The Virginia gubernatorial election this year will be the first test of whether Republicans can improve their standing among suburban voters with former President Donald Trump out of office.
Glenn Youngkin, the GOP‘s nominee, set his sights on a path through the suburbs to the governor’s mansion with a campaign that doesn’t fully embrace Mr. Trump but also doesn’t run away from him.
Mr. Youngkin’s Trump-lite strategy helped propel him past six other candidates to secure the nomination at the state GOP convention in May.
“Of all the Republicans candidates, Youngkin was probably the best choice,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. “First, he has the most minimal record. For many Virginians, he‘s kind of a blank slate, and he can spend an enormous amount of money to frame the narrative and define himself.”
Mr. Youngkin has done exactly that. His campaign spent more than $5 million to secure the Republican nomination by painting himself as an outsider in the mold of Mr. Trump, railing against the status quo and cancel culture but infrequently invoking the name of the former president.
The tactic attempts to thread the needle between pro-Trump rural voters and anti-Trump suburbanites.
The national parties are looking at the governor’s race, which is the first statewide contest following the presidential election, for a barometer of national trends and a forecast of political currents heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
“The national spotlight is on this race,” Mr. Youngkin said in an interview. “This will be the first battleground for the issues everyone cares about. How do you revitalize an economy, fix schools, build world-class law enforcement? These issues are the kitchen table issues that Virginians and the nation are focused on right now.”
Still, no matter how he slices it, Mr. Youngkin is the underdog in the race.
Virginia, once a purple state, has tilted heavily toward the Democratic Party in recent years.
In 2020, President Biden won the commonwealth by more than 10 percentage points, the largest margin for a Democrat since the New Deal.
At the state and local levels, Democrats are ascendant. In 2013, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAullife eked out a narrow victory in the gubernatorial race. The following year, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, once considered presidential timber, only narrowly secured reelection, despite outspending his GOP challenger.
After 2016, the Democratic Party’s takeover of Virginia accelerated. In 2017, Ralph Northam routed his Republican opponent by more than 9 percentage points to win the governorship. Democrats that year also won both the attorney general and lieutenant governor’s office handily.
The party cemented its control by flipping the state legislature in 2019.
Virginia’s political realignment was decades in the making but the trends in the state mirror the political divide of the Trump era.
Rural voters, who may have once supported moderate Democrats, now vote almost exclusively for Republicans. Similarly, suburbanites who once leaned GOP have embraced Democrats by large margins.
Suburban defections across Northern Virginia, the Greater Richmond region and Hampton Roads accounted for much of the blueing of the Old Dominion.
For Mr. Youngkin to stand a chance in 2021, he’ll have to not only stop the exodus of suburban voters from the GOP but reverse it as well.
“He isn’t going to win all of these suburban areas, he doesn’t have to,” said Kyle Klondik, the managing editor of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball — a nonpartisan political newsletter authored by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He just has to do better than Trump and other Republicans have done in recent years.”
Potentially helping his candidacy is that he is likely to face off against Mr. McAullife, pending the results of the Democratic gubernatorial primary next month.
Although a popular former governor, Mr. McAullife’s ties to former President Bill Clinton energize the Republican base against him. His image as a wheeling-dealing establishment politician also was seen unfavorably among suburban voters in 2013.
“Terry McAullife has been in politics since the day he was born,” Mr. Youngkin said. “He is a lifetime political hack. He’s just going to do anything he can to win, which includes dividing us.”
Mr. McAullife, who leads most of the primary polls, is already taking steps to nationalize the race by tying the GOP ticket to Mr. Trump.
“I am ready to take on extremist, Trump-backed Glenn Youngkin this November,” Mr. McAullife said recently. “Together, we will stand up for democracy and defeat Trumpism here in Virginia.”
The tactic, however, carries risks. While Mr. Youngkin could be hurt in suburban Virginia by his association with Mr. Trump, nationalizing the race could also wind up making the contest a referendum on the Biden administration.
“I think arguably one of the most important factors in this race is the perception of Biden and Democratic control of Washington,” Mr. Klondik said.
In wooing suburban voters, Mr. Youngkin will have to highlight issues that could not only fail to motivate the GOP but could wind up antagonizing it.
“The topics that he raised in getting the nomination won’t get him the election,” Mr. Holsworth said. “Talking about election integrity or preserving the Second Amendment or abortion, will not get you there.”
“Youngkin needs to find some way to keep the Trump folks excited, while convincing suburbanites and some Democratic voters he’s no more threatening a Republican than Larry Hogan or Charlie Baker,” he said.