican voter who takes the time to register as a delegate weeks before the convention. Whereas GOP competitors Pete Snyder and Amanda Chase ran as full-blown Trumpists, Youngkin courted the former president’s voters by staying mum on whether Biden won the election and making election integrity a top policy priority.
His strategy worked. Though it took six rounds of ranked choice vote shuffling for Youngkin to be declared the winner, he led every round of vote counting and won handily against Pete Snyder in the final round.
Now that he’s the official nominee, he needs the support of moderate Democrats and independents. So Youngkin has amended his approach. “When you’re asked the question, flat out, was the election of 2020 legitimate or not, what are you going to say?” Bloomberg’s David Westin asked the candidate earlier this month.
“I’m saying, of course! He’s our president,” Youngkin responded. “He slept in the White House last night. He’s addressed a joint session of Congress. He’s signing executive orders that I wish he wasn’t signing. So, let’s look forward and just recognize that what we have to do is lead.”
Election analysts are watching closely. “While he did run as conservative and gave this wishy-washy answer on whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected and now he’s pivoting to saying, yes, he was legitimately elected, I think one of the advantages he has is that nobody knows him,” Nuttycombe said. “He’s a newcomer to Virginia politics.”
Youngkin, former executive of the Carlyle Group, has branded himself as a political outsider who can give Virginians a fresh start. “This guy came out of the woodwork just a couple of months ago, not even a year ago,” Nuttycombe said. “So what we’re seeing now from the Democrats is they’re trying to race the Youngkin campaign to ideologically defining him, saying he is a big Trump Republican, that he’s far-right.”
Democratic operatives are leaning heavily on attack ads to remind voters that he campaigned alongside one of his endorsers, GOP Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “He was a Trump guy and now he’s obviously trying to back away from that,” said David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “We’re not going to let him. We’re going to remind voters exactly what he said.” The Democratic Governors Association has already begun running a Twitter ad that calls him “Glenn Trumpkin” and includes footage of him touting the former president’s endorsement.
Still, most election analysts think Youngkin is in much better shape than the Virginia GOP’s most recent gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who only narrowly defeated Corey Stewart to the Republican nomination in 2017. Stewart, a Minnesota native, had spent the entire primary race defending Virginia’s Confederate heritage and calling his opponent “Establishment Ed,” which made things rather difficult for Gillespie when the general election rolled around.
“It was a mess after the primary,” Nuttycombe said of Gillespie’s campaign. Ralph Northam ended up winning the general election by nearly nine points.
Youngkin knows this race is an uphill battle. “We need all of you today to commit yourself to work harder than you’ve ever worked in an election,” he told the crowd last Monday before encouraging attendees to sign up to be neighborhood captains. “Nothing is more powerful than a friend in the neighborhood saying, I’m for Glenn, I’m for Winsome, I’m for Jason,” Youngkin continued. “The glossy television ads, the uncountable number of mailers, the phones ringing off the hook—Nothing is more powerful than a neighborhood team captain, knocking on doors, talking to friends, and saying: ‘Vote for Glenn, Winsome, Jason.’ ”
His supporters seem up to the challenge, given every candidate who spoke at last Monday’s event received multiple standing ovations. “We went to a meet and greet a month or so ago, in Springfield, and I just want to show support and hear some more of what he has to say because I think he needs to win,” said Marilyn Carpenter, a rally attendee who has lived in Fairfax for more than 30 years.
Her husband, Bernie Carpenter, was even more enthusiastic about Youngkin. “We love Virginia, but it’s not the Virginia that we know,” he told The Dispatch. “It’s kind of gone downhill, and you can’t trust anybody to say anything that makes sense. And [Youngkin] does and he promises that he’s working for us, not the other way around.”
“And more importantly, I don’t think he’s going to have his hand in my back pocket,” Carpenter said with a chuckle.
New Jersey is the only other state running an off-year gubernatorial election this fall, meaning the Virginia’s governors contest will serve as a much-needed bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterms.
“I think this is an era of uncertainty in Virginia because the world has changed since Donald Trump left,” Tribbett, the Democratic consultant, said. “This is a solidly blue state when Donald Trump is president, but I’m not sure what it is afterwards.”