Leahy: The Youngkin Campaign’s Stumbles Aren’t Fatal — Yet

Every statewide campaign stumbles at some point. Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin’s campaign is suffering self-inflicted stumbles right now.

These missteps — over debates, issues or endorsements — are not fatal. Yet. Eventually, they become too numerous to ignore. When they do, even the base voters who were never supposed to desert the nominee find they have better things to do than show up on Election Day.

About those recent stumbles, among them was Youngkin’s refusal to take the National Rifle Association’s candidate survey. The result was that the NRA endorsed Youngkin’s ticketmates, lieutenant governor nominee Winsome Sears and attorney general nominee Jason Miyares, but not him.

That’s not a small thing. Gun rights advocates have been grumbling about Youngkin’s commitment to the issue for months. Among those for whom gun rights are the only issue that matters, Youngkin’s reticence to take the NRA survey stokes their suspicions he’s not to be trusted on the issue. It’s hardly a secret why he stiff-armed the NRA, despite being a self-proclaimed lifelong member: that endorsement will hurt him in the suburbs.

It’s the same with abortion — and we have that admission straight from the candidate’s mouth.

Partisans will say these things really don’t matter in the general election. Back in 2009, Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell didn’t sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and went on to win in a landslide. Besides, what are the gun and abortion voters going to do? Stay home and let Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe win?

A fair point. But let’s not forget McDonnell, who pushed for a transportation package that included a slew of tax hikes, was also the last GOP governor. In 2013, Ken Cuccinelli II, the last GOP attorney general, lost a close race to McAuliffe. What made the difference? Paul Goldman and I looked at the numbers and concluded that Cuccinelli’s defeat “came from defections among independent conservatives — the very people he was supposed to have on his side no matter what.”

As a state senator in 2005, Cuccinelli made a last-minute appeal to those same voters, urging them to show up at the polls and vote for GOP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Kilgore. It didn’t work.

Yes, Virginia, voters can decide to go fishing rather than show up to vote if they have doubts about a candidate’s commitment to their issues.

Does that mean a similar fate awaits Youngkin? We don’t know yet. Youngkin’s slip-ups may not matter to the conservative independents who helped propel McDonnell to victory but turned on Cuccinelli.

And, some argue, that bloc of voters, especially in the suburbs, has abandoned the GOP and will not return any time soon.

One thing that would ensure they stay away? Youngkin’s insistence on joining his ticketmates at a two-day organizing event in the 5th Congressional District — an event former congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) called “conspiracy-palooza.”

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