elections of 2021

Pity the MAGA Candidate Who Tries to Pivot

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate and businessperson-outsider Glenn Youngkin. Photo: Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Back in less polarized days, candidates for office in competitive areas often “played to the base” to win primaries and then “pivoted to the center” to win swing voters in general elections. That’s tough to do now because the distance between the two parties is larger, and it’s less critical insofar as the ratio of swing to base voters has shrunk significantly. Indeed, a lot of pols, particularly in today’s radical-trending Republican Party, don’t bother to pose as “centrists;” it’s easier to claim your opponent is further from the mythical center than you are.

Even now, though, if you are running on difficult terrain in a general election, some careful posturing can be very helpful. I’m sure that’s what Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin is telling him. There’s a reason no Republican has won a statewide race in the Commonwealth since 2009. And whatever you think of Democrat Terry McAuliffe generally, he’s a tough and resourceful opponent with a reasonably united party.

Youngkin is in the fortunate position of being one of those “outsider businessperson” candidates with no record in public office to inconvenience his maneuverability. But in Anno Domini 2021, there are certain observances – both ideological and personal – that are obligatory for GOP candidates. And Youngkin met them both, as I explained in discussing his competition with fellow MAGA-Plus-Money rival Pete Snyder in May:

The free-spending Snyder was endorsed by 2013 Republican gubernatorial nominee and former Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli, and brought in Sarah Huckabee Sanders to campaign with him. But Youngkin outspent him and had his own MAGA validator in Corey Stewart, the Trumpy local elected official who threw a big scare into the Republican establishment in the 2017 gubernatorial primary. Ted Cruz also joined Youngkin on the campaign trail. Like Snyder and Chase, Youngkin refused to accept the legitimacy of the 46th president, attacked Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions, and touted his pro-gun, ant-abortion, and anti-union bona fides.

After Youngkin pulled off a narrow win in the Virginia GOP’s strange “unassembled convention” (in which activists cast ranked-choice ballots in their cars in 39 locations), he started inching away from the former president who lost the state by 10 points last year. He began with the dangerous tactic of admitting Joe Biden was President of the United States without an asterisk next to his name.

But keeping his image suitably hazy can be matter of subtraction as well as addition of positions for Youngkin: keeping quiet on hot-button issues that may drive away swing voters. Since for him the prime imperative is improving on the lagging Republican performance in Northern Virginia’s upscale suburbs, one issue he felt silent on was quite naturally abortion. But he made the very big mistake of getting himself taped explaining exactly what he was doing, as HuffPost reported:

The video, shot at a campaign event last month, was released by Lauren Windsor, who runs an online political show called “The Undercurrent.” It was initially published by the American Independent, a liberal news site, and parts of the footage later aired on MSNBC.

In the clip, Windsor poses as a fierce opponent of abortion who speaks with Youngkin about so-called fetal heartbeat bills and defunding Planned Parenthood. The Republican responds that he is “staunchly, unabashedly pro-life” before another person heard in the footage asks if he would defund Planned Parenthood or “take it to the abortionists.”

“I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is in this campaign, I can’t,” Youngkin replies. “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

Yeah, an activist lied about herself to get Youngkin to “be really honest” with her, but then she’s not running for Governor of Virginia. And as the Washington Post editorial board observed, the admission was typical of a candidate for whom “silence is strategy” on an array of issues on which his party does not particularly poll well. This leaves him very vulnerable to the charge he has a secret platform he has chosen not to share with the voters whose approval he craves. And the more his caginess is exposed, the more his base – and possibly even the jealous god of Mar-a-lago who will broach no disloyalty in his Republican Party – will seek reassurance. The immensely wealthy Youngkin had better go ahead and plan to cut the pursestrings and blanket the airwaves and social media platforms with happy talk about exactly what the polls tell him voters want to hear, and stay away from candid conversations.

Pity the MAGA Candidate Who Tries to Pivot