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Virginia governor's election 2021: What Youngkin-McAuliffe says about Trumpism

Youngkin is showcasing an innovative streak in a party held hostage by Trump.

UPDATE (Nov. 3, 2021, 12:30 p.m. ET): The piece has been updated throughout to reflect NBC News calling the Virginia governor's race for Republican Glenn Youngkin.

As Americans headed to the voting booth Tuesday for an off-year Election Day, all eyes were on Virginia.

The Trump-endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin had been rising steadily in the polls for months, and on Tuesday morning appeared to be in a dead heat with his Democratic opponent, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average.

Youngkin pulling off the win means Republican operatives across the country will breathe a sigh of relief, and Democrats will experience a huge cortisol spike: It is the first Republican victory in a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and could offer a new playbook for the GOP to recover the kind of suburban Republican voters they lost during the Trump era. And it signals the uncomfortable truth that Republicans candidates can find ways to make Trumpism appear moderate and respectable even in states that turned their back on Donald Trump.

Youngin has chosen to channel Trump’s political energy through a more buttoned-up, less inflammatory persona.

Virginia is a Southern state, but it has been trending blue for some time, a phenomenon that became particularly apparent during the Trump era. Virginia Mercury’s Bob Lewis summarized the yearslong GOP bloodbath neatly this summer:

Consider that since 2016, the year Trump led his party’s ticket and won the presidency, the GOP in Virginia has lost: two U.S. Senate races; the 2017 gubernatorial race; its U.S. House of Representatives majority; its majority in the Virginia Senate and; its House of Delegates majority. The last time the Republican Party found itself so shut out of Virginia political power was 1969.

Trump lost Virginia in both 2016 and 2020, and, in fact, Joe Biden beat him by roughly twice the margin that Hillary Clinton did. Virginia’s affluent, highly educated suburbs have allowed Democrats to expand their electoral strength in the South, and were assumed to serve as a buffer against Trump’s version of the GOP.

But Youngkin has shattered Virginia’s electoral trends. And he hasn’t done it by running as a Never Trumper. Instead, he’s chosen to channel Trump’s political energy through a more buttoned-up, less inflammatory persona and taken steps to strategically distance himself from some of Trump’s most controversial views.

Earlier in the primary season, Youngkin told voters that "Trump represents so much of why I'm running," and said he was “honored” to receive Trump’s endorsement.

The clearest manifestation of his alignment with Trump was his emphasis on the how little he trusted the electoral process. In the run-up to the primary, the most comprehensive policy proposal he released was a five point “election integrity” plan. While ostensibly the plan could be described as nonpartisan, it was a clear wink at Trump’s base and the false narrative that the electoral system is highly vulnerable to fraud. Notably, Youngkin also sidestepped questions about the legitimacy of Biden’s election.

Youngkin has often used ambiguous language to try to simultaneously broadcast proximity to the Trumpian ethos and distance from it.

After he won the primary, however, he tacked to the center and finally clarified that he felt Biden’s election was legitimate. He also distanced himself from attendees of a rally for the statewide GOP ticket who pledged allegiance to an American flag flown at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, calling them “weird and wrong.”

Youngkin has often used ambiguous language to try to simultaneously broadcast proximity to the Trumpian ethos and distance from it. For example, during an Axios interview he declined to clarify if he would’ve voted to certify Biden’s election if he were in Congress on Jan. 6, and only provided a clear explanation after his answer triggered controversy. This weekend, when asked by a reporter whether he’d be attending Trump’s “tele-town hall” on his behalf, Youngkin said, “I haven’t been involved in that, the teams are talking I’m sure,” and went on to talk about how he was busy with his campaign efforts. Later on in his response he said that he was “not going to be engaged.” The language sounds casual, but it’s careful: He was telegraphing neither endorsement nor opposition to the idea of attending, but instead he framed nonattendance as a matter of logistics and focus.

Another asset Youngkin has in signaling independence is his appearance and demeanor. A 6-foot-5 former private equity executive, Youngkin has tried to present himself as outsider unfazed by pressure from the party, and an even-keeled alternative to the full-throated Trumpian populists emerging across the country. It might not be what's driving his growing popularity, but it's safe to say it isn't hurting him.

Youngkin’s clearest embrace of Trumpian politics has been his campaign’s aggressive focus on ending "critical race theory.” Critical race theory is a graduate-school-level academic framework about institutionalized racism that is not taught in Virginia’s K-12 public school system. But that reality has not stopped Youngkin from railing against the idea relentlessly and using it as a shorthand for expressing opposition to antiracism in educational instruction or pedagogy that questions right-wing narratives about America’s identity. He also released an advertisement last week backing a Republican activist who once pushed to ban Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from her son’s curriculum after he reportedly complained that the book gave him nightmares.

On Monday Trump released yet another statement of support for Youngkin and specifically pointed out their overlap on schooling. “We get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies. Especially when it comes to the important subject of education," Trump said in his statement. On this front, Youngkin hasn’t sought to create much daylight between himself and Trump, and seems to be testing the theory that stoking the anxieties of parents — primarily white parents — over cultural shifts tied to antiracism will not alienate the kinds of suburban voters that Trump got into trouble with.

Youngkin also sought to walk a careful line on vaccines. He received one and bragged about being the only candidate to run an ad encouraging Virginians to join him. But he also ran ads featuring anti-vaxxers and is opposed to vaccine mandates and statewide school mask mandates.

McAuliffe sought to pierce through Youngkin’s word games and shapeshifting and pin him down as a plainly pro-Trump candidate. He's deemed him “Glenn Trumpkin” and tried to tie him to the former president in ads, talking points and debates. But that strategy didn't slow down Youngkin’s rise in the polls.

Youngkin's win, which was far from a sure thing, will be viewed as a damning loss for the Democrats. Whether fairly or not, Republicans will not only tout it as an end to Democratic hegemony in statewide races in Virginia, they’ll also argue that it foreshadows the Democrats’ fate in the midterms next year.

There are huge limitations to how much one can extrapolate based on one race, but Youngkin’s candidacy will provide some information about what a possible “respectable suburban Trumpism” might look like. It’s worrying stuff.