Republicans in Virginia are saying what their nominee for governor will not: The governor’s race is a proxy for Mr. Trump’s grievances.
GLEN ALLEN, Va. — The event was billed as a rally for Virginia conservatives ahead of next month’s election for governor. But it was mostly about Donald J. Trump.
Each speaker, addressing the crowd of hundreds just outside the state capital of Richmond, declared the former president the rightful winner of the last presidential election and the assumed winner of the next one. The audience raved when Mr. Trump gave a short address over the phone.
But it was the speaker after Mr. Trump who made the pivot from national to local. Amanda Chase, a state senator from Amelia County who has called herself “Trump in heels,” explicitly tied the former president to Glenn Youngkin, the state’s Republican nominee for governor. Supporting one required supporting the other, she said.
“People know I’m not politically correct and I’ll say exactly what I’m thinking,” Ms. Chase said. “And if I’m telling you I’m supporting Glenn Youngkin, then you better be supporting Glenn Youngkin, because he’s the real deal.”
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate and a former governor, has sought to tie Mr. Youngkin to the former president, while the Republican candidate has largely tried to keep some distance from Mr. Trump, to avoid alienating the all-important suburban, moderate voters who could decide the race’s outcome. But at the grass-roots level, the messages from Virginia Democrats and Republicans are less distinct.
Democrats argue that losing the statewide election on Nov. 2 would be a bad omen for them in the 2022 midterms, and Republicans agree. And while Democrats paint Mr. Youngkin as an acolyte of Mr. Trump who would help pave the way for the former president’s return in 2024, Republicans at the “Take Back Virginia” rally on Wednesday explicitly said the same thing. They were willing to make clear what Mr. Youngkin has carefully avoided.
John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who organized the event and calls himself the “Godzilla of truth,” said the Virginia race was the first step in clawing back the political power that Trump voters believe was stolen from them last year. He was one of several speakers who encouraged the audience to become election workers.
“Let’s win on Nov. 2 and send a message to America that we have had enough,” Mr. Fredericks told the crowd. “You are the motor. You are the engine. You are the deplorables that, if we turn out on Nov. 2 and vote early and be a poll watcher, you can change the course of history in America.”
The disconnect between the political messages of Mr. Youngkin and his base speaks to the careful line that Republicans have been forced to walk. Although the former president’s approval ratings with moderates and independents remain underwater, which helped President Biden win Virginia by 10 points last year, Mr. Trump is still the most potent driver of enthusiasm and energy among the party’s most loyal voters. In an off-year election where turnout is expected to be significantly decreased from presidential levels, courting that energy is paramount for Virginia Republicans.
Mr. Youngkin did not attend the event in Glen Allen, but Ms. Chase spoke with the authority of a campaign surrogate, saying, “I work very closely with the Youngkin campaign.” Mr. Trump, in his telephone address, said, “I hope Glenn gets in there and straightens out Virginia.” At the cash bar, where patrons ordered wine and cocktails over discussions of election integrity, a collection of red signs supporting the Youngkin campaign were available to take home.
But Mr. Youngkin came under fire after the Wednesday rally. At issue was a moment early in the event when a speaker had led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance using a flag that activists claimed was brought to the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6. Mr. McAuliffe attacked Mr. Youngkin over the use of that flag in the pledge, and Mr. Youngkin distanced himself from the event.
“I wasn’t involved and so I don’t know,” Mr. Youngkin told reporters, referring to the episode. “But if that is the case, then we shouldn’t pledge allegiance to that flag. And, oh, by the way, I’ve been so clear, there is no place for violence — none, none — in America today.”
Trump supporters backing Mr. Youngkin have not been too troubled by such disavowals.
Last month, Mr. Youngkin said he would have voted to certify the 2020 election results, after previously refusing to answer the question. Mr. Youngkin’s campaign said at the time that he “has repeatedly said that Joe Biden was legitimately elected and that there was no significant fraud in Virginia’s 2020 election.”
There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and multiple state agencies and legislatures have repeatedly disproved Mr. Trump’s claims of a rigged election. However, at the event, attendees said in interviews that they believed Mr. Youngkin stood with them in their efforts to overturn the election and to oppose the Democratic agenda.
James Thornton, 47, said he did not follow politics before Mr. Trump’s election and now attends school board meetings to protest the way he said race is taught in schools. And Roxanne Joseph-Barber, 55, was passing out petitions for a forensic audit of Virginia’s 2020 presidential election results.
Asked what was the most important thing she wanted campaigns to know about voters like her, Ms. Joseph-Barber paused to collect herself.
“The election wasn’t honest, and we know that,” she said. “So why wouldn’t we be mad? Of course we’re mad.”
Ms. Chase, who ran for governor against Mr. Youngkin before becoming a vocal supporter of his campaign, made clear in her speech that she did not trust the 2020 election results — and also implied that Mr. Youngkin agreed with her.
She boasted about traveling to Arizona, South Dakota and Texas to meet with other state legislators who were interested in finding evidence that the election was stolen. And she said that even though Mr. Youngkin dismissed Mr. Trump’s claims of fraud during his debates with Mr. McAuliffe, voters should still trust that he is on their side.
“I know what’s going on, and the Youngkin campaign knows what’s going on,” Ms. Chase told the crowd. In the debates, she added, Mr. Youngkin could not give “the Democrats ammo to use against us, to get the independents to go with Terry McAuliffe.”
Peter Peterson, a veteran in his 60s, said that while he planned to vote for Mr. Youngkin in opposition to the Democratic agenda, he had noticed Mr. Youngkin’s hesitancy on what Mr. Peterson called his most important issue: election fraud.
“Everyone treats the voting stuff as if it’s a third rail,” Mr. Peterson said. “No one wants to come out and say the vote was stolen.”
Mr. Peterson, who traveled about 100 miles from Virginia Beach for the rally, said he preferred a blunt-force political instrument such as Mr. Trump to candidates who deliver polished speeches. At the Glen Allen rally, polish was in short supply.
Speakers seemed to one-up each other in expressing their loyalty to Mr. Trump: Some called for the arrest of Mr. Biden. Others compared vaccine mandates to conditions in Nazi Germany or invoked violent periods in American history, including the Civil War and the American Revolution, to describe the stakes of upcoming elections.
Jan Morgan, a right-wing commentator and long-shot Senate candidate in Arkansas who spoke at the event, said conservatives should see themselves much like latter-day revolutionary soldiers.
“As far as I can tell,” she said, “you still got your shoes. You’ve got your clothes, and I know you’ve got guns.”
The crowd cheered in response.