Looking to coax undecided voters off the sidelines, Mr. Youngkin is barnstorming Virginia armed with a traditional conservative Republican message anchored in kitchen-table issues.
“It is about a Virginia where we, in fact, get to live the Virginia promise — a promise that we are going to have the best schools, the safest neighborhoods, we are going to have the best jobs, we are going to have a low cost of living and oh, by the way, a promise where our children can dream the most radical dreams.”
Mr. Youngkin’s challenge has been to thread the needle between wooing Trump voters while also winning over others who were turned off by the former president’s combative politics, which helped fuel President Biden’s 10-point victory in the state last year.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Youngkin has occasionally leaned into the culture wars and touched on hot-button issues such as election integrity, critical race theory, and banning books from public schools.
Mr. Youngkin made a clear pivot since he skipped out on a “Take Back Virginia” rally earlier this month that was organized by loyal Trump supporters, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
“The Trump base has already committed to him,” Mr. Kidd said.
“So he is trying to get that last holdout suburban mom or voter that otherwise didn’t like Donald Trump to trust him and give them their vote,” he said. “It makes sense for him to become this combination of [former Gov.] Bob McDonnell, Mitt Romney and John MCain all at once.”
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Democratic operative from Craig County, where Mr. Biden received 18% of the 2020 vote, said Mr. Youngkin appears to have locked up the votes of the Republicans around him.
“I think Youngkins’ vote in rural Virginia is going to turn out in a big time way,” Mr. Saunders said, emphasizing it is small sampling. “Rural small-town Virginia, and working-people Virginia are going to turn out. These Trumpsters have gone nowhere.”
Republicans have not won statewide since Mr. McDonnell, a former state attorney general, pulled off the feat in 2009. Mr. McDonnell steered clear of divisive social issues and embraced a centrist platform focused on jobs, the economy and fixing the roads that resonated with suburban voters.
Mr. Youngkin has taken a similar approach, and also is benefiting from the concerns over Mr. Biden – in much the same way that Mr. McDonnell capitalized on the blowback against former President Obama’s approach to the souring economy and health care.
“The difference is the state is more Democrat now than it was in 2009,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat. “I think that is one difference and also Bob had run and won as attorney general. So I think he was a little bit more ‘establishment’.”
Mr. Petersen, though, said Mr. Youngkin‘s message could resonate if it comes off as authentic.
“If you have a message of reduced taxes and make that argument, that is going to be appealing to voters across party lines,” he said. “If you make an argument about protecting schools, that is going to appeal to voters across party lines.”
Former Rep. Thomas Davis III, a Republican, said the most important thing Mr. Youngkin has going for him is his timing. Mr. Youngkin is benefiting from the buyer’s remorse that some voters have with Mr. Biden.
“He is fouling up everything he touches – from Afghanistan to the supply chain to inflation to the border of Texas to COVID,” Mr. Davis said. “Nothing is going right for these guys. They voted for Biden because they don’t want Trump in their living rooms for four years. But they didn’t vote for his policies.”
Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater in the state.
Mr. Davis said Mr. Youngkin also comes off as a happy warrior — a fresh face with little political baggage. Plus, he has a forward-looking message that contrasts with Mr. McAuliffe’s apparent obsession with Mr. Trump, and the progressive agenda coming out of Democrat-controlled Washington and Richmond.
“Democrats are in charge of everything and things are not going well,” Mr. Davis said. “It doesn’t elect you, but people will give you a second look. Whereas four years ago they pushed the ‘mute’ button.”
Mr. Youngkin has the momentum in the race and has been gaining ground since the summer.
Mr. Youngkin is viewed as more trusted on the economy and taxes, while Mr. McAullife’s advantage on the coronavirus and schools has slipped.
Jimmy Keady, the founder of JLK Political Strategies and longtime GOP Virginia strategist, said the Youngkin approach could serve as a reminder why Republicans had been so successful in the state.
“I think you’re going to see not just in Virginia, but you’re going to see a trend nationally here where a lot of Republicans are going to go back to those meat-and-potato issues that have won us elections because people want government out of their lives,” Mr. Keady said. “I think if that’s the party that we continue to run as, we will win all the way down the ballot because that’s what people want.”
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