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Virginia governor race: What Glenn Youngkin says about Trump's power

Glenn Youngkin's flirtation with The Big Lie provides a scary glimpse into the new meaning of "moderate."

The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, knows that he has to try to run in a moderate lane if he wants a real shot at winning in his increasingly blue Southern state in November. But his insistence on raising doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 election signals that even Republican candidates who want distance from former President Donald Trump feel obligated to peddle some version of the “big lie.”

That disconcerting reality came into focus in an Axios report published Sunday, which reported that Youngkin took a rather odd position on 2020:

Youngkin believes Biden beat Trump in the 2020 election legitimately. But while speaking with Axios, he wouldn’t say whether he would have voted to certify the election on Jan. 6 if he were a member of Congress. He did say there’s “no room for violence in America.”

Youngkin was trying in this interview to send different signals to different camps — condemning the Jan. 6 violence and accepting Joe Biden’s victory, but at the same time implying that there are open questions in some states about whether the election results were reliable. The worrying subtext was that even being a more “moderate” Republican still entails casting doubt on the election process and deferring to Trump’s election disinformation.

Youngkin’s Axios interview caused a stir and got pushback from some of the very Never Trump-style Republicans he’s concerned with winning over, particularly in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. His office released a statement the next day saying he would have, in fact, certified the election had he been in Congress — and acted like it was obvious the entire time.

“Glenn Youngkin has repeatedly said that Joe Biden was legitimately elected and that there was no significant fraud in Virginia’s 2020 election, leading to the only logical conclusion that he would have certified the election,” the statement said.

But the reality is that it’s not the only logical conclusion — because Youngkin has deliberately muddied the waters about his election views in the past. In the run-up to the Republican primary for this race, Youngkin’s most fleshed-out policy proposal was a five point “election integrity” plan. The proposal was presented as something that could have bipartisan appeal, but it was a clear bid to affirm the Trump-fueled myth that the electoral system is insecure and untrustworthy. He would also dodge questions about the legitimacy of Biden’s election, preferring to acknowledge only that Biden was the sitting president. After he won the primary, he changed his tune on that point, finally admitting that Biden’s election was legitimate.

Youngkin is coding as independent and somewhat moderate to some Republicans — all while flirting with Trump’s authoritarian project of casting doubt on the U.S. election process.

Youngkin has also played games on other disinformation-affected policy fronts, like Covid-19 vaccination efforts, both running ads featuring anti-vaxxers and boasting about being the only candidate encouraging Virginians to join him in getting vaccinated.

When it comes to his relationship with Trump, Youngkin has also tried to play both sides. He supported Trump and won his endorsement, but he has also tried to claim independence from Trump and played up his ability to win the attention of moderates who despised the former president. “I brought together Forever-Trumpers and Never-Trumpers, sitting in the same audience, excited about what we’re doing," Youngkin told Axios.

Youngkin’s Janus-faced politicking is a function of Virginia’s unique political currents. Trump lost Virginia in both his elections — the second time by a larger margin. And during the Trump years, Democrats won control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature in defiance of state trends dating back to the ’90s. Virginia’s northern suburbs — packed with affluent, educated and politically engaged residents — typify the exact kind of voter who pivoted away from the GOP during the Trump era, and are seen as an important constituency for Republicans to win to get back in power in the state. So Youngkin's political positioning is a useful signpost for what Republicans think could help them win back moderates.

Youngkin is a real competitor in this race — he narrowly trails his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in the latest polls. Political strategists in the state see him as potentially the next Larry Hogan — the Republican governor of Maryland who has managed to thrive in a deeply blue state.

Which is what makes Youngkin winking at Trump’s “big lie”-loving base all the scarier. Youngkin is coding as independent and somewhat moderate to some Republicans — all while flirting with Trump’s authoritarian project of casting doubt on the election system. In the process, he’s mainstreaming the idea that undermining trust in the election system and disregarding typical burdens for evidence aren't extreme positions.