Republican voters cut Youngkin some slack as he walks tightrope on Trump


Henrico, Virginia (CNN)Donald Trump may not physically be in Virginia for the commonwealth’s critical off-year elections. But to Glenn Youngkin‘s most ardent supporters, the way their candidate has kept Trump at a distance will all be worth it if he wins on Tuesday.

Trump, despite not traveling to Virginia to stump for Youngkin, has been an overriding presence in the race, with Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe attempting to tie his opponent to a man who lost the commonwealth by 10 percentage points in 2020. Youngkin has responded by trying to walk a fine line with the former President: He has gladly accepted Trump’s endorsement numerous times, but he has also kept him at arm’s length in the close of the campaign.

For Democrats, the dueling campaign strategies have turned the Virginia race into a referendum on the potency of Trump as a former President. But for many in Youngkin’s camp, the opportunity to defeat Democrats in Virginia far outweighs any questions they have about Trump’s lack of a presence in the race.

    “Trump is a Republican. Trump is not every Republican,” said Corbett Price, a 50-year-old Richmond Republican who supported Trump twice. “Just because he’s a Republican does not mean he is for Trump or with Trump.”

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      Price, while waiting for Youngkin at a recent event in Henrico County, Virginia, said it didn’t matter to him if his gubernatorial candidate sought distance from Trump — as long as he won.

        “People either love Trump or they hate Trump. There is no in between,” he said. “Whether he distances himself with Trump or not, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference as far as his campaign.”

        To many other Youngkin backers, their candidate is an extension of the polarizing former President, just in more politically acceptable packaging.

          “They’re both Republicans and they stand for a lot of the same things,” said Ayden Projain, a 20-year-old student who voted for Trump in 2020 and plans to vote for Youngkin in 2021. “But I think Youngkin might be trying to be more friendly to independents.”

          Trump has looked to inject himself into the race, releasing a series of statements on the contest over the last few months and, most notably, calling in to a rally where he lauded Youngkin and said the candidate would “do all of the things we want a governor to do.” John Fredericks, a Virginia-based conservative radio host who served as the chair of the Trump campaign in the commonwealth, told CNN on Friday that the former President also plans to headline a tele-rally in support of the GOP ticket on Monday, the night before Election Day.

          Youngkin’s team has tried to distance from the rally — “I heard about it when you did,” a senior Youngkin aide told CNN — but when asked whether Youngkin would call in to join Trump, Fredericks did not mince words: “If he’d like to be governor of Virginia, he will.”

          To Youngkin supporters like Ann Patton, 65, and Troy Gooding, 63, retirees who live outside Charlottesville, Trump’s loss in 2020 is part of what is fueling Youngkin and his large rallies in the closing days of the gubernatorial campaign.

          “If Trump was in office, we wouldn’t be going through everything we’re going through now. The economy would be booming. We wouldn’t have had that debacle in Afghanistan. He wouldn’t have cut all the gas off,” Patton said. “If he was in office, I don’t think we’d be going through half the things we’re going through now.”

          The two said they see similarities between Trump and Youngkin, pointing to Youngkin’s business background as chief executive of the private-equity firm The Carlyle Group. Gooding said he was skeptical about Trump at first and knows the former President “didn’t come across very well to some folks.”

          “But he was a very active President who got a lot of things done. I think (Youngkin) is the same kind of individual, who could go in there and make some difference in the way things operate,” he said.

          “With Trump in there, you got used to action. Every day, there was something going on,” Gooding said.

          Patton added: “I feel like Glenn is that kind of person who’s going to get in there and do the things he says he’s going to do.”

          ‘He’s not coming’

          Youngkin’s comments on Trump have run the gamut.

          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.

          But Youngkin has also, especially in the final weeks of the campaign, looked to keep Trump at arm’s length. The clearest example of this was on Thursday, when, pressed about Trump himself teasing a possible rally in Virginia, Youngkin flatly responded.

          “He’s not coming,” Youngkin told reporters. “In fact, we’re campaigning as Virginians in Virginia with Virginians.”

          When asked why he isn’t welcoming Trump to campaign with him, Youngkin replied, “Well, because this is about Virginia.”

          Even so, it is hard to divorce Youngkin’s run from Trump. The Republican’s supporters often wear Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat to his rallies. When CNN asked Wanda Schweiger, 61, and Cathy Reardon, 54, for their views on Trump, Reardon unfurled a sweatshirt that read, “Thank God for Trump,” and Schweiger said she still had a Trump 2020 sign on her lawn.

          Still, Youngkin supporters who backed Trump were eager to copy their candidate’s talking point that the race is about Virginia, not the former President.

          Mary Cerrone, a 62-year-old controller from Crozet who said she considers herself an independent and voted for Trump, said the governor’s race “doesn’t have anything to do with Trump at all.”

          She said she sees Youngkin as “a fresh start.”

          “People look at Terry McAuliffe and see the past. They see the Clintons. It reminds them of Biden, and Biden is not very popular with anybody right now,” Cerrone said.

          “Everybody is exhausted, and you want to just look toward the future,” she said. “This is a movement to the future, and I don’t think it has anything to do with MAGA at all.”

          ‘He’s not Trump’

          Democrats knew headed into the Virginia contest that the race would be difficult. History is not on the party’s side — since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election has nearly always come from the party in opposition to the White House, with the only exception coming in 2013, when McAuliffe won his first gubernatorial term a year after then-President Barack Obama won reelection.

          Still, at the outset of the race, some Democrats viewed Youngkin as a candidate who would be easy to pillory. Now, with only days left in the race, state and national Democrats have begun to concede they have been impressed with Youngkin’s candidacy, admitting that they may have underestimated him.

          Central to that view is Youngkin’s ads, which initially sought to introduce Youngkin as a low-key, normal guy and showed him playing basketball, doing housework and, often, wearing a vest. Although many Democrats have mocked the spots, many working in Virginia have begrudgingly admitted they have been effective.

          That is why big-name Democrats have looked to knock down those ads in their attempts to boost McAuliffe’s candidacy.

          Former President Barack Obama made Youngkin’s integrity central to his rebuke of the Republican, questioning a disconnect between his public and private personas.

          “You can’t run ads telling me you are a regular old hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama said earlier this month, later questioning what that disconnect says about Youngkin’s character.

          And President Joe Biden compared Youngkin to people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, telling an audience this week that extremism can also “come in a smile and a fleece vest.”

          “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?”

          To voters like Johnny Jones, a retired hotel concierge and Marine Corps veteran who backed Trump twice, Youngkin’s distance from Trump is not about embarrassment or a lack of character. It’s about, he said, “politics.”

          “He is playing the middle ground, so he doesn’t alienate all the anti-Trumpers that will still vote for him, but he’s doing a good job covering his bases,” he said.

            “I would (like a Trump visit), yes,” he added. “But it would deter from his message because there are too many people that are saying, ‘Oh, he’s just Trump. He’s just Trump.’ He’s not Trump.”

            CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated John Fredericks’ position in the Trump campaign in Virginia.

            CNN’s Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.