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VA GOP bets on newcomer in gubernatorial race against McAuliffe

They didn’t go full MAGA, nor did they embrace the Never Trump wing of the GOP. They took a pass on the clear establishment candidate as well despite endorsements from the two most recent GOP governors. Virginia Republicans chose a middle path of sorts yesterday in their convention, selecting a newcomer to run in 2021’s only open gubernatorial election.

It took six rounds to choose Glenn Youngkin, thanks in part to ranked-choice voting. Republicans hope the former CEO of The Carlyle Group investment firm can lead them to reversing a dozen years of futility in Virginia’s statewide elections:

Youngkin’s win proved the efficacy of seeking a middle ground within the party between its MAGA and establishment wings. Will it be as successful with the general Virginia electorate?

Youngkin defeated a hard-right contender in state Sen. Amanda Chase, who closely aligned herself with former President Donald Trump, as well as an establishment candidate, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, who had more than 30 years’ experience in government as well as the endorsements of former governors George Allen and Bob McDonnell.

While Youngkin did not embrace Trump to the same extent as Chase, he spoke favorably of the former president during the campaign. He also made “election integrity” a top issue in his campaign, allowing him to appeal to Trump voters who still believe the 2020 election was stolen from him without having to invoke Trump’s name directly. …

Youngkin, a former CEO of The Carlyle Group investment firm, is making his first run for public office. He lent his campaign more than $5 million and spent more than any other candidate through March 31, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. He campaigned as a “conservative Christian outsider” and highlighted his business experience.

Interestingly, the MAGA candidate finished in third place. US News reports that Chase may consider an independent run if she feels the process was “unfair,” but it’s tough to see how much more this could have been styled for a grassroots win. Democrats will hold a primary, and had Republicans done the same, it might not have been as easy for a populist to gain traction. Conventions are won on organization, and the MAGA movement should have been ready for Chase. Instead, it appears that it fizzled out.

Democrats haven’t yet held their primary, but Terry McAuliffe seems like a shoe-in for the nomination. Despite a scandal in his previous term involving McAuliffe’s firm GreenTech and the Obama administration’s green-energy “investments,” McAuliffe left office in good enough shape to briefly consider a presidential run. Compared to the scandals of Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax, McAuliffe looks relatively normal, if not clean. If McAuliffe wins the nomination, the Democratic establishment will swing behind him enthusiastically, including what’s left of the Clinton establishment.

So … can Youngkin win in Virginia? Being a self-funder certainly doesn’t hurt, but it may not help in a cycle where the lack of other campaigns essentially nationalizes this election. The first task will be to unite the GOP, which might take Youngkin some time after a bruising primary process. He talked tough on “election integrity” and pandered to the “stop the steal” holdouts, but balked a bit on gun rights:

Youngkin has called for a tightening of Virginia’s voting laws, which were expanded when Democrats took control of the state legislature in 2020. His proposals include photo IDs for all ballots, an application to prove citizenship before casting mail-in ballots and two witness signatures for mail-in ballots.

Along with other GOP candidates, Youngkin railed against school closures amid the pandemic and vowed to defend law enforcement. He got blowback from some conservatives for not answering questionnaires sent by the National Rifle Association and the Virginia Citizens Defense League — a move some activists argued would precipitate a pivot on the issue in the general election.

Rich Anderson, chair of the state GOP, said the party would unite beyond its statewide candidates despite a campaign that was heavy on attack ads.

“That’s not just the party chairman with happy talk,” Anderson said in an interview Monday. “This is a pendulum business. A party can stay in power for only so long.”

Ahem. The states of California and New York are on line 1 for you, Mr. Anderson. Politics is a pendulum business to be sure, but in some instances that pendulum swings within parties rather than between them. The question is whether it’s too late for Republicans in Virginia. Not only has it been twelve years since the commonwealth elected a Republican to statewide office, it’s been 17 years since a Republican presidential candidate received a majority of votes (George W. Bush got 53.68% in his re-election bid). In two tries, Donald Trump didn’t get to 45% in Virginia, although Hillary Clinton just narrowly missed getting a majority in 2016.

Before 2004, the last Democrat to carry Virginia was Lyndon Johnson. That’s how much Virginia has changed, and that has largely come in the Northern Virginia or NOVA area of the commonwealth. That area has benefited immensely from the expansion of federal government, either with agencies themselves or their contractors locating in NOVA. It’s tough to get them to bite the big-government hand that feeds them. That is an entrenched change, and small-government rhetoric falls on deaf ears in a vote-rich area which Republicans have yet to successfully penetrate.

Youngkin could be the candidate to succeed, but he’ll need more than big ad buys to do it. He will have to sell his campaign on the ground by tying his agenda more to smart government than small government, at least in NOVA, and hope that McAuliffe’s big-business and government ties don’t eclipse that message. The odds are small, but they are not yet non-existent.