Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Democrats look to VA governor's race for early signs of trouble in 2022
02:44 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Glenn Youngkin is trying to walk a tightrope on so-called election integrity.

The Virginia GOP gubernatorial nominee, who has acknowledged that President Joe Biden’s election was legitimate, is digging into his call for an audit of the voting machines used in the 2020 election – a reflection of how former President Donald Trump’s lies about the election results have become a litmus test for Republican candidates seeking office, even in states like Virginia, which backed Biden by 10 points last fall.

“I think we need to make sure that people trust these voting machines. And I just think like, I grew up in a world where you have an audit every year. In businesses, you have an audit,” Youngkin said Monday during a conversation with a Richmond organization that’s interviewing candidates, reiterating a proposal he had made eight months ago when he launched an “election integrity task force” during the Republican nominating fight.

“So let’s just audit the voting machines, publish it so everybody can see it,” he said, ignoring that the State Board of Elections had already run an audit of the election and published the results.

Yet last month, during the second and final debate against Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe ahead of the November election, Youngkin said the results of the 2020 campaign were “certifiably fair” and there wasn’t “material fraud.” The Virginia State Board of Elections’ audit report, published in March, confirmed the results of both the 2020 presidential election in Virginia and the Senate campaign that saw Democrat Mark Warner reelected.

This issue, more than others in the race, highlights the fine line Youngkin must walk in a commonwealth that has moved toward Democrats in recent years. Youngkin, in ads and at events, has cast himself as a political outsider untethered to traditional political operations – in a bid to win back more moderate voters who fled his party in 2016 and 2020 as a response to Trump. At the same time, Youngkin must keep the Republican base motivated, primarily by speaking to issues like crime, education and, most importantly, the results of the 2020 election.

Trump, who has endorsed Youngkin, has devoted much of his post-presidency so far to trumpeting baseless claims about the election, lauding Republicans who follow his lead and attacking those who do not. On Wednesday, Trump’s political organization sent out a press release pushing to an article about Youngkin’s call for an audit.

In an interview with CNN’s Jeff Zeleny last month, Youngkin said he has been “very clear that there’s not extensive fraud in Virginia” but that he, as governor, would “invest in our election process” so that Virginians have “faith in our election process.” He also attacked McAuliffe for trying to “politicize everything” and “make a word, election integrity, some bad word.”

But the more that Youngkin leans into the election integrity message, the more McAuliffe uses his comments to tie the Republican to Trump, something the Democrat has been doing throughout the 2021 campaign.

“Glenn Youngkin’s priorities are clear: He is running for governor to bring Donald Trump’s dangerous conspiracy theories to Virginia,” McAuliffe said in a statement this week. “At a time when Virginians are worried about good jobs, a quality education and the rising costs of health care, Glenn has called his Trumpian election integrity plan the ‘most important issue.’ ”

McAuliffe hopes that by tying Youngkin to Trump, voters in areas like the Washington, DC, suburbs who fled the Republican Party in response to the former President will respond the same way to the party’s gubernatorial nominee.

McAuliffe added: “He refuses to let go of Trump’s 2020 election conspiracy theories. … This behavior is dangerous and it’s disqualifying.”

Matt Wolking, a Youngkin spokesman, responded to McAuliffe by saying the Republican has been “clear about his view of the 2020 election and nothing has changed,” adding that Youngkin “believes audits are a best practice when it comes to administering elections—just as audits are a routine best practice in the business world—and he will ensure Virginia continues to conduct audits going forward and that they are thorough, efficient, and accurate.”

Youngkin’s team has also pushed back against McAuliffe’s attacks by noting that he, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Republicans “stole” the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

McAuliffe largely stood by those comments when asked about them during a television roundtable on Thursday, complaining about the Supreme Court decision in 2000. Still, he noted, “Once you are sworn in, we’ve got to move on.”

When ask by CNN whether McAuliffe would have voted to certify the 2000 election, McAuliffe spokesman Renzo Olivari said, “Of course.”

“Unlike Glenn Youngkin, Terry is not a conspiracy theorist who has predicated his entire campaign on Donald Trump’s deadly lies about the 2020 election,” Olivari said.