Virginia GOP nominee's independence from Trump up for debate

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — If Glenn Youngkin was looking to pivot back to the political center after winning the GOP’s nomination for governor in Virginia, Donald Trump made it a little tougher by giving the nominee a big bearhug of an endorsement.

“Glenn is pro-Business, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Veterans, pro-America, he knows how to make Virginia’s economy rip-roaring, and he has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump said in a written statement issued the day after Republicans declared Youngkin the victor in their May 8 nominating convention.

Virginia Republicans chose Youngkin, a political newcomer, over six rivals. In doing so, they snubbed the most overtly pro-Trump candidate, state Sen. Amanda Chase, who gladly accepted the moniker of “Trump in heels.”

Chase finished a distant third.

Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who is now rector of George Mason University, said Youngkin’s nomination shows Virginia Republicans were more concerned about electability than fealty to Trump.

“It’s not that he threw Trump under the bus, but there were other candidates who ran campaigns that were just focused all on Trump, and they lost,” Davis said. “I think Youngkin’s in a good position to be his own guy.”

Davis also pointed to the nominations of Winsome Sears for lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares for attorney general as evidence that Republicans were focused on winning in the fall.

“They’ve got a bazillionaire, a Black woman and a Latino running at the top of the ticket,” he said. “It’s hard to even put that together in a back room. It’s a very strong ticket and it puts a lot of pressure on Democrats.”

Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia, acknowledged that Youngkin was not the most pro-Trump candidate in the field, but he said Youngkin still tied himself too closely to the former president to be viable in the general election in a state where Trump is deeply unpopular with moderates and lost by 10 points last year. He described the GOP candidates as “Trump-y, Trumpier and Trumpiest,” with Youngkin as the “Trump-y” candidate,

Sabato said people who knew Youngkin well told him at the outset of the campaign to expect Youngkin to position himself as a moderate.

“It didn’t turn out that way,” Sabato said. “I understand they thought they had to do it to win the nomination, when it turns out they really didn’t. … But now he’s stuck with the positions he took and the endorsements he’s received.”

Sabato said that not only is Trump’s endorsement a kiss of death in a general election, but Youngkin’s decision to campaign with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the days leading up to the nominating convention is equally unappealing to the political center. Sabato said that as much as Youngkin will try to run back to the center, Democrats won’t let it happen.

“Most people still don’t know who Youngkin is, can’t pronounce his name and know nothing about him,” Sabato said.

He expects the campaign of Terry McAuliffe, the front-runner in a five-candidate Democratic primary to be held next month, will define him as a Trump loyalist before Youngkin can define himself.

Indeed, the McAuliffe campaign pounced on Trump’s endorsement, in which Trump went out of his way to take a shot at McAuliffe, referring to him as “the Clintons’ bagman.”

“Glenn Youngkin spent his campaign fawning all over Donald Trump, and now Trump has returned the favor by wholeheartedly endorsing him,” McAuliffe said in a statement issued after Trump’s endorsement.

Youngkin, for his part, sought to address criticism that he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s victory. His campaign circulated an excerpt from an interview with Bloomberg Radio in which he was asked if Biden’s win was legitimate, and Youngkin responded “Of course! He’s our president. He slept in the White House last night. He’s addressed a Joint Session of Congress. He’s signing executive orders that I wish he wasn’t signing. So, let’s look forward and just recognize that what we have to do is lead.”

Youngkin was more circumspect during the primary; He made “election integrity” a top issue in his campaign, which many people saw as a wink-and-a-nod to Trump supporters who falsely believed their candidate was cheated. In a March interview with The Associated Press, Youngkin compared Republican’s concerns about the 2020 election to those raised by some Hillary Clinton supporters after her narrow loss in 2016.

“It’s an issue that’s been raised by both parties for 10 years,” Youngkin said.

As for Trump’s endorsement, Youngkin said he is “honored” to receive it.

Youngkin and the Democratic nominee will square off in November in the only open-seat race for governor in the country this year. Republicans have not won statewide in Virginia since 2009, but the GOP typically fares well in years following Democratic presidential victories.