Republican candidate walks fine line in race to become next governor of Virginia

Republican Glenn Youngkin was yesterday within striking distance of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in today’s ­Virginia governor’s election.

he result will test a strategy of trying to woo suburban moderates without alienating the hard-liners who backed Donald Trump.

If the former private equity executive wins the critical contest today, his approach of rallying parents angry about the way schools have handled Covid and racism in the classroom may serve as a model for Republicans around the US trying to unseat Democrats in next year’s congressional elections. The party that wins in 2022 will control the US Congress for the last two years of President Joe Biden’s term.

Mr McAuliffe led Mr Youngkin by five points in public opinion polls in mid-August but in the final days the two candidates were locked in a near dead heat, according to polling averages calculated by Real Clear Politics. Over that same period, Mr Biden’s approval rating dropped to just over 40pc from about 50pc.

Mr Youngkin (54) has tried to walk a fine line on former President Trump’s false claims that his election defeat in 2020 was the result of fraud, avoiding the topic himself but campaigning with Republican state Senator Amanda Chase who has embraced them.

He has also backed Republican campaigns that say school curriculums that discuss racism are promoting “critical race theory”, a law school concept which maintains that racism is ingrained in US law and institutions and that legacies of slavery and segregation have created an uneven playing field for black Americans.

Schools say that they do not include the theory in elementary and high school curriculums, but are trying to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse US population.

At the same time, Mr Youngkin needs to avoid turning off Virginia’s moderate voters whose growing numbers have swung the state Democratic in the last four presidential elections.

A Youngkin victory could provide a template for Republicans bidding for next year’s congressional races. “Spending a lot of your time trying to cultivate the middle might be wise because it might be that the Trump electorate is going to be fired up no matter what,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the Centre for Politics.

The race is important enough for Democrats that Mr Biden and former president Barack Obama visited the state to campaign for Mr McAuliffe (64) in its final weeks. Virginia has elected just one Republican governor in the last two decades and Democrats currently also control both houses of the state legislature.

If Mr McAuliffe wins, he would retake the seat he held from 2014 to 2018. State laws forbid governors from serving consecutive terms.

Schools have been a major focus for Mr Youngkin, who opposes Covid safety rules requiring that face masks be worn in Virginia’s classrooms as well as anti-racism education. Campaigners have brawled at school board meetings over the anti-racism issue, prompting the FBI to step up its response to threats against board members.

“It forces our children to view everything through a lens of race,” Mr Youngkin said at a campaign stop last month.

A former chief executive of private equity firm the Carlyle Group, Mr Youngkin has also pledged to be tough on criminals, rounding off a basket of issues observers see as tailored to appeal to Trump supporters without turning off suburban moderates.

“Those are winning messages that don’t veer off into ‘stop the steal’ or anything too far,” said Scott Taylor, a Republican former US Representative for Virginia.

Mr Youngkin said last month it was “weird and wrong” when people at a rally supporting him pledged allegiance to a flag carried by Trump supporters at the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. Mr Youngkin did not attend the rally, which featured Mr Trump calling in by phone and speaking warmly of the candidate.

Mr Trump was also expected to call in to a rally in Virginia yesterday, several US media outlets reported.

Mr McAuliffe has tried to closely tie Mr Youngkin to Mr Trump, running TV ads that juxtaposed his calls for better election security with images of Mr Trump and the Capitol riot. “He wants to bring Donald Trump politics to Virginia,” Mr McAuliffe said while debating Mr Youngkin in September. “(He) tries to come here to Northern Virginia and pretend: ‘Oh, I’m some moderate.’ He’s not.”

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