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Why Virginia is a team effort for Democrats and one-man mission for Republicans

While Democrat Terry McAuliffe is welcoming his party's biggest stars, Republican Glenn Youngkin is keeping his at arms' length.
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WARRENTON, Va. — In the final days of Virginia’s neck-and-neck campaign for governor, seemingly the entire Democratic Party is mustering to support Terry McAuliffe, while Republican Glenn Youngkin is happily going it more or less alone.

It’s a sign that Virginia Democrats are nervous and calling in all the reinforcements they can get. But for Youngkin and Republicans, it’s an acknowledgement that being associated with his party’s national brand and its biggest stars — especially former President Donald Trump — would probably do more harm than good in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican since 2009.

“Terry McAuliffe wants anybody but Terry McAuliffe campaigning. He’s inviting the world to come and campaign with him,” Youngkin told reporters after a recent event. “You’re going to see me campaign as Glenn Youngkin, the candidate who is marching to victory.”

President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison and former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams all have stumped for McAuliffe or are scheduled to campaign before the Nov. 2 election.

With polls showing a dead heat and Republicans appearing more motivated, Democrats are scrambling to make sure their base turns out.

“It's really nice to have people come in and help create the enthusiasm and the importance of getting out the vote,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party. “We are very proud to have Barack Obama back to remind us what is at stake and that all roads for 2022 and 2024 lead through Virginia.”

Youngkin, meanwhile, has tried to carve out his own brand, striking a delicate balance between giving just enough red meat to motivate his party’s Trump-loving base, but not enough to alienate Trump-loathing suburban moderates — both of which he will need to win.

“Both sides are probably doing the right thing,” said Michael DuHaime, the GOP strategist behind former Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms in New Jersey, an even bluer state than Virginia that is the only other one holding an election for governor this year.

“It benefits the Democrats in a state that's trending much more Democratic, much more progressive, to make this race kind of a nationalized, ideological race,” DuHaime added. “For Youngkin to win, you want this race to be about Virginia issues. You don't want it to be about national issues. You don't want it to be about Donald Trump.”

Youngkin has invited some national conservative leaders to campaign with him, including former Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. But they came earlier, for lower-profile events, and are not part of his closing strategy.

Former Vice President Mike Pence came to Virginia Beach in August, but for a private fundraiser, not a public campaign event. Notably, Pence tweeted a photo of him and Youngkin at the event, but Youngkin did not.

“Glenn Youngkin is his own man, and he doesn't need to bring in all the outside talent that McAuliffe is bringing in,” said Rick Michael, the GOP chairman in Chesterfield County, south of Richmond.

Last week, Youngkin steered clear of an opportunity to appear with out-of-state conservative headliners like former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, but it still ended up creating a headache when he was forced to distance himself from the event and criticize his own supporters for venerating a flag that organizers said was present at the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“Youngkin is hoping to run this race without anyone noticing the man behind the curtain,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked in Virginia. “He's embraced everything about Trump other than a willingness to show up with Trump in a photo op.”

Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who ran surrogate strategy for both Hillary Clinton and Biden’s presidential campaigns, said the contrast between the two campaigns shows Democrats have a “wide swath of diverse and popular surrogates” while Republicans are “relegated to relying on a handful of Trump disciples.”

Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, which assists GOP campaigns, said Democrats have tried too hard to frame the race around external factors.

“Glenn Youngkin has run a strong campaign talking about issues that people care about in Virginia and McAuliffe, as evidenced by his behavior on the campaign trail and his responses in interviews, is becoming frustrated with a race that's slipping away from him,” Hunt said.

McAuliffe, he added, is “needing to rely on other people to lift his campaign when Glenn Youngkin is standing tall.”

Youngkin has demurred when asked if he wants Trump to come campaign for him. Trying to make hay of the snub, Democrats have tried to provoke a reaction by trolling him by land, air and sea with a flying banner, floating billboard and truck sign circling the former president’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida asking, “Why won't Youngkin let Trump campaign in VA?”

Even without Trump, Youngkin has resisted leaning on other prominent GOP leaders who appeal to various factions of the party.

In past governor contests, a Republican candidate might rely on a top Republican governor from another state to come in and vouch for him, a role Christie played in 2014 as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has that job now, but Trump has branded him a “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only, so a Ducey visit might only turn the Trump base against Youngkin. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is more popular with the conservative wing of the party, campaigned for Youngkin during the GOP primary, but has not returned for the general election.

One high-level veteran of Trump’s political operation acknowledged that any campaign appearance by the former president would likely serve as a rallying point for Democrats and boost turnout for McAuliffe.

“What Republican can he bring in other than Trump? Who can he bring?" said the operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s vulnerabilities. "The Republican Party doesn't have as many stars as the Democratic Party does right now."