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Why Barack Obama's critique of Virginia's Glenn Youngkin matters

"There are some things that are more important than getting elected," Barack Obama said. "And maybe American democracy is one of those things."

With only a week remaining in Virginia's closely watched gubernatorial race, and polls showing a competitive and unpredictable race, the debate in the commonwealth is coming into sharper focus. For Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, that isn't necessarily good news.

The Democratic nominee has the benefit of being a known quantity: Terry McAuliffe already served a four-year term as governor, and he left office nearly four years ago as a relatively popular figure.

Meanwhile, Youngkin, a wealthy private equity executive, is a political newcomer, who has spent the year trying to walk a fine line: He's a conservative Republican running in an increasingly blue-ish state, trying to keep the GOP base fired up without alienating the swing voters he'll need to prevail.

The fact that Youngkin is positioned to possibly win suggests his efforts are going fairly well. The Republican nominee has been critical of abortion rights, marriage equality, and even Medicaid expansion, though he doesn't emphasize any of these issues in his advertising. Youngkin's stump speech instead includes highly deceptive rhetoric about race, crime, and education, packaged in "a red-fleece vest and non-threatening platitudes."

But hanging over head is a more foundational question that the GOP candidate prefers to avoid. As NBC News reported over the weekend:

Youngkin has kept Trump at a distance, avoiding campaign appearances with him.... But Youngkin also has called for auditing voting machines and has launched an "election integrity task force" — efforts that play into lies and other baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

And it's this point that former President Barack Obama emphasized during an event with McAuliffe at Virginia Commonwealth University on Saturday. "There are some things that are more important than getting elected," Obama said. "And maybe American democracy is one of those things."

Pointing to the insurrectionist violence of Jan. 6, the former president added, "Either [Youngkin] actually believes in the same conspiracy theories that resulted in a mob, or he doesn't believe it but he is willing to go along with it, to say or do anything to get elected. And maybe that's worse ... because that says something about character."

Obama concluded, "You can't run ads telling me you're a regular ol' hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy."

The editorial board of The Washington Post stressed the same point a day earlier:

Next month's elections in Virginia coincide with a singular moment in U.S. history, in which one major party has turned against accepting the results of free and fair elections. That momentous juncture poses a character test for all Republicans, which turns on this question: Will they stand against the assault on democracy's most basic precept, or will they tolerate it? Glenn Youngkin, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Virginia, has failed that character test.

The Post's editors made the compelling case that Youngkin has "indulged and encouraged" proponents of his party's Big Lie: "Few stances could be more subversive to the American experiment or more corrosive to our pluralistic system's fundamental legitimacy. Few shine so bright a spotlight on a candidate's courage and commitment to the Constitution, or lack thereof."

The editorial board concluded, "[A]t a moment when democracy itself is under assault, Mr. Youngkin chose to dignify a fundamental fiction that is subverting our system, rather than stand up squarely for the truth. In so doing, he proved himself unfit for office."

What's striking about this is not just the stark terms in which the newspaper's editors denounced Youngkin's candidacy, it's also the clarity about the issues defining the contest. A typical gubernatorial race would focus on traditional, state-based issues.

At a time in which Republicans question the legitimacy of election outcomes they dislike, Virginia's contest is proving to be anything but typical.