By Laura Vozzella,
Steve Helber Associated Press
RICHMOND — Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin steered clear Wednesday night as former president Donald Trump phoned into a rally for the state’s GOP ticket, headlined by onetime Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
“Glenn Youngkin is a great gentleman,” Trump said, predicting the Republican will beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe while reiterating his false claim of victory in last year’s presidential election. “We won in 2016. We won in 2020 — the most corrupt election in the history of our country, probably one of the most corrupt anywhere. But we’re gonna win it again.”
Trump created a stir hours earlier with a written statement that some Republicans feared could depress turnout in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election: “If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively documented), Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24.”
Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s statement and whether it impacts the party’s effort to get Republicans to the polls in November. But rally organizer John Fredericks said he thought Trump was merely warning voters that they have to get more involved to protect the sanctity of elections, such as serving as a poll watcher.
“What we’ve learned is, voting isn’t enough,” Fredericks said. “You have to vote and you have to protect your vote. The couch is no longer an option.”
Although Youngkin skipped the event, held at a suburban Richmond restaurant, Fredericks said Youngkin had thanked him “profusely” for arranging it and supplied him with campaign signs to hand out; Youngkin’s campaign spokesman declined to comment on the rally or Fredericks’s assertion.
One of Youngkin’s running mates, lieutenant governor candidate Winsome E. Sears, had been billed as a speaker and left before the program for reasons that were clear. Her spokesman did not immediately responded to a request for comment.
The event kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance — to a flag that was present “at the peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump on Jan. 6,” according to Martha Boneta, the Republican emcee of the event. Bannon whipped up the crowd of several hundred by repeating Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election and predicting Trump’s return — in 2024, if not before.
“We’re gonna build the wall. We’re going to confront China,” Bannon said to cheers. “We’re putting together a coalition that’s gonna govern for 100 years.”
In a tweet after the rally, McAuliffe denounced the event.
“Glenn Youngkin was endorsed again tonight by Donald Trump at a rally where attendees pledged allegiance to a flag flown at the deadly January 6th insurrection. Beyond disturbing, this is sick. And Glenn is honored to have Trump’s endorsement,” McAuliffe wrote.
Youngkin reached out to swing voters after securing the GOP nomination in May, briefly putting aside inflammatory Trumpian themes in favor of kitchen-table issues such as schools. But he never fully pivoted from Trump, who remains popular with Virginia’s GOP base even after losing the state as a whole last year by 10 points.
Youngkin’s schools agenda, for instance, zeroed in on culture-war fare such as his opposition to critical race theory, and mask and coronavirus vaccine mandates. And this month, Youngkin renewed his call to audit voting machines — something the state already performs — even though he has admitted there was no significant fraud in past Virginia elections and that he doesn’t expect Democrats to cheat this fall.
Now in the homestretch of the Nov. 2 race against McAuliffe, the political newcomer and former private equity executive seems to be making even more overt appeals to Trump fans — even without appearing at the Bannon rally.
For his part, though, Trump mused about campaigning in person with Youngkin.
“We’ll have to do one together, where we’re all live together,” he said during the call-in. “I sort of like that idea.”
Youngkin made peace in recent days with former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, who in late August had called Youngkin a “RINO,” meaning “Republican In Name Only,” for refusing to appear on his podcast. Youngkin came on the show last weekend and echoed Trump’s rhetoric, pledging to “save Virginia” (Trump’s political action committee is the Save America PAC) and pursue a “Virginia first” agenda.
“What they want to hear from you is that you support the “America First” agenda, you support making America great again and that you won’t be just a . . . Mitt Romney for Virginia,” Gorka said, referring to the moderate Republican U.S. senator from Utah and former presidential candidate who has been critical of Trump. “What can you do to reassure Trump supporters that that is not who you are?”
Youngkin replied: “The president knows I am a Virginia first governor’s candidate . . . I’m so angry with what’s going on in Virginia. And we are going to save Virginia.”
Youngkin also has begun campaigning alongside Virginia’s most prominent 2020 election conspiracy theorist, state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) — a pariah among fellow Senate Republicans, who joined Democrats in censuring her this year after she called the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “patriots.”
Youngkin’s campaign seemed skittish about any association with Chase as recently as August. She announced that month that Youngkin had tapped her to represent him at an antiabortion rally on the North Carolina border, a claim his campaign declined to confirm or deny at the time. But last week, he campaigned with Chase at his side in Martinsville and Chesterfield.
Youngkin’s recent moves have surprised some political observers, who would have expected him to have nailed down the GOP base by now and moved on to wooing suburban moderates in the mode of other blue-state Republican governors, such as Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.
Bannon’s appearance Wednesday in suburban territory where Trump has been toxic was a head-scratcher to some, particularly as a U.S. House Committee investigates Bannon’s potential role in seeking to overturn the 2020 election through the Jan. 6 insurrection.
On the eve of the riot, Bannon warned on his podcast: “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow . . . It’s all converging, and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow . . . And all I can say is: Strap in. You have made this happen, and tomorrow it’s game day.”
The committee subpoenaed him Sept. 23.
“I’m not sure what Steve Bannon in Henrico gets [Youngkin] other than to remind Democrats why they don’t like Republicans,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst. “He’s apparently in the process of defying a congressional subpoena — and proud of it. That’s sort of the curious part of this.”
But Holsworth said it’s possible that Youngkin has found a way to thread the pro-Trump/never-Trump needle, potentially pointing a way forward for other Republicans ahead of next year’s congressional midterms.
“He has not gone the full Larry Hogan, Charlie Baker route,” Holsworth said. “He’s tried to find culture-war issues that he thinks will play in the suburbs. He’s attempted to [win over] suburban defectors without a full distancing from Trumpism. That’s kind of the unique part of his candidacy. And if it works in Virginia, that is going to be very troubling to Democrats nationally.”
Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Youngkin may be able to pull off the balancing act — in part because his buttoned-down demeanor is nothing like Trump’s.
“He still doesn’t come off as scary in the way Trump did. He still has sort of a Mitt Romney and, they hope, Bob McDonnell vibe,” she said, referring to the last Republican to win statewide in Virginia, who won the governorship in 2009 on a pragmatic “Bob’s for jobs” slogan.
Events like the Bannon rally could easily go unnoticed by swing voters, who are more likely to see commercials pitching Youngkin as an apolitical business leader who wants to get his state on the right track, Taylor said.
“The overarching message still does not seem to be one of a full Trump embrace,” she said. “Are there signals he is sending out to conservatives? Yes. But if you are not a plugged-in voter and you’re just trying to decide, I’m not sure that’s what they’re going to see.”