Republican Glenn Youngkin is going back to the future with his closing argument in the homestretch of his gubernatorial bid against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Looking to coax undecided voters off the sidelines, Mr. Youngkin is barnstorming Virginia with a traditional conservative Republican message anchored in kitchen-table issues.
“We collectively know the future that we can build is so different than the one Terry McAuliffe wants the government to impose upon us,” Mr. Youngkin said at a recent rally.
“It is about a Virginia where we, in fact, get to live the Virginia promise — a promise that we are going to have the best schools, the safest neighborhoods, we are going to have the best jobs, we are going to have a low cost of living and oh, by the way, a promise where our children can dream the most radical dreams.”
Mr. Youngkin’s challenge has been to thread the needle between wooing Donald Trump’s supporters while winning over those turned off by his combative politics, which helped fuel Joseph R. Biden’s 10-point victory in the state last year.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Youngkin has occasionally leaned into culture wars and touched on hot-button issues such as election integrity, critical race theory and parental outrage over some books found in public schools.
This week he released an attack ad featuring a parent and activist complaining about Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved.”
But on the stump, in the closing days of the campaign, he has been more interested in talking about his plans to bolster education, abolish the grocery tax and cut taxes across the board.
Mr. Youngkin has made a clear pivot since he skipped out on a “Take Back Virginia” rally this month organized by loyal Trump supporters, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
“The Trump base has already committed to him,” Mr. Kidd said.
“So he is trying to get that last holdout suburban mom or voter that otherwise didn’t like Donald Trump to trust him and give them their vote,” he said. “It makes sense for him to become this combination of [former Gov.] Bob McDonnell, Mitt Romney and John McCain all at once.”
Republicans have not won statewide since Mr. McDonnell, a former state attorney general, pulled off the feat in 2009.
Mr. McDonnell steered clear of divisive social issues, and his centrist platform — focused on jobs, the economy and road repairs — resonated with suburban voters.
Mr. Youngkin has taken a similar approach. He also benefits from concerns about Mr. Biden in much the same way that Mr. McDonnell capitalized on blowback against President Obama’s approach to the souring economy and health care.
“The difference is the state is more Democrat now than it was in 2009,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, Fairfax Democrat. “I think that is one difference, and also Bob had run and won as attorney general. So I think he was a little bit more ‘establishment.’ ”
Republicans for years dominated Virginia’s statewide elections, feasting on strong support in small towns and counties, and in the suburbs. That was often enough to offset the Democratic strongholds of Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Tidewater area.
The electorate, though, changed.
Population growth in the cities and suburbs made the Old Dominion more diverse and, in many cases, more affluent, tilting the playing field away from the GOP.
Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, won back-to-back gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2005, respectively, and then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since 1964.
Mr. McAuliffe took over the governor’s mansion in 2014, and Ralph Northam took the reins in 2018.
Then in the 2019 election, Democrats captured control of the state legislature for the first time since 1994.
If the GOP is going to get back to its winning ways, then the general consensus is that it must drive up its margin of victory in the rural areas of the state, compete in the suburbs and hope for lackluster Democratic turnout in the urban areas.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Democratic operative from rural Craig County, where Mr. Biden received 18% of the 2020 vote, said Mr. Youngkin appears to have locked up the votes of the Republicans around him.
“I think Youngkins’ vote in rural Virginia is going to turn out in a big-time way,” said Mr. Saunders, emphasizing the small sampling. “Rural, small-town Virginia and working-people Virginia are going to turn out. These Trumpsters have gone nowhere.”
The jury is out, meanwhile, on whether Mr. Youngkin is poised to make serious inroads in the suburbs.
Mr. Petersen did say Mr. Youngkin’s message could resonate — particularly if it sounds authentic.
“If you have a message of reduced taxes and make that argument, that is going to be appealing to voters across party lines,” he said. “If you make an argument about protecting schools, that is going to appeal to voters across party lines.”
Former Rep. Thomas Davis III, a Republican, said Mr. Youngkin’s most important asset is his timing. He said Mr. Youngkin is benefiting from the buyer’s remorse that some voters have with Mr. Biden.
“He is fouling up everything he touches, from Afghanistan to the supply chain to inflation to the border of Texas to COVID,” Mr. Davis said. “Nothing is going right for these guys. They voted for Biden because they don’t want Trump in their living rooms for four years. But they didn’t vote for his policies.”
Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater in the state.
Mr. Davis said Mr. Youngkin has the image of a happy warrior, with a fresh face with little political baggage. Plus, his forward-looking message contrasts with Mr. McAuliffe’s apparent obsession with Mr. Trump and the liberal agendas of Democratic-controlled Washington and Richmond, he said.
“Democrats are in charge of everything, and things are not going well,” Mr. Davis said. “It doesn’t elect you, but people will give you a second look. Whereas four years ago, they pushed the mute button.”
Mr. Youngkin has the momentum in the race and has been gaining ground since the summer.
Still, polls show him essentially tied with Mr. McAullife.
Mr. Youngkin appears to be more trusted on the economy and taxes, and Mr. McAullife’s advantage on the issues of COVID-19 and schools has slipped.
Jimmy Keady, the founder of JLK Political Strategies and a longtime Virginia Republican Party strategist, said the Youngkin approach could serve as a reminder of why Republicans were so successful in the state.
“I think you’re going to see not just in Virginia, but you’re going to see a trend nationally here, where a lot of Republicans are going to go back to those meat-and-potato issues that have won us elections because people want government out of their lives,” Mr. Keady said. “I think if that’s the party that we continue to run as, we will win all the way down the ballot because that’s what people want.”