Former President Donald Trump’s splash dive into the Virginia governor’s race on Wednesday has come at an unhelpful time for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin.
Trump inserted himself into the Virginia contest with the help of his former adviser Steve Bannon, who held a Wednesday rally for Youngkin in the Richmond suburbs. Trump called into the event and once again endorsed Youngkin, a candidate he has previously backed but also criticized for not welcoming his support enthusiastically enough.
Trump’s involvement in the event, however, almost seemed part of a larger plan to divert attention away from Youngkin, who polls show is within striking distance of Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, and back to the former president.
In a bizarre twist, attendees at the Bannon rally also recited the Pledge of Allegiance while facing an American flag that appeared to be used as a quasi-religious object memorializing the Jan. 6 insurrection. Organizers said the flag had been carried by someone who traveled to Washington on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters launched a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election after Trump implored them to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” At Wednesday’s rally, an organizer claimed the flag was held at a “peaceful rally.”
And on Thursday, Bannon was again in the news, as the Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection said they would be voting next week to refer him to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution for refusing to honor a subpoena.
McAuliffe quickly seized on the insertion of Trump and his allies into the race. “Glenn Youngkin needs to disavow the insurrection,” McAuliffe said in a hastily arranged Zoom press conference Thursday morning with reporters. “I would love to hear my opponent say what they did on the Capitol grounds on January 6 is unacceptable. ... Say the January 6 insurrection was wrong.”
Later in the day, with social media still buzzing over the flag incident, Youngkin released a written statement. “It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6,” it read. “As I have said many times before, the violence that occurred on January 6 was sickening and wrong."
While the rally’s Jan. 6 leitmotif came as an unwelcome link between the Republican candidate and the former president’s attempt to overturn his election loss, Youngkin did his best to place the blame on McAuliffe, who he said “wants to talk about the past because he sees this race is slipping away from him.”
Indeed, McAuliffe has for months tried to make Trump a central issue in the governor’s race, but with limited success until Wednesday. Youngkin had done enough to satisfy Trump supporters but also kept his distance from the former president, who continues to promote election falsehoods.
“I don’t think the Trump stuff has worked on [Youngkin] to date because he just doesn’t come across that way,” Tucker Martin, who worked as an aide to former Gov. Bob McDonnell, told Yahoo News. Martin said the question for Youngkin as the campaign enters the final stretch before Election Day on Nov. 2, is how long Trump remains a focus in the race.
Trump is a toxic figure in key areas of the state: the highly populous northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs, the Richmond metropolitan area, and parts of the Hampton Roads and Norfolk areas. He turns off moderate Republicans and independents, and perhaps more important for Democrats, Trump has proven to be an effective way to get large numbers of Democratic voters out to the polls.
In the 2017 governor’s race that was won by current Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is limited by state constitution to one term in office, Northam received almost 100,000 more votes in northern Virginia than McAuliffe in 2013 (when McAuliffe won the governorship), and Republican turnout actually went down in that part of the state.
Northam, who served in the Army and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, also won in areas such as Virginia Beach, a region with a heavy military presence, and where McAuliffe lost in 2013, before Trump’s arrival on the political landscape.
And in 2020, Trump lost Virginia to President Biden by a 10-point margin.
But Trump is no longer in office, and some moderate Republicans and independents have been turned off by the leftward turn of the Virginia Legislature, another consequence of the 2017 election. President Biden’s slumping approval numbers and a stalled Democratic agenda on Capitol Hill may also depress turnout from Democrats, who have expressed a desire to tune out from politics now that Trump is out of office.
That’s why Trump’s star turn in the Virginia race on Wednesday and Thursday could prove important. Not everyone sees it that way, however. His addition to the local news cycle on Thursday is “ephemeral,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican delegate in the Legislature who now runs Virginia Free, a business advocacy group. “[It] won’t move many who have yet to vote. Economic issues are starting to dominate and independents have shifted,” Saxman told Yahoo News.
Inflation, the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic and Biden’s chaotic pullout from Afghanistan have turned the tide for voters who may have pulled the lever for Republicans before Trump but could not stomach the former president, Saxman said.
Nervous Democrats are now bringing in the big guns to campaign in the state, which will further nationalize the race and potentially draw more interest from Trump. Stacey Abrams of Georgia will campaign with McAuliffe on Sunday, and former President Barack Obama will campaign with McAuliffe on Oct. 23. McAuliffe has said Biden will appear in the state on his behalf, though no date has yet been announced.
If the Trump news cycle is not momentary, it will serve to motivate and activate many of the voters in northern Virginia who helped Biden win in 2020 and pushed Northam to victory in 2017. And at that point, the only thing that might prevent Trump from losing the race for Youngkin is the former private equity CEO’s country club appeal, political outsider status and personal charisma.
On the other hand, he may be hoping to get Trump back out of the pool as quickly as possible.
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