Virginia GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin tries to pivot away from Trump — but there's nowhere to go

Youngkin went all-in on the culture war and Trump’s Big Lie in GOP primary. Now he's learning that might cost him

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 24, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) speaks during a campaign event on July 14, 2021 in McLean, Virginia. Youngkin is running against former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) speaks during a campaign event on July 14, 2021 in McLean, Virginia. Youngkin is running against former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Virginia's crucial off-off-year election, was caught on video saying he has to keep his anti-abortion views quiet to avoid alienating independent voters. His super PAC, however, has showered cash on down-ballot Republicans with extreme anti-choice views.

Youngkin, a longtime executive at the private equity firm the Carlyle Group who has spent millions of his own money to fund his first foray into politics, has scrubbed his website of public statements declaring himself "unabashedly" pro-life and has even tried to distance himself from Donald Trump, in hopes of winning over a Virginia electorate that has steadily trended blue in recent years.

During the Republican primary campaign, Youngkind vowed to "protect the life of every Virginia child, born and unborn," but admitted more recently that he has gone quiet on the issue because it could cost him independent votes. That was revealed in an undercover video obtained by Lauren Windsor, host of the web show "The Undercurrent" and executive director of American Family Voices, a liberal advocacy group.

"I'm going to be really honest with you. The short answer is in this campaign, I can't," Youngkin said in the video, which was first obtained by The American Independent and MSNBC, when asked if he would defund Planned Parenthood and "take it to the abortionists."

"When I'm governor and I have a majority in the House we can start going on offense," he said. "But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won't win my independent votes that I have to get."

In another video, Youngkin acknowledged that the Republican position is increasingly at odds with moderate voters.

"We're going after those middle 1 million voters who are, sadly, gonna decide this — have decided elections for the last 10 to 12 years in Virginia, and they've moved a bit away from us," he said. "We're going to get them. We just got back a whole bunch of data today, and we're winning this group. This is the group that we have to go get."

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Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, told Salon she was "shocked" that Youngkin "admitted that he's deceiving Virginians to get their votes, flip the legislature, and strip us of essential health care."

Days later, Youngkin again avoided any discussion of abortion at a campaign event aimed at women voters with former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, refusing to answer questions on the topic even as Planned Parenthood supporters protested outside the event.

"Youngkin's candid-camera moment will be fodder for the Democrats throughout the campaign," Mark J. Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told Salon. "It's not just that he admitted he supports an unpopular view in Virginia on abortion, but that he admitted that what he says to try to get elected is different from what he will do if elected. The issue becomes not only abortion rights, but trust. If he seeks to beguile voters on this issue, what about other ones? It was a classic rookie campaign mistake."

Youngkin's campaign denied that he is hiding his views.

"This deceptively recorded audio demonstrates that Glenn Youngkin tells everyone he meets the same thing: he is pro-life, supports exceptions for rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger, supports funding for women's health care, and opposes Terry McAuliffe's extreme agenda of taxpayer funding for abortion, including late-term abortions even on the day a baby is due," campaign spokesman Matt Wolking said in a statement to Salon.

Anti-abortion advocates did not seem too worried after the Youngkin video was released, since he had assured evangelical voters that he would "oppose laws that allow women to seek abortions," according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"He's not being squishy because we already have him on record saying this stuff," Don Blake, president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, told the Washington Post.

Democrats are likely to feature Youngkin's comment in countless campaign ads this fall.

"It reminded me of Romney's 47% comment," Ben Tribbett, a longtime Virginia Democratic consultant, said in an interview with Salon. "It's the kind of thing that's gonna haunt him all the way through the election, undercutting his ability to move to the middle and be a moderate, because he's basically announced that he's not going to be forthright with people. That is a really bad place for an undefined politician to be."  

Virginia has not voted for a Republican in a statewide race in more than a decade and Democrats won full control of the state legislature in 2019. So it's easy to see why Youngkin would want to shy away from expressing increasingly unpopular positions. But his financial contributions would seem to speak for themselves.

Youngkin earlier this year launched the Virginia Wins PAC and made a seven-figure commitment to fund "Republican candidates for every level of government" to try to reverse the state's leftward shift. Many of those GOP candidates hold extreme anti-abortion views. The PAC's campaign finance disclosure shows that Youngkin was its only financial backer, making a $400,000 contribution in March.

"Glenn Youngkin and his extreme allies are threatening to drag Virginia backwards," Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, said in a statement to Salon. "With Republicans across the country fighting to overturn Roe v. Wade and a right-wing Supreme Court poised to do so, Virginia's next governor must be committed to protecting the right to choose."

Financial disclosures show that Youngkin's PAC has donated at least $33,500 to anti-choice down-ballot Republicans.

Virginia Wins has given $5,500 to support state House candidate Karen Greenhalgh, a former manager at a chain of so-called pregnancy crisis centers, which often trick women seeking abortions into going to "fake clinics" where they are dissuaded from the procedure, sometimes in misleading ways. Greenhalgh has called for a broad range of restrictions on health care facilities that provide abortions.

The PAC also donated $1,500 to Republican state House candidate Tim Anderson, a gun shop owner who has vowed to fight legislation that he says would allow for the "murder of a sustainable baby" and called for more Supreme Court justices like Amy Coney Barrett "to keep extreme ideas like abortions at any stage from becoming law." If elected, he has vowed to donate 100% of his government salary to pregnancy crisis centers.

Youngkin's PAC has steered $3,000 to back Tim Cox, who supports legislation "prohibiting abortion from [the] moment of conception," defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing a bill passed last year to allow coverage of abortion under the state's Obamacare exchange plans.

The PAC sent another $3,000 donation recipient to Carrie Coyner, who has criticized insurance coverage of abortion procedures and vowed to fight for a measure that "blocks the use of state money for abortion." Coyner, a first-term member of the House of Delegates, has consistently voted against rolling back abortion restrictions in the state.

The PAC has also doled out $5,500 to "pro-life" Republican Mike Cherry; $5,500 to Nick Clemente, who has pledged to defund Planned Parenthood; $3,000 to Maria Martin, who says she is running to "protect the unborn"; $3,000 to Sylvia Bryant, who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood; $3,000 to Roxann Robinson, who voted against lifting abortion restrictions; and $3,000 to Steve Pleickhardt, who supports defunding Planned Parenthood and banning abortions after 20 weeks.

"Youngkin says he wants to go 'on offense' and these Republican candidates his PAC is supporting, if elected, would be his teammates in passing extreme anti-abortion legislation," Lockhart said. "They not only would move to rebuild the recently repealed obstacle course of delays and restrictions to access abortion care, but they would seek to pass a radical abortion ban like the one in Texas, which banned abortion at six weeks, before many people even know they are pregnant."

Abortion could be front and center during the campaign's climax this fall, when the Supreme Court is also set to review Mississippi's bid to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"With the Supreme Court taking up a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights are under threat like never before," Lockhart said, arguing that data suggests 79% of Virginians "support legal access to abortion and believe that the government should not prevent a woman from making her own health care decisions."

Youngkin's abortion slip-up highlights the larger difficulties the increasingly conservative Republican Party has in winning over voters in a state that has consistently moved to the left over the last decade. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is now seeking a second term four years after his first one (Virginia prohibits incumbent governors from running for re-election), won his first election in 2013 by just 2.5 percentage points. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in his 2014 race by less than a point.

But Virginia has seen a massive increase in Democratic voters in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., and moved sharply away from Republicans after Trump's 2016 victory, electing Gov. Ralph Northam over Gillespie in 2017 by eight points, reelecting Warner by 12 points in 2020, and backing President Joe Biden by a 10-point margin. In 2019, Virginians also elected a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, giving the party full control of state government for the first time since 1994.

Trump "said he wanted to drain the swamp in Washington but what he did was drain Virginia Republicans," Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst, told Salon in an interview. "For the Democrats, Trump has been a godsend — and he's been a millstone around the necks of Virginia Republicans."

Given those political dynamics, it's not surprising that Trump has become a focal point in the race after anti-Trump sentiment cost Republicans the gubernatorial race in 2017 and especially "after Jan. 6," as Whit Ayres, a longtime Virginia Republican consultant, said in an interview with Salon.

Voter turnout "surged by over 500,000 votes" in the 2017 race and that increase was "largely minorities, millennials, college-educated suburban women in Northern Virginia," Ayres said. "So for Mr. Youngkin to have a shot, he has to do better than Gillespie did among the Northern Virginia suburbs."

Trump has thrown his full support behind Youngkin, giving him his "Complete and Total Endorsement" hours after Youngkin defeated six other Republicans, including one who had dubbed herself "Trump in heels." Youngkin said he was "honored" to have Trump's support but has seemingly tried to distance himself from the former president since then, even releasing an ad seeking to tie Terry McAuliffe to Trump by highlighting a $25,000 campaign donation he received from Trump in 2009.

But Youngkin's attempt to link his Democratic opponent to Trump, according to Rozell, "makes no sense at all."

"No one is going to believe that McAuliffe is aligned with Trump," Rozell said, "and Youngkin risks alienating the still-sizable Trump base in the GOP by distancing himself from the former president."

Trump appears to have gotten the message that Youngkin is trying to push him away, and earlier this month released another statement with a distinctly different tone, saying that Ed Gillespie — the defeated 2017 nominee — ran for governor without "'embracing' MAGA or the America First movement" and that as a result Trump's base "didn't come out for Gillespie."

That appears to be a warning to Youngkin, which as Holsworth observed, puts him in a political bind. "To win in the Northern Virginia suburbs, especially, he's going to have to find a way to distance himself from Trump," he said. "But if he does so too visibly, you can be certain Trump will respond."

It may be difficult for Youngkin to shed Trump's toxicity in the state. Youngkin refused to acknowledge Biden as the legitimate president during the Republican primary, and has since promoted an "Election Integrity Task Force" in an obvious nod to Trump's false claims of election fraud.

"Trump represents so much of why I'm running," Youngkin told voters during the primary as he pushed to enact voting restrictions.  

"It's always a challenge to pivot from a primary campaign to a general election campaign," Ayres said, "particularly in a state that leans blue like Virginia."

As for McAuliffe, he has been more than happy to see Trump become involved in the race, even offering to pay for the former president to fly to Virginia to campaign for Youngkin. His campaign responded to Youngkin's ad by launching its first TV ad labeling the Republican a Trump "loyalist."

Threading a needle between Trump's base and the independent voters he needs to win over, Youngkin has had difficulty forming a legitimate campaign platform. He has repeatedly criticized Biden's COVID relief bill as "unnecessary," opposed a minimum wage increase to $15, and opposed paid family and medical leave. He has slammed the state's Medicaid expansion while calling for expanded gun rights.

But some of his hardline rhetoric has disappeared from his website, as the Washington Post reported, and he has focused increasingly on culture-war issues like "critical race theory" in education, which Ayres described as a "smart move," saying that education issues "play very well for Republican candidates in the suburban areas where they need to do far better than they've done in the past couple of elections."

Democrats have repeatedly highlighted that Youngkin does not even have an issues page on his campaign site and accused him of "hiding" after he became the first gubernatorial nominee in more than three decades to skip the Virginia Bar Association debate. His campaign objected to "PBS NewsHour" host Judy Woodruff as the moderator, supposedly because she once donated $250 to the Clinton Foundation's Haiti earthquake relief fund.

Tribbett said the Woodruff excuse was "absurd" and an attempt to "distract people from the narrative that he doesn't want to debate."

"Youngkin isn't quite ready for prime time. That's why he's not debating now," he said. "It's very clear that he doesn't feel like he's ready right now. He's not taking questions from journalists. This is stuff that he should have sorted out months ago when he was seeking the Republican nomination, because coming into a general election like this is just inexcusable from a campaign perspective. He spent millions and millions of dollars on that nomination contest and then came into the general — and three months in, he still can't put up an issues page on his website. I mean, it's just sort of sad."

Virginia Republican insiders have recently expressed "consternation" about whether Youngkin has surrounded himself with too many "Cruz and Trump people," wondering if he really has a "Virginia-based platform," Holsworth said.

In theory, Youngkin's personal wealth and lack of a political track record should make him well suited to pivot in the general election, but as Republican primary voters and candidates continue to move further right, it will be more difficult to tread back to the middle. Some early 2022 Republican primary races have already devolved into contests over which candidate can out-Trump the competition, something that will be difficult to walk back in a general election race — especially facing the threat of criticism from Trump himself if a Republican drifts too far from his agenda.

"The Virginia GOP believed that they found exactly the right candidate to appeal to the conservative base while appearing moderate enough to win over swing voters," Rozell said. "Youngkin himself to this point is having trouble trying to appeal to both groups of voters."

Tribbett agreed that Youngkin "did a lot of things right" in the primary by positioning himself as the best general election candidate, but said that narrative is now "falling flat."

"Anytime you take a position that's not exactly what the Trump position is, you're trying to thread a needle," he said. "I think he's just been paralyzed in fear of alienating his base, so he's not really attempted to thread the needle but also hasn't energized the base. I can't think of a worse place for a candidate to be: someone who's not energizing their own base and is afraid to reach out to moderates and independents."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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