NEW YORK – Democrat Terry McAuliffe has brought in the biggest names in Democratic politics to come to his aid in Virginia's hotly contested gubernatorial race: Obama, Harris, Abrams, Biden (both Joe and Jill).
Republican Glenn Youngkin, meanwhile, is campaigning with ... Glenn Youngkin.
The GOP candidate, a newcomer who has surprised his party with his strong bid in blue Virginia, has eschewed virtually all public campaign visits from well-known party allies, who typically flock to hot races to lend a hand. It’s not that Youngkin won’t take the help — the candidate has welcomed numerous high-profile Republicans to the state for closed-door fundraisers. But the Youngkin campaign's unofficial policy is that they can't campaign alongside him.
That decision to go solo is a deliberate strategy by his team to keep voters' focus on state, rather than national, issues. But it's also an acknowledgment that a parade of GOP visitors would only undermine Youngkin's attempt to keep his party — and its leader, former President Donald Trump — at arm's length.
“Glenn is an outsider, he’s a businessman. And so when we’re doing events, we want events to convey that message,” said Youngkin spokesman Devin O’Malley of the approach.
Trump, who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020, hasn't been easy to keep away. On Wednesday, he issued a cryptically worded statement suggesting he might make a last-minute, first appearance in the state.
On Thursday, a person familiar with his plans said he will instead be holding a last-minute tele-rally Monday, the day before the election.
Trump’s announcement came the day his former vice president, Mike Pence, a far less polarizing figure than Trump, visited a small Christian college in the northern Virginia suburbs for a speech on education. But Youngkin did not join him and Pence never mentioned the candidate’s name, even as he echoed the same message on parental rights in schools that Youngkin has made in the closing days of the campaign
“The Youngkin strategy, I think, is a smart one in that he is focused intensely on state and local issues and taking it directly to voters in the suburbs and exurbs where the election will be decided,” said Mark J. Rozell, founding Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax.
“Now, in fairness, Youngkin doesn’t have a major national figure in the Republican party who can help him," he added. “Youngkin doesn’t want Trump to come here. He can’t say that openly because he doesn’t want to alienate the loyal Trump voters who right now are all in with Youngkin.”
Indeed, last time Trump waded into the race — calling into a rally organized by conservative allies — McAuliffe’s campaign seized on the appearance, quickly cutting ads featuring Trump’s praise of the Republican, even though Youngkin hadn't even attended the event. The Democrats has repeatedly highlighted Youngkin's ties to Trump in a bid to turn off more moderate voters, particularly those in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., and Richmond, who revolted against Trump in his final years in office and helped deliver Biden's victory.
Throughout the campaign, Youngkin has done a delicate dance, trying to win over Trump's loyal base, which he needs to turn out to win the election, while striking a far softer, less confrontational tone.
The “no surrogates at political events” policy has had the added benefit of providing an excuse to keep Trump out without antagonizing the grudge-bearing former president, who takes slights deeply personally.
The strategy is one Youngkin advisers say they settled on months ago and doubled down on when they announced a bus tour for the final days of the campaign with a press release that knocked McAuliffe for his reliance on big names.
The tour would “highlight the contrast between the grassroots enthusiasm for Glenn Youngkin’s candidacy" and Terry McAuliffe’s dependence on Democrats like Stacey Abrams, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Barack Obama to draw a crowd.
McAuliffe's campaign responded by saying Youngkin had little choice.
“They are in a position where in Virginia they really can't welcome very many members of the Republican Party because it’s a party led by Donald Trump,” said McAuliffe campaign spokeswoman Christina Freundlich. “Their party has become too divisive.”
With little interest from outside figures in the early days of the race, campaign officials said they realized that Youngkin could draw his own crowds without having to feature surrogates who might rub people the wrong way. And without other politicians, they could highlight his status as a businessman and political newcomer, and focus on issues like education and local taxes they believed would resonate with state voters.
But the campaign has not rebuffed the outreach entirely. Instead, it has funneled that support to closed-door fundraisers that have featured a slew of potential 2024 candidates from across the ideological spectrum including Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maryland Gov, Larry Hogan and Sens. Cruz and Tom Cotton, along with former attorney general Bill Barr and ex-House Speaker Paul Ryan.
And it appears to be paying off.
Sandy Corbitt, 61, who works in education and attended Pence's Thursday speech in Loudoun County — an area that has become a hotbed for parental activist groups — said that promoting parental freedom can be a winner for Youngkin without help from national Republicans. Corbitt said she’d not heard “a ton” about Youngkin but likes "what I’m hearing.”
“I think he hasn’t been asking for others to help, where it looks like the other guy’s had to call in everybody under the sun,” she said, mentioning Obama and other top Democrats campaigning with McAuliffe. “So, he can’t make it on his own.”
Still, if Youngkin pulls off a win, Trump is expected by allies to head to the state to try to claim credit.
“I think he’s going to be excited to come to Virginia. It’s a state that he loves and he’s always believed that we can do better here than we have in the past. So I’m sure he’ll be here celebrating," said conservative talk show host John Fredericks, Trump’s former campaign chair in the state.
___ Associated Press writer Will Weissert contributed to this report from Purcellville, Virginia.