Youngkin's new tack may preview what's to come from other Republicans tasked with winning swing voters in midterm elections next year, when the party is hoping to retake control of Congress. After months of GOP leaders and activists demanding allegiance to Trump and rewriting history on the 2020 election, Youngkin's race could test whether Republicans can still distance themselves from the former president's lies about the election.
“Sometimes, when you spoon with an issue like that, it’s hard to get out of bed with it," said Denver Riggleman, a former Virginia Republican congressman who is now a Trump critic.
In recent weeks, most top national Republicans have not appeared worried about getting too close to Trump. The party's House members took the extraordinary step of ousting Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from a leadership post for repudiating Trump's false claims of election fraud. They also mostly opposed the creation of a 9/11-style commission to investigate the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Prior to winning the GOP nomination last week, Youngkin appeared to be onboard with his national party. He refused to publicly answer a number of direct questions about the legitimacy of the election of Biden, who carried Virginia by a comfortable 10 points. He formed an “election integrity” task force, called safeguarding balloting a “top priority" and campaigned with Cruz.
After besting six primary rivals, many of whom were more pro-Trump, Youngkin is now openly acknowledging that Biden's election wasn't marred by fraud.
“Joe Biden was legitimately elected our president," he said on Fox Business last week.
That may put Youngkin out of step with many in his party, but it gets him closer to voters he needs to win over. A poll released in February by Virginia’s Christopher Newport University found that 61% of Republicans, but just 19% of independents statewide, said Biden didn't win November's election legitimately.
A Youngkin adviser, who discussed campaign strategy on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the necessity of retaining Trump loyalists while still winning more centrist voters. Youngkin won't bring in conservative figures, like Cruz, to vouch for him, but his fundamental message as the pro-business outsider won’t change, the adviser said.
“It’s a test case of whether Republicans can find a way of uniting Trump’s base with suburban voters that have defected from the party, and Youngkin is probably the best candidate they could have chosen to do that,” said Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political consultant who has served on bipartisan boards and commissions. “But, to do that, they have to do something other than emphasize the issues that won him the nomination.”
Holsworth said that, in addition to embracing false claims of election fraud, other signature Trump issues, like promises to ”drain the swamp," never played well in Virginia — where the northern part of the state's Washington suburbs and other areas have economies dependent on the federal bureaucracy.
"What he did was, he drained Northern Virginia of Republicans,” Holswroth said.
The Democratic gains that began there have creeped to all of Virginia’s largest metropolitan areas, part of a deeper rejection of the Republican Party under Trump in suburbs nationwide.
They have even begun to include places like forest- and reservoir-dotted Lanexa, where camping and hiking overshadows politics. With a population of barely 5,000, the community straddles the counties of New Kent — which Trump won by 35 percentage points — and James City County, where an increasingly suburban population helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in 50-plus years.
Jen Tierney, chairwoman of the James City County Democratic Party, said that, before November, a group of Republican veterans switched sides and helped mobilize voters for Biden — and she’s worried they are the kinds of Virginians who could now flip back to the GOP.
She thinks the Republicans' internal fights over the 2020 election might prevent that, though. It's good "for people to see that the Republican Party, it’s not mainstream anymore,” Tierney said. "They are allowing the tail to wag the dog because they need those most ardent Trump folks."
Tom Miller, corresponding secretary of the New Kent County Republican Committee, said he supports some of Youngkin's election integrity proposals — including voter ID requirements — though he observed presidential election ballot counting and saw nothing "even close to lack of integrity.” But he also said Virginia voters aren't likely to let questions about the 2020 presidential race effect how they vote for governor.
“The Liz Cheney thing?," Miller asked. "Who gives a crap?”
Democrats will try to make them care, and there are signs of concern among Republicans facing tough races next year.
Thirty five GOP House members defied their party and voted to support the commission on the Capitol attack, including some from swing districts and others whose territory includes fast-growing suburban areas. Republican Rep. Rob Wittman, who represents James City and New Kent counties, did not join.
Virginia Democrats won't choose their gubernatorial nominee until next month, but the Democratic Governor's Association is already running digital ads linking Youngkin to Trump's claims about the election. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the frontrunner for that nomination, has tweeted that Youngkin is a “Big Lie believing Trump loyalist.”
“If you’re not focused on jobs and improving the quality of schools” rather than “ideological agendas” then “you’re going to lose,” said former House majority leader Eric Cantor, who represented parts of New Kent County but lost his seat in a 2014 primary upset.
Youngkin's team points to his fundraising success — $1 million since winning his party's nomination — as validation of his strategy.
After Youngkin won the nomination, Trump issued a relatively routine, written endorsement, rather than scheduling a high-profile Virginia visit. Still, the former president's shadow is likely to loom large over the race.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said during Virginia's last governor's race, Republicans had a “reasonable, articulate, professional, smart” candidate in Ed Gillespie, who got "blown out of the water in northern Virginia by voters trying to send Donald Trump a message.”
“Maybe some of those voters shift back,” Ayres said. ”But it would take a lot of them.”
Barrow reported from Atlanta.