A specter haunts the Democratic Party — the possibility of a Glenn Youngkin victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
The former businessman and political neophyte is running neck and neck with Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Democratic fixture who is seeking a return to the governor’s mansion after serving one term from 2014 to 2018.
It’s a jump-ball race in what’s become a blue state, and McAuliffe, who has called in seemingly every Democrat with a national profile the past few days, might yet pull it out.
A Youngkin victory, though, would be significant. It wouldn’t just send tremors of fear through Democrats nationally, it would point to a viable path ahead for the GOP in swing areas.
To be sure, no race is completely replicable, and candidate quality matters. Youngkin is hardly a once-in-a-generation political talent, but he’s proved an adept and winsome campaigner. On the other hand, McAuliffe, ordinarily one of the most irrepressible personalities in American politics, has of late seemed exhausted, desperate, and afraid.
If Youngkin pulls it off, his sidestepping of Donald Trump will have been a huge factor. In a state like Virginia, you can’t be anti-Trump and win a GOP nomination, nor can you be too vocally pro-Trump and win a statewide election.
Youngkin walked this tightrope in large part by making mighty exertions to define himself in his own right. For the longest time, he ran only biographical ads, talking of his work in a diner as a teenager, his basketball scholarship, his business, and his four kids.
He got criticized for running an issueless campaign, but the spate of bio advertising meant his answer to the question, “Are you pro- or anti-Trump?” could be, “I’m Glenn Youngkin, nice-guy dad.”
It is a tribute to the success of Youngkin’s self-branding that Democrats now have to basically say, “Never mind that relatable exterior, consider the monster that lurks within.”
In his campaign stop in Virginia, President Joe Biden took a shot at Youngkin’s signature sartorial choice. He warned of multiple forms of extremism: “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.”
Those are two vastly different things, though — it’s going to be much easier to make people fear a rabble than a political candidate whose alleged extremism consists of politely but forcefully advocating a fairly standard center-right agenda. Indeed, in politics, once you have to concede that an opponent seems nonthreatening, you’ve lost half the battle.
Youngkin has studiously avoided the electoral poison of a backward-looking obsession with the 2020 election. He was cagey about 2020 during the Republican nomination battle, then acknowledged the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.
On the issues, he has fought hard on the typical Democratic turf of health care and especially education, where a Youngkin win would signal a breakthrough for the GOP, showing that the educational fights that have mostly been playing out at the local level have state-level and perhaps national purchase.
Youngkin, who leads among independents, clearly has traction in the suburbs. His approach has been to give suburban voters a “permission slip” to support him by making himself broadly acceptable through his biography and demeanor. On top of this, he’s associated himself with the suburban revolt against school boards, most famously in Loudoun County, and talked up a cost-of-living-oriented economic agenda.
It’s been easier for Youngkin to forge his own path in a state-level race, where the right Republican candidates can overcome blue electorates (see Governor Larry Hogan in neighboring Maryland). But if he wins, it will show that some of the terrain that Democrats picked up during the Trump years can be clawed back, that the GOP needn’t yoke itself mindlessly to Trump’s vulnerabilities, and that the midterms next year look particularly bleak for the Democrats.
Yes, they should fear the fleece.
© 2021 by King Features Syndicate
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