It’s been a delicate balancing act for businessman Glenn Youngkin as he seeks to cope with sharply polarized positions on Donald Trump, abortion and the COVID-19 crisis to become Virginia’s first Republican governor in nearly a decade.
Endorsed by Trump in a four-candidate GOP nominating contest, Youngkin has sought to avoid any identification in the general election with the former president, who lost Virginia by 10 points last year.
And after mirroring the stances of other Republican governors like Texas’ Greg Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis in opposing mandates requiring COVID vaccines and masks for students, he ran a TV ad urging all Virginians to get vaccinated.
The awkwardness of his positions was evident last week when Youngkin met his favored Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in the first of their two scheduled debates at the Appalachian School of Law in rural Grundy, Va.
Youngkin needs to energize the Trump GOP base and appeal to northern Virginia moderates. But he may have complicated both by rejecting the former president’s contention the Virginia election could be rigged and backing new restrictions on abortion, though he rejected the strict new Texas law.
More importantly, he stuck with his anti-mandate stance (shown just this week in a new Fox News poll to represent a minority viewpoint nationally) while trying to offset that by urging all Virginians to get vaccinated.
Throughout the campaign, McAuliffe has sought to link Youngkin, a political newcomer, with the former president, calling him a “Trump wannabe” and citing his calls for election integrity in a state with no history of improprieties.
But the GOP hopeful said he disagrees with Trump’s unproven claims about the 2020 election — “I’ve said over and over again that Joe Biden is our president. I wish he wasn’t.” And he rejected the former president’s contention that the Virginia election could be rigged.
“I do not believe there’s been significant election fraud in Virginia elections,” he said. Like McAuliffe, he said he would accept the result, however close.
On other issues, Youngkin was less direct.
While rejecting the new Texas abortion law, it took several questions from the moderator before he acknowledged he favors a “pain threshold bill,” which would curb Virginia’s law allowing unlimited abortions through two trimesters, or 26 weeks.
Advocates use that term to ban abortion when a fetus is thought able to feel pain, believed to be about 20 weeks. (Full disclosure: the debate moderator was Susan Page of USA TODAY, who is my wife.)
McAuliffe backs Virginia’s current law and said he supports allowing a single doctor to permit a third trimester abortion to protect the mother’s life, instead of the current requirement of three doctors, because of a doctor shortage in rural areas.
On vaccinations, Youngkin said several times that everyone should get anti-COVID shots but sided with Republican governors who criticized Biden’s call to mandate businesses and schools to require vaccinations.
“I don’t think President Biden has the authority to dictate we have the vaccine,” he said.
McAuliffe said he favors requiring vaccinations for school children over 12 and, when authorized, for younger ones. “He’s not requiring vaccine,” McAuliffe said. “That’s the difference between the two of us.”
Earlier this month, when asked in a radio interview if he would follow the leads of DeSantis and Abbott in trying to prevent local school boards from requiring masks, Youngkin said, “there should be no mask mandates in Virginia.”
The state’s outgoing Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, has taken the position that state law requires Virginia to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for students and staff to wear masks in school buildings.
Democrats believe the recent California recall election shows rejecting mandates for vaccinations and masks could hurt Youngkin.
California exit polls showed the voters, who handily refused to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, agreed by 2-to-1 that getting vaccinated was more a health public responsibility than a personal choice, the position of many top Republicans. More than 70 percent said they favored mask mandates in schools.
California is about 10 points more Democratic than Virginia. In 2020, Biden carried Virginia with 54 percent, and California with more than 63 percent.
Still, Youngkin faces an uphill race in the once Republican-controlled state, which recently has voted steadily more Democratic. No GOP statewide candidate has won since Republican Bob McDonnell was elected governor in 2009.
On the other hand, public and private polling show the contest is close, the Democrats may be suffering from Biden’s declining national numbers, and Virginia has a history of rejecting the party that won the prior presidential election.
Since 1977, every Virginia governor’s race has gone to the party that lost the presidency a year before — with one exception. In 2013, McAuliffe was narrowly elected the year after President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Northam won in 2017 when McAuliffe stepped down because Virginia limits governors to a single four-year term. He hopes to become the second modern governor to regain the office. Mills Godwin, elected as a Democrat in 1965, won again as a Republican in 1973.
Because of that history, Virginia’s result will be closely watched though past elections have a mixed record in predicting future national trends. This year’s only other gubernatorial race is in New Jersey, where incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy is heavily favored for re-election.