Delicate dance for Trump, Youngkin in campaign's final weeks

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Virginia Governor Youngkin (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Virginia Governor Youngkin (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

When Donald Trump rallied Republicans this week to vote for Glenn Youngkin for governor in Virginia, the former president called in to a rally of diehard supporters. That may be the closest he gets to campaigning in the most closely-watched election of 2021.

While schedules could evolve in the final weeks of the race, the two are not expected to campaign together in person before Election Day next month.

“Is Trump going to come to Virginia? Yes. But it will be after the election for a victory rally,” said conservative talk show host John Fredericks, who served as Trump's campaign chairman in the state and also organized Wednesday’s event. Youngkin’s campaign confirmed Friday it does not have any plans for surrogates to join him in the race's final stretch.

The dynamic reflects the complex balancing act between Trump and Youngkin and could emerge as a model for other Republicans who face competitive campaigns in 2022. The former president remains the most popular figure in GOP politics and is eager to remain engaged. Youngkin needs Trump's supporters to show up to the polls and can't risk giving the former president a reason to turn on him in the race’s final weeks. But he must also avoid being tied too closely to someone who is unpopular in crucial swaths of the state, particularly the populated suburbs that surround Washington and Richmond.

It's a delicate balancing act for Youngkin, who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Terry McAuliffe and steered clear of the Wednesday event. In addition to Fredericks, the rally was headlined by longtime Trump strategist Steve Bannon who could soon find himself charged with contempt for refusing to cooperate with a House committee investigating the violent Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. And it drew outrage after attendees recited the pledge of allegiance to a flag the emcee said had been flown that day, a move Youngkin later criticized.

While the former president remains the most powerful force in the party nine months after leaving office, he lost Virginia by 10 points in 2020 and is viewed favorably by just 44% of likely voters in the state, according to a recent Fox News poll.

If Trump were to hold a rally in the state, “it would be a disaster for Youngkin,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime local political analyst in the state. “This is a person who lost by 10 points in Virginia, lost in a landslide. He’s extremely unpopular in Virginia. ... The more he shows up and he more he participates, the worse off it is for Youngkin."

That risk was underscored by the reaction to Wednesday's event, where Trump praised Youngkin as “a great gentleman,” while spreading lies about the 2020 election.

Democrats immediately pounced, condemning what they labeled “Donald Trump’s insurrectionist rally." McAuliffe's campaign cut an ad featuring Trump’s praise for Youngkin, while McAuliffe held a press conference to tear into his opponent, both broadly for his focus on “dangerous conspiracy theories” and for his initial silence on the event itself.

Trump, for his part, also has little to gain by spending much more political capital on the race. If Youngkin wins, Trump is sure to try to take credit, citing his participation in Wednesday's rally, his May endorsement, and any future get out the vote efforts. But if Youngkin loses, Trump can blame him for not aligning himself more closely with the former president.

Indeed, Trump recently had warned the candidate about straying too far during an interview with Fredericks.

“The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement,” he said. “When they try and go down a railroad track, you know, ‘Hey, oh yeah, sure, I love it, love it. Oh yeah, I love Trump, love Trump, OK, let’s go, next subject.’ When they do that, they never win. They never win. They have to embrace it.”

While Youngkin's campaign hasn’t featured many big-name surrogates at his political events, McAuliffe has been summoning Democratic star power. President Joe Biden has already campaigned with McAuliffe and his campaign told The Associated Press this week that the president will return before the Nov. 2 vote. First lady Jill Biden appeared with McAuliffe at a rally Friday and former President Barack Obama will campaign with him next week.

Trump spokespeople did not respond to questions about the race, and Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to questions about Trump.

Youngkin has aimed his pitch more toward moderate and independent voters since winning his party’s primary. During that campaign, Youngkin declined to say whether Biden was fairly elected. He has since said he believes he was — and that he does not believe there was significant fraud last November.

Instead of following in the mold of other blue-state Republican governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Youngkin has run on a solidly conservative set of platforms, embracing some GOP culture war issues and promising to help reject the “left liberal progressive agenda” he says is shaping Virginia.

After mostly pivoting away from his focus on election integrity in the nomination contest, he’s centered campaign appearances and ads on issues like crime, taxes and school choice.

Democrats have criticized him, though, for recent remarks about auditing the state’s voting machines and for campaigning with state Sen. Amanda Chase, a prominent promoter of election falsehoods who’s garnered the nickname “Trump in heels.”

Youngkin has also previously said Trump “represents so much of why I’m running.”

“What Youngkin is trying to do is he’s attempting to maintain the MAGA base while absorbing the suburban defectors from the Democrats. And that’s tough,” said Holsworth,

Fredericks said it was a winning strategy.

“Here’s why Glenn Youngkin is going to win: We’re holding the Trump base together by a thread," he said. ”Glenn Youngkin and this campaign has never abandoned the core principles that are important to Trump voters, not one day."

Former Virginia governor, U.S. ambassador and GOP presidential candidate Jim Gilmore said Youngkin had done a good job of keeping the race tightly focused on his candidacy.

“I think that nationalizing this campaign is not helpful to either of the candidates,” he said.

“Glenn’s got to be his own man” and “run his own” race, agreed former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, who represented northern Virginia’s 11th Congressional District for 14 years.

Davis said he thinks Virginia voters are more concerned about Biden, whose approval rating has slumped, than Trump. People voted for Biden “to get Donald Trump out of their living room,” he said. “But they didn’t vote for all this stuff that Biden’s bringing with him. And I think they’re going to pump the brakes."

Several polls released since mid-September show a competitive race between McAuliffe and Youngkin. Some, including a recent poll by Fox News, suggest McAuliffe may have a slight advantage, though Youngkin remains within striking distance and some voters for both candidates said they may still change their minds.

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Colvin reported from New York.

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