Glenn Youngkin, the fleece-vested Carlyle plutocrat, pulled off an amazing political feat last week. Well, almost.
He managed not to attend a big rally for him outside Richmond Wednesday night, though his campaign provided placards and Youngkin swag for it and he warmly thanked the organizer, right-wing talk-radio host John Fredericks, on his show last week. “John, thank you for organizing this rally on October 13th.” (Fredericks was Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign chair in 2016 and 2020.) But he didn’t show up—though he clearly knew the date—citing a prior conflict.
So he wasn’t there when former president Trump phoned in to say, “Glenn Youngkin, he’ll straighten out Virginia, do all of the things we want a governor to do.” As we know, Trump mostly wants governors to work hard to overturn election results that don’t go his way. He wasn’t there when Trump ally Steve Bannon, fresh off claiming “executive privilege” to avoid testifying to the House Select Committee on January 6, declared, “We’re putting together a coalition that’s going to govern for 100 years.” Thanks to voter suppression and election theft, Bannon meant to add.
Youngkin wasn’t there when the MC announced that the flag to which they’d pledge allegiance “was carried at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on January 6.” He wasn’t there when the self-described “Trump in heels,” state Senator Amanda Chase, who herself attended that “peaceful rally,” promised that Youngkin believes, as she does, that the election was stolen by President Joe Biden. (For the record, Youngkin publicly denies that he believes that.)
“I know what’s going on, and the Youngkin campaign knows what’s going on,” Chase said. The GOP candidate has had to reverse positions on the issue—in an interview, he seemed to say he wouldn’t have voted to certify Biden’s election were he in Congress, and then he flip-flopped a day later. Chase knew why, she told the crowd: Youngkin didn’t want to give “the Democrats ammo to use against us, to get the independents to go with [former governor] Terry McAuliffe.”
That actually rings true: It’s very close to what Youngkin told a progressive activist who pretended to be an anti-abortion zealot in an interview she filmed over the summer. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense [on abortion restrictions],” he told her. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get…. I will not go squishy, but I got to win in order to stand up for the unborn.”
But “squishy” is exactly what Youngkin so often seems. Asked if he thought it was appropriate for the crowd to pledge “allegiance” to a flag used during a violent insurrection, at first Youngkin dodged the question, and then he said he thought it was “weird and wrong.”
I called it an “amazing feat” that Youngkin tried to have it both ways with the bizarre rally—but in the end, he didn’t really pull it off. The right-wing freak show wound up getting a ton of local and national media attention. And Virginia Democrats say it energized their base over the weekend, when McAuliffe canvassers knocked 100,000 doors.
McAuliffe’s campaign put out a nifty digital ad on the Trumpkin rally. In fact, it’s safe to say the campaign might be finding their groove in running against Trump alongside Youngkin (that’s no critique; it’s what I think they should do). They put out a second ad, a day later, neatly wrapping up the 2017 Charlottesville Nazis-in-khakis demonstration with the January 6 insurrection and tying them both to Trump—and by extension, Youngkin.
So Youngkin’s attempt to walk the GOP tightrope between appeasing Trump and his base while still winning back suburbanites and independents might be faltering. One problem is Amanda Chase. Remember Keegan-Michael Key playing President Obama’s “anger translator” a few years back (saying things our first Black president could not)? Well, Chase is Youngkin’s Trump translator, turning his milquetoast message into red meat for the Trump base and saying the things that are too politically divisive for him to say.
Chase, by the way, is not on the fringe of the Youngkin campaign: Virginia Public Media calls her one of his “main surrogates.” She is stumping on his behalf, or alongside him, multiple times a week in the closing month of the campaign. And everywhere she goes, she tells crowds that Youngkin—who indeed made “election integrity” key to his platform, when there are no reasonable doubts about Virginia’s election integrity—agrees with her on the 2020 election “fraud.” In early October, she told a crowd in Martinsville that electing Youngkin is “the single most important thing that we can do to protect election integrity.”
Helping to underscore the voting rights theme, the McAuliffe campaign hosted Fair Fight Action founder Stacey Abrams last Sunday. On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris travels to the state, and Obama himself will be in Richmond on October 23. No word yet on a visit from President Joe Biden, whose troubles in passing his agenda have dampened his popularity in the state, creating more headwinds for McAuliffe. Still, I’d expect to see Biden before Election Day; he and McAuliffe are old friends, and some Virginia Democrats may need a wake-up call about who’s obstructing that agenda: Trump-enthralled Republicans like Youngkin.
Democrats in the state are still anxious about the race—polls show McAuliffe leading narrowly—as well as about holding the House of Delegates. But there is more energy than a few weeks ago, at least partly because of Youngkin’s self-inflicted errors. Republican voters might fall for the candidate’s dishonest okey-dokey strategy. Democrats and independents should not.