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Trump’s praise complicates Youngkin’s attempted pivot to the political middle in Virginia

This problem for Youngkin was highlighted on Friday when the former President — who handily lost Virginia in both 2016 and 2020 — issued a statement praising the Republican businessman and attacking Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, who led the commonwealth from 2014 to 2018.

Trump lauded Youngkin’s poll numbers and called him an “incredible success” and “highly respected person” who will “truly Make Virginia Great Again,” tying the Republican candidate to the President’s own campaign slogan. He then went on to attack McAuliffe as a “failed and unpopular governor” who took campaign donations from him and “would do whatever I wanted.”

In many Republican contests, a statement from Trump would be celebrated and quickly used to raise money. But in Virginia, a state that has turned on the Republican Party in recent years, the statement could just further complicate matters for the Republican candidate.

“Trump is deeply unpopular where Youngkin needs the votes,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican state senator who blogs about Virginia politics.

Youngkin’s strategy since winning the nomination earlier this year has been to cast himself as a political outsider, playing up his business background and touting himself as someone untethered to any political partisanship.

“Let me ask everybody a question: In our communities, in our house of worship or right here at work, does anyone really care what political party we belong to?” Youngkin asks in one television ad.

The businessman’s public message, particularly in his paid advertising, has also focused on broad proposals aimed at the middle of the electorate — including a series of state tax and benefit policy proposals to assist military veterans that the Republican nominee announced this week — and less about the kind of culture war issues that animated Trump’s tenure.

Youngkin made that clear in a newly surfaced video that shows the Republican last month telling a liberal activist posing as an abortion opponent that while he could “go on offense” on abortion, focusing on the issue “won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

Youngkin’s outsider strategy could be effective against McAuliffe, a Democrat whose decades of raising money for the party has made him the prototypical political insider. But the biggest threat to that strategy could be Trump himself, a politician who, in his quest to rebuild his political power after his 2020 loss, is eager to tie himself to Republicans on the rise like Youngkin.

“I’m sure Youngkin’s pollsters were not pleased, but his political team was glad it came out on a Friday in July,” said Saxman of the Trump statement. “The base will love it and Glenn needs to get them fired up, since this is a base election, but the downside for him is that this might help McAuliffe with his base even more.”

McAuliffe himself and his top campaign aides have cheered any mention of Youngkin and Trump in the same sentence. Their belief: The more Trump gets involved in the Virginia race, the easier it will be for them to win.

“I would pay for the fuel to get Donald Trump here,” McAuliffe told CNN days before he won the Democratic Party’s nomination last month. The former governor noted that Trump endorsed Youngkin shortly after the Republican won the nomination and McAuliffe couldn’t hide his eagerness to get the former President to Virginia.

“Absolutely,” McAuliffe said with a laugh, “I will gas up the plane.”

A senior McAuliffe aide told CNN that they will use the statement against Youngkin when possible, but that the tension around Trump and Youngkin just further highlights the Republican candidate has a “tough balance of trying to keep the base fired up” while knowing that what they want is out of step with most Virginia voters.

“That is their core challenge, which is going to be continually tough for them,” the aide said.

The Democratic Governors Association responded to the Trump statement with a simple question: “When’s the Trump-Youngkin rally in Virginia?”

Youngkin’s campaign responded to the Trump statement by accusing the former Democratic governor of being tied to Trump himself.

“Terry McAuliffe knows he can’t beat Glenn Youngkin, which is why he is so desperate to run against someone else,” said Matt Wolking, Youngkin’s communications director and a former Trump aide. “The trouble for Terry is that he’s a total fraud who took $25,000 from Donald Trump, hugged Donald Trump, toasted Donald Trump, and now pretends like he hasn’t been friends with him for nearly three decades.”

CNN reported in 2009 that Trump cut McAuliffe a $25,000 check during his failed bid for governor that year.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that the more Trump backs Youngkin, the more the Republican candidate’s team should be worried.

“It’s all about Trump. He couldn’t care about Youngkin for Youngkin’s sake. He wants to associate himself with what he thinks will be a winner, but in fact he is making it less likely he will win,” said Sabato. “(Youngkin) doesn’t need this unwanted help from Donald Trump. But he’s got it and it’s yet another albatross around his neck — with a Trump symbol.”

John Fredericks, a Virginia-based talk-radio host who chaired Trump’s presidential campaigns in the state, said he believes Youngkin has done a good job so far of walking the difficult tightrope of running as a Republican in a fairly anti-Trump state.

“What he needs to do is hold the very motivated Trump base in Virginia together and inspire that enthusiasm while also attempting to distance himself from some of the Trump personality idiosyncrasies that turned off some of the Virginia big-market suburbanite women,” said Fredericks. “That’s a tall order.”

Fredericks noted that Trump has a particular fondness for Virginia — the former president owns both a golf club and a winery in the state — that explains his outspokenness on the race.

“McAuliffe is going to run against Trump anyway,” Fredericks said, “so there’s really no downside to the president saying nice things that are authentic about Glenn.”

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to more clearly reflect the senior McAuliffe aide’s thoughts on Youngkin’s campaign dealing with Trump’s statement in support of their candidate.

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