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Glenn Youngkin’s Balancing Act Is Almost Over

Will he make it to the other side or fall into the netting?
by Jim Swift
October 15, 2021
Glenn Youngkin’s Balancing Act Is Almost Over
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press after casting an early ballot September 23, 2021 in Fairfax, Virginia. Youngkin is running against Democrat Terry McAuliffee for governor in the Commonwealth of Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Virginia Republicans aren’t making it easy for Glenn Youngkin to appeal to the sorts of voters he needs to defeat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe next month.

As Matt Lewis observes:

Lewis is correct. Trump die-hards would rather have their candidates for office lose than allow them to distance themselves from—let alone flat-out reject—the former president. There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost among them is loyalty to Trump. It’s because #hefights. Of course, Liz Cheney fights, too, and so did Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee before succumbing. Really, #hefights is more about Trump’s supporters enjoying him being combative than it is about the substance of what he fights over.

Glenn Youngkin is not a fighter. He has the sincerity and believability of Mitt Romney circa 2008, but without the charm. Which is why he did not attend the “Take Back Virginia” rally put together by local talk radio host John Fredericks on Wednesday night. The much more conservative GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, was slated to attend, but backed out.

A second reason for insisting Republican candidates stick to Trump like burrs on a sock is grievance—about the 2020 election, about social and economic changes, about immigrants, you name it.

These two reasons—loyalty and grievance—feed into one another. As a large percentage of GOP activists and officials have morphed into full-blown election-truther conspiracy theorists, the loyalty to Trump adds to the preexisting sense of grievance.

Which brings us back to the John Fredericks rally on Wednesday night. Youngkin was right to be cautious about attending, because it was absolutely crazy. 

The event started out with the Pledge of Allegiance with a very special flag—one that “Kim from Chesapeake” brought, which somebody apparently carried in Washington on January 6 either during the Trump rally by the White House or at the insurrection at the Capitol:

Later, Amanda Chase, a state senator, was about to explain how her grassroots team of Virginians was going to other states to witness the fraudits going on there. But then former President Trump interrupted her with a call-in, saying:

All of the things, eh? We’ve seen the lengths to which President Trump and his advisers tried to bully elected officials in states Trump lost to steal the election. He was probably just talking about taxes, right? 

Trump played the greatest hits, and even floated the possibility of an in-person Trump rally in Virginia. (Awkward for Youngkin!) But as Trump was wrapping up, Fredericks kept him on the line and gave him a bit of red meat: “You won in 2016, you won in 2020, and you’re gonna win in 2024. . . Tell us, November 2, 2021, tell us we’re gonna win Virginia, Mr. President.” 

Of course, Trump couldn’t resist:

You’re gonna win Virginia, you’re gonna win it big, and you’re right. We won in 2016, we won in 2020, the most corrupt election in the history of our country, probably one of the most corrupt anywhere, but we’re gonna win it again, we’re gonna take it all back, we’re gonna make America great again.

Youngkin and his team probably suspected something like this would happen, and thus chose not to attend. Which is probably also why his campaign is refusing to comment on the event and whether he thanked host John Fredericks, the “Godzilla of Truth,” for organizing the event. The Washington Post reports that Youngkin thanked Fredericks “profusely” for putting it together (in Fredericks’s telling) and “supplied him with campaign signs to hand out.” Alas, “Youngkin’s campaign spokesman declined to comment on the rally or Fredericks’s assertion.” He fights!

[Update, October 15, 2021: On Thursday evening, after being pressed by McAuliffe, Youngkin weighed in on the rally’s bizarre Pledge of Allegiance to the flag from January 6, saying: “While I had no role in last night’s event, I have heard about it from many people in the media today. It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6.”]

Until recently, Youngkin’s campaign has not focused intensively on these MAGA voters. He seemed to hope that his obsession with Virginia’s schools would win him enough of the suburban voters that Republicans lost in 2020 to help him win. But in the final weeks of the campaign, Youngkin has done some tacking hard to the right. He has buried the hatchet with Sebastian Gorka, who once called him a RINO for refusing to go on his show. It’s clear that Youngkin feels he needs to stoop to get these MAGA voters, sort of like Ed Gillespie did with Confederate statues in the waning days of his failed gubernatorial campaign in 2017. 

The rally closed with Steve Bannon, who was pardoned by President Trump after he was arrested for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. Also present, oddly, was Bannon’s daughter Maureen, an Army veteran who is an aspiring commentator on her father’s video livestream, the War Room.

These are not Glenn Youngkin’s people. He’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars and lives in Great Falls, a posh D.C. suburb. Rootin’-and-tootin’ Richmond-area grassroots Republicans who like Steve Bannon and cheer the insurrection flag really aren’t his type. But he has to pretend they are his people for another eighteen days.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.