Did McAuliffe backtrack on his strategy to tie Youngkin to Trump in the Virginia gubernatorial race?

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This weekly column on the next race for the White House usually zeroes in on the burgeoning contest for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. 

But with former President Donald Trump – the overwhelming front runner right now in the next Republican nomination race – front and center in Tuesday’s closely watched Virginia gubernatorial election, we’ll start with the high profile 2021 statewide showdown with national implications.

After repeatedly linking GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin to Trump for months, former Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told reporters this weekend that the election is “not about Trump.”

McAuliffe’s comment during a gaggle with reporters in Virginia Beach on Saturday comes after the former governor who’s running to win back his old job has rarely missed an opportunity to tie Youngkin to Trump at his campaign events, in his ads, and in his interviews.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin speaks during a campaign event in Old Town Alexandria’s Farmers Market in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., October 30, 2021. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
(Reuters)

The strategy’s simple: Opposition to Trump sparked heavy turnout by Democrats during his presidency, helping to fuel the blue wave that enabled the Democrats to convincingly win back the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms and help propel now-President Biden to victory over Trump in last November’s election. 

Now, with Trump more than nine months removed from the White House, McAuliffe’s battling a voter enthusiasm gap among Democrats in a race that most of the latest polls indicates is all tied up – in a state where Republicans haven’t won an election for governor, lieutenant governor, or attorney general in a dozen years. And those same polls indicate that Trump, who lost Virginia by 10 points to Biden in last year’s presidential election, remains very unpopular among Democrats and independent voters.

When pressed by Fox News’ Rich Edson about saying that the Virginia race is not about the former president, McAuliffe said “Trump is not liked here in the commonwealth of Virginia…People want to be lifted up; Trump is hate and division.”

And McAuliffe said that Trump “wants to run again in 2024” and suggested that the former president wants to use the 2021 election “as a launch pad for that.”

Trump remains very popular with Republican voters in Virginia and across the country, and extremely influential with GOP politicians, as he continues to play a kingmaker’s role in the party and repeatedly teases another presidential run in 2024. And his endorsement of Youngkin in the spring helped the first-time candidate and former private equity CEO, who hails from the business wing of the party, win Virginia’s heavily contested GOP nomination.

At the time, Youngkin said that Trump “represents so much of why I’m running,” a comment that the McAuliffe has repeated on the stump and his campaign has spotlighted in their ads.

But during the final stretch of the general election campaign, Youngkin appears to be keeping Trump at a distance 

While McAuliffe’s teamed up at rallies with Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Obama and other top Democrats, Youngkin has eschewed stumping with Trump and other top GOP surrogates. As he kicked off his current statewide bus tour, Youngkin emphasized that he wouldn’t be campaigning with top surrogates and instead would feature “everyday Virginians.”

Trump last week flirted with parachuting into Virginia to hold a rally on behalf of Youngkin, saying in a statement on Thursday “see you soon!” And Tayor Budowich, communications director for Trump’s “Save America” political organization tweeted that “President Trump looks forward to being back in Virginia! Details will be released when appropriate.”

“Hallelujah,” was McAuliffe’s initial reaction to reporters, minutes after Trump’s statement started going viral. And soon afterward he put out a statement once again tying the GOP nominee to the former president, claiming that “Glenn Youngkin’s entire campaign has been a full embrace of Donald Trump’s dangerous extremism.”

Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during his Save America rally in Perry, Ga., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)
(AP)

Neither Trump’s statement or Budowich’s tweet specifically said whether a visit would come before or after Election Day on Tuesday and sources close to the former president told Fox News hours later that Trump wouldn’t be visiting Virginia ahead of Tuesday’s election. 

But now plans are in the works for a Trump tele-rally on the eve of the election. Youngkin told reporters on Saturday that he was “not going to be engaged” in the Trump event.

“It is just killing Trump that he is not here, obviously,” McAuliffe argued. “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.”

The tease of the Trump in-person rally gave McAuliffe a quick fundraising burst, but will his full court press of linking Youngkin to the former president carrying the former governor to victory on Tuesday?

One of the freshest polls in the race, a Washington Post-Schar School survey, indicated that 53% said Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin makes no difference to their vote, with 37% saying it makes them less likely to support the GOP nominee and 7% saying it makes them more likely to vote for Youngkin.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Gov. Terry McAuliffe gestrures during a rally in Norfolk, Va., Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. McAuliffe will face Republican Glenn Youngkin in the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
(AP )

Tim Phillips, president of the powerful conservative and libertarian political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), told Fox News “I don’t think the former president has played much of a role” in the race.”

Phillips, who’s been leading a team from AFP’s political wing in get-out-the-vote efforts in support of Youngkin, argued McAuliffe’s efforts to tie the GOP nominee to Trump “just sounds tone deaf to a lot of Virginians I’m talking to.”

Phillips, who lives in Northern Virginia, said that voters are “talking about inflation, they’re looking at a meltdown in the public schools, and here’s a guy [McAuliffe] talking about the last president of the United States, who isn’t in office anymore. It just sounds tone deaf to people in where they are in their everyday lives.”

Get ready for the first major 2024 cattle call

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual national leadership conference is shaping up to be the first sizeable cattle call in the next race for the GOP presidential nomination.

The four-day confab, which kicks off Thursday in Las Vegas, Nevada, is drawing eight potential 2024 Republican White House hopefuls to speak in person to the influential crowd of GOP leaders, rainmakers, megadonors, and activists.

The possible GOP presidential contenders speaking at the event include former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida (chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s reelection arm), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And Trump will deliver a video address to the conference.

Longtime RJC executive director Matt Brooks told Fox News that the impressive lineup of in-person speakers is “a testament to the leadership of the organization, who encompasses so many of the top influencers, donors, contributors, and fundraisers in the Republican Party. This is the only time you could have all these folks assembled together. It’s the hottest ticket of the season.”

“We are thrilled and honored that this is now seen as a must stop event in terms of people planning and their scheduling and it’s been that way for the last couple of years,” Brooks emphasized. 

“We’re looking forward to hearing what they’re saying and what their vision is for the country going forward,” he added.

Tom Rath, the former New Hampshire attorney general and longtime GOP consultant who’s a veteran of numerous Republican presidential campaigns, said that such cattle calls, which draw the potential contenders as well as top party donors and activists, are an “event of convenience for both sides of the equation.” 

And for possible White House hopefuls, Rath said “if you want to make it clear that you’re interested in doing this, you’ve got to go to these places and go through these cattle calls to at least get into these stories.”

This year’s RJC leadership conference is their first since the passing in January of Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who for years played a key leadership role with the group and gave it generous financial support.

Brooks, who said that Adelson will be honored during the final evening of the confab, noted that “standing there and being a part of it and not having him there will be difficult for me personally and I’m sure for our guests and our speakers as well.”

Ahead of the RJC conference, Cruz and two other possible 2024 contenders – Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri – will speak at the annual National Conservatism conference, which his being held Sunday and Monday in Orlando, Florida.

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