Virginia Beach, Virginia (CNN)Terry McAuliffe claimed on Saturday that the Virginia gubernatorial election is “not about Trump” — even though the Democratic gubernatorial candidate has invoked the former Republican President perhaps more than any other political figure.
The comment, which belies the fact that tying Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin to Trump has been a central political strategy for McAuliffe since the start of the campaign, represents a significant shift for the Democrat just days before Tuesday’s election and on the final day of early voting in Virginia.
Earlier Saturday, Youngkin told CNN’s Dana Bash during a brief media gaggle that he was “not going to be engaged” in a Monday tele-rally that Trump is planning to host on the Virginia election.
McAuliffe said he was “a little” surprised Youngkin wasn’t attending the event — but added that the former President, who lost the commonwealth by 10 percentage points in 2020, is clearly “in the race” because he has repeatedly endorsed Youngkin.
“It is just killing Trump that he is not here, obviously,” McAuliffe said. “I think Trump is trying to play whichever happens, Trump is always going to claim credit for himself no matter whatever happens. Trump is very unpopular in this state. Everyone knows that. That is probably why Youngkin doesn’t want him.”
McAuliffe continued: “I’d love to have him come in. But you know… this is not about Trump.”
Youngkin’s campaign responded Saturday to McAuliffe’s switch on his messaging about Trump.
“Terry McAuliffe is backpedaling so hard he could win the Tour de France in reverse,” said Matt Wolking, a Youngkin campaign spokesman. “Republicans, Independents and Democrats are coming together to support Glenn Youngkin because they know he’s the only candidate that is focused on what really matters instead of the divisive politics of the past.”
McAuliffe has long been worried about what Democratic turnout would look like in a post-Trump era and whether the party’s base would come out in the same historic numbers it did during the four years the Republican president was in office. In an effort to boost turnout, McAuliffe began his general election campaign against Youngkin by looking to turn the businessman-turned-politician into Trump, trying to tie the two together at every event, in countless television ads and in nearly every interview.
The reversal raises questions about whether McAuliffe and Virginia Democrats have successfully made that connection — and, possibly more notably, voters care as much as Democrats had hoped.
When pressed on his comment Saturday, McAuliffe said he did not think he had made Trump too much of a focus in this race.
“Trump is not liked here in the commonwealth of Virginia. People remember Charlottesville, when he failed us that day, horrible day, when he said there were fine people on both sides,” McAuliffe said. “People want to be lifted up; Trump is hate and division. He wants to run again in 2024. I think he wants to use this … as a launch pad for that. That is why he has endorsed Youngkin seven or eight times, seven or eight times.”
Youngkin has tried to have it both ways with Trump throughout his gubernatorial run and has especially worked to keep him at arm’s length in the final weeks of the campaign. The Republican candidate has said Trump “represents so much of why I’m running,” a comment that has been used repeatedly in Democratic ads, and he said during a debate that if Trump runs again in 2024 and wins the Republican nomination, he will support him. The Republican has also said he was “honored” to receive Trump’s endorsement and has welcomed comparisons to Trump, another businessman-turned-politician.
Those comments spurred Democrats to try to turn Youngkin into the former president, hoping the association would sink the Republican candidate in a state Trump lost twice.
And McAuliffe was far from alone. Former President Barack Obama made Youngkin’s integrity and his ties to the Trump base of the Republican Party central to his rebuke of the Republican, questioning a disconnect between his public and private personas. And President Joe Biden questioned why Youngkin wouldn’t want to be seen with Trump.
“Terry’s opponent has made all of his private pledges of loyalty to Donald Trump. But what is really interesting to me is he won’t stand next to Donald Trump now that the campaign is on,” Biden said this week. “He is willing to pledge his loyalty to Trump in private, why not in public? What is he trying to hide? Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is he embarrassed?”
Sen. Tim Kaine, who spent the day stumping for McAuliffe in the commonwealth’s tidewater region, said he was not concerned that McAuliffe had focused too much on Trump.
“Virginians have very strong feelings about Trump and Virginians are sophisticated with elections every year. So we know what’s going on, the way that Glenn has tried to kind of have it both ways of — taking advantage of Trump and preaching electoral integrity and bringing Steve Bannon in for a rally, but then saying you didn’t know about it,” Kaine said. “He’s trying to have it both ways, but it’s clear that he is a Trump acolyte, as Terry has said, and Joe Biden has said too, and that just doesn’t go over well.”