Youngkin playbook falters as Democrats hang tight in key races

Lee Zeldin, Glenn Youngkin
Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, right, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin raise their hands as they attend a campaign rally. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

Youngkin playbook falters as Democrats hang tight in key races

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The GOP’s attempts to replicate the single-issue campaign success of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin came woefully short Tuesday as several copycats failed to knock off Democratic incumbents.

When Youngkin (R) won the state’s gubernatorial race last year, the Republican Party thought they had found a new blueprint to electoral success in states that had slipped away from their grasp and become increasingly uncompetitive.

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Wearing what became a trademark red sweater vest, the mild-mannered but charismatic Youngkin traversed Virginia in the fall of 2021 trumpeting a commitment to parental rights and educational excellence. And, after capitalizing on a major faux pas from his Democratic opponent, Youngkin rode his campaign pledge to support parents and schools to the governor’s mansion in Richmond.

Throughout the 2022 midterm campaign, numerous Republican candidates leaned into the “Youngkin playbook” and sought to capitalize on voter discontent on very specific issues as they sought to regain power in the U.S. Capitol and in state governments across the nation.

David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College, told the Washington Examiner last week that there was some wisdom to the single-issue campaign, especially for Republicans running in deep blue territory.

“There’s a limit to how much you can convince voters to care about something they don’t already care about, so it’s not like there’s a tried and true fail-safe strategy,” Hopkins said at the time. “But if there’s an existing concern that you can emphasize that cuts across the normal party divisions, then it makes a lot of strategic sense to try to package yourself as the solution to that concern.”

But when the ballots were cast and vote tallies trickled in throughout Tuesday night, the tactic appeared to have proved insufficient. The single-issue campaign strategy had failed to galvanize voters in the way Youngkin did last year, even as the Virginia governor himself crisscrossed the nation campaigning for Republican candidates up and down the ballot in red and blue states alike.

In his own backyard of Virginia, Youngkin-backed Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega fell short in her bid to unseat Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, as did Hung Cao’s attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) in the state’s 10th District.

Both Cao and Vega, in moves reminiscent of Youngkin’s 2021 campaign, repeatedly emphasized their support for parental rights and their opponent’s ties to a Virginia state delegate who vowed to reintroduce legislation that would have criminalized parents who did not approve if their child sought to live a transgender identity.

In New York, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin took a page out of Youngkin’s campaign and attempted to focus his race against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul on the singular issue of crime.

But even though polling in the final days of the campaign indicated Zeldin had a real shot to unseat the incumbent Hochul, the blue partisan lean of the Empire State proved too difficult for the Republican candidate to overcome. Hochul prevailed by a 5-point margin, returns showed as of Wednesday evening.

The lone outlier appears to be Oregon, another traditionally blue state, where, as of Wednesday evening, Republican Christine Drazan is narrowly trailing Democratic candidate Tina Kotek by fewer than 30,000 votes, with more than 30% of ballots unreported in the state’s gubernatorial race.

Drazan, while helped by an insurgent independent candidate who peeled votes away from Kotek, proved to be competitive in the longtime Democratic stronghold by emphasizing her commitment to fixing the problem of rampant homelessness throughout her campaign.

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In her campaign ads, Drazan repeatedly hammered Kotek’s ties to unpopular Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and blamed Kotek for the state’s troubles with homelessness.

Oregon’s extensive vote-by-mail election system means the results of the race are not likely to be known for several more days.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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