When Del. Jason Miyares, a former prosecutor and son of a Cuban immigrant, defeated a more right-wing challenger to become the Virginia GOP’s nominee for attorney general, Democrats wasted no time labeling him a “right-wing extremist.”
The next day, when wealthy businessman Glenn Youngkin won the Republican nomination for governor in a field that included polarizing, devotedly pro-Trump Sen. Amanda Chase, the Democratic Party of Virginia called Youngkin a “pro-Trump extremist.”
And when former Del. Winsome Sears, a Marine veteran and the first Black woman ever elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican, defeated more mainstream opponents to become the GOP’s pick for lieutenant governor, Democrats called her a fringe character and “the most radical far-right Republican candidate in the race.”
Despite the early efforts to paint the Republicans’ 2021 ticket as an overwhelming lurch to the right, the slate isn’t nearly as extreme as it might’ve been. Instead of Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer in a state former President Donald Trump lost twice, she logged off and went to the beach.
After failing to win a statewide election since 2009, some Republicans say they feel surprisingly good about where the party stands coming out of a chaotic unassembled convention marked by procedural confusion, mysterious attack ads and infighting.
“I think some of the ebullience you see in Republicans right now is that this could’ve been very bad. And it turned into the exact opposite,” said Shaun Kenney, a former Republican Party of Virginia executive director who has criticized fringe elements in the party. “But it’s more than just a sigh of relief. It’s like we finally know where we’re headed.”
Three unsuccessful candidates for governor — entrepreneur Pete Snyder, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, and former Department of Defense official Sergio de la Peña — joined Youngkin at a post-convention rally in Richmond this week. Youngkin said he had also spoken to Chase, who repeatedly floated the possibility of running as an independent and suggested the party’s novel unassembled convention was a ploy to deny her a grassroots-powered win, without going into detail on how that conversation went.
Perhaps the most significant post-convention development was Trump’s instant endorsement of Youngkin, a move that allowed Democrats to portray Youngkin as firmly entrenched in the GOP’s Trumpist wing in a state where Republicans holding competitive suburban seats have been decimated in the Trump era. Democrats have also pointed out it was only a small sliver of conservatives, a little more than 30,000 voters, who picked the Republican ticket for an election that will be decided by millions of Virginians.
“This Trump endorsement is going to be the first thing many of these millions of voters learn about Glenn Youngkin,” said Marshall Cohen, political director for the Democratic Governors Association. “And they’re not going to like it.”
The endorsement also let Republicans solidify the Trump base early and move on with the campaign without unresolved questions about the ex-president’s involvement looming over the race.
Republicans also say they’re optimistic about the change vs. more-of-the-same contrast they expect to be able to draw with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the heavy favorite in the five-person Democratic gubernatorial primary that will be held on June 8.
“What we need isn’t another politician. Or worse, the same politician,” Youngkin said in a general-election video ad released the day after his victory.
Given the possibilities of a badly splintered party or a nominee destined for a blowout loss, Kenney said he was surprised be the amount of energy behind Youngkin.
“It really does seem like we have a Virginia gentleman here that really is galvanizing the base,” Kenney said. “You’re not finding the old dichotomy between Trump supporter and Never Trump. Everyone’s behind Glenn.”
At a new conference Thursday on Capitol Square, Democrats narrowed their focus from broad charges of extremism to specific policy criticisms, zeroing in on Youngkin’s emphasis on voting restrictions during his primary campaign.
“The only policy plan Glenn Youngkin put forward during his campaign for the nomination was a phony election integrity plan where he outlined his steps to suppress the vote in Virginia,” said J.J. Minor, a party activist and son of Del. Delores McQuinn, D-70th, of Richmond. “This is one of the defining civil rights issues of our time. We’re at a crossroads for our democracy, with one party standing for the facts, and one party spewing lies that led to a violent attack on the Capitol.”
Though many Virginians tend to vote a straight, party-line ticket for the three statewide offices, minimizing the political impact of downballot candidates, Republicans have also touted the historically diverse trio of candidates they’ve put up. With McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, both white men, trying to fend off Black primary opponents, Republicans could potentially argue their ticket is more varied than the slate chosen by the party that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.
“I’m checking all their boxes,” Sears said at a candidate forum in Fredericksburg. “You know, the Democrats are all interested in what? Identity politics. Well folks, if you haven’t seen, I’m Black. What are they going to say? I’m a woman. What are they going to say to me? I’m an immigrant. What are they going to say to me? They don’t want to see me on the other end of the debate stage.”
Del. Lamont Bagby, a Democrat from Henrico County who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he hasn’t seen diversity reflected in the Republican policy agenda.
“While I don’t discount the historical moment for the Republican party, I would like to see them make history with their policy,” Bagby said. “Let me know when they change that.”
While Youngkin has taken steps to distance himself from Trump, barely mentioning the former president’s endorsement of his candidacy earlier this week, he has continued to emphasize his plan to tighten voting laws, particularly by bringing back voter identification requirements. On the campaign trail, he frames it as a commonsense initiative, arguing that if you have to show an ID to get a library card, you should have to show one to vote. Democrats counter that voter identification laws disproportionately disenfranchise low-income and elderly voters, who are less likely to drive or otherwise face barriers to obtaining state-issued ID cards.
Youngkin has faced other awkward moments as he tries to pivot toward the general election. Throughout the nomination contest, he steadfastly refused to answer questions about whether he viewed Biden’s victory in November as legitimate. On Wednesday, he finally gave a concrete answer, saying “Of course,” during a radio interview. The day before, he had offered a similar line in an interview with Axios, but only after a reporter pressed him four times for a firm answer.
Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, believes the distinction Youngkin is now attempting to make is unlikely to influence voters.
“In these highly partisan times, subtle policy distinctions within a party are not going to move a lot of voters,” he said, noting that while Youngkin now acknowledges Biden’s legitimacy, “for months he has emphasized election integrity as a key component of what needs to happen going forward, just like the former president has.”
That said, Farnsworth said the national political mood is likely to influence the outcome of this year’s governor’s race more than anything else.
If Biden stumbles and sees his popularity drop, the Democratic nominee’s chances slide. On the flip side, if Trump remains a visible and prominent figure in national politics, Youngkin faces a tougher slog.
“The more the former president remains in the conversation,” Farnsworth said, “the worse for Republican statewide candidates in Virginia.”