Youngkin Wins First Debate

GOP's Glenn Youngkin Looked and Sounded Like a Governor. Better Prepared, More Poised and Concise, Confident Yet Relatable and Mistake-Free In His First-Ever Political Debate

Virginia Republicans last May put their faith in a first-time candidate for public office, Glenn Youngkin, as their nominee for Governor in the state’s odd-year general election on November 2nd. They chose him over more experienced political veterans such as former House Speaker Kirk Cox, State Senator Amanda Chase, and long-time GOP supporter and candidate Pete Snyder.

Choosing a novice candidate is risky, especially when running against a long-time political pro and former governor like Terry McAuliffe. But Virginia’s GOP saw in Youngkin what I did when first meeting him in December 2020 - the best natural candidate I’ve ever met. And I’ve worked in over 35 congressional and US Senate campaigns in 25 states over a quarter-century, where I’ve done my share of helping negotiate debates, coach candidates, and conduct mock debates.

So many Republicans were no doubt a little trepidatious of tonight’s gubernatorial debate at Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Virginia in the Commonwealth’s far southwest corner, bordering Kentucky and West Virginia. They need not have been. Youngkin won the contest.

Yes, debate assessments are largely subjective. It starts with expectations. How will a novice, first-time candidate perform against a veteran politician? Which candidate best “connects” with voters, inspires confidence, makes the best use of facts and stories, and does a better job of drawing contrasts on key issues? Which candidate does the better job of meeting or exceeding their objectives?

The 60-minute debate, which allowed only for short, 1-minute answers and 30-second responses, was expertly moderated by Susan Page, the veteran Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today. Joining her were two others, Candace Burns, a television anchor with Richmond’s CBS affiliate, and Dr. Bob Hallsworth of Virginia Commonwealth University. All three did a fine job and met their objectives of a debate that was civil, fair, and helpful to Virginia‘s voters. It interests me that most debates at the state or district level, whether for Congress or state offices, almost always seem better moderated and more valuable than presidential debates. Another argument for abolishing or replacing the failed and fossilized US Commission on Presidential Debates.

One major exception to the format. Washington, DC’s ABC affiliate, Channel 7, which aired the debate in northern Virginia, permitted a McAuliffe campaign commercial (on abortion, of course) during the commercial break at the midway point. That is bad form and is typically not done by broadcasters hosting the debate. In fairness, Youngkin should be allowed to air one 30-second commercial midway during the next debate while McAuliffe commercials should be prohibited. That would be fair play, but don’t expect any of that from the Washington, DC media.

The questioning was first directed to Youngkin over President Biden’s recent vaccine mandate, which many legal experts believe is illegal if not unconstitutional, and at best is unenforceable. Youngkin’s response was 1) support vaccines, 2) reaffirm his position that it is a personal choice, and 3) note that McAuliffe declined to join him in a public service announcement to encourage everyone to get a vaccine.

McAuliffe responded by name-calling, referring to Youngkin as an “anti-vaxxer” and affirming his own support, enthusiastically, to force people to take the vaccine through state mandates. Somehow, McAuliffe believes that is popular. While there is support for that position, it is nuanced and divisive.

McAuliffe also launched an attack on Youngkin’s long service and co-CEO role at one of the nation’s most successful investment firms, the Carlyle Group, based in Washington, DC (both Youngkin and McAuliffe live in the Washington, DC suburbs). Youngkin’s counter-attack was spectacular, reminding Gov. McAuliffe that he has invested millions of his own money in Carlyle. “If you can trust me with your money, the rest of Virginia can trust me.” Boom. McAuliffe tried to retort that he’d lost money, but that fell flat.

McAuliffe used a few personal attacks to unnerve Youngkin and throw him off his game, an old trick in debates, by claiming Carlyle “got rid of him.” It didn’t work, and Youngkin laughed it off. Those kinds of personal attacks don’t play well with average voters and make the accusers look small and mean.

They further disagreed over energy policy, with Youngkin supporting an “all the above” energy policy, while McAuliffe doubled down on renewable energy - wind and solar - while debating in a region of the state known for coal and natural gas. That played well. Youngkin went in for the kill by referencing how Richmond (the state capital) had largely forgotten southwest Virginia. Probably because the once-Democratic stronghold has become solidly Republican territory.

McAuliffe also took a page from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s playbook by tying Trump to Youngkin at least 6 times. Youngkin largely ignored it and focused on his plans to invest in Virginia schools, law enforcement, and rekindle the economy. On law enforcement, McAuliffe made news by backing off his Democratic Party primary promises to eliminate “qualified immunity” for police officers, which protects them from frivolous lawsuits. Youngkin strongly supports qualified immunity while also wanting to get rid of “bad cops” who violate civil rights. Youngkin noted that he’d been endorsed by 50 sheriffs in Virginia, while McAuliffe has won only 4.

Youngkin also returned the favor by tying McAuliffe to the increasingly unpopular Joe Biden, including references to the shameful Afghanistan withdrawal - Virginia has a very large active-duty military community, active duty and retired - and rising inflation spurred by Biden policies. That will resonate more with many Virginia voters, both issues which are contributing to Biden’s sinking job approval numbers in recent polls.

Abortion also was brought up, with Youngkin affirming his pro-life view and noting how deeply personal the issue was to people. He notably said that he would not sign a Texas-style “heartbeat” bill, controversial for its enforcement through private lawsuits, or a “private right of action.” He also indicated a preference for a “pain threshold” versus a “heartbeat” bill. His position seems consistent with Mississippi’s new abortion law (as well as most European countries) that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of gestation when studies show that unborn children clearly experience pain. It is an interesting and nuanced position that might not please all of the pro-life community but may reduce McAuliffe’s ability to use it as a cudgel in more liberal parts of the state. McAuliffe reiterated his support for Virginia law, which permits abortion on demand through 2 trimesters, well past viability outside the womb, and further permits it up to birth and perhaps beyond with the signatures of three doctors. McAuliffe affirmed that he wants to loosen restrictions on third-trimester abortions. McAuliffe also defended and promised to keep funding Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

Youngkin’s nuanced, thoughtful, and deft responses on the abortion issue should help neutralize the issue except, of course, with the most pro-abortion supporters.

McAuliffe’s successor, current Gov. Ralph Northam, once infamously and cheerfully explained what he’d do if a child survived a late-term abortion. He’d “keep it comfortable” until the mother decided what to do with the child. He seems cruelly willing to snuff out the child’s life, in what sounds like infanticide to many people.

Youngkin was asked about Critical Race Theory. While McAuliffe argued that it wasn’t being taught in schools, Youngkin expertly provided facts and examples on how it made its way into many school curriculums. Score another one for Youngkin.

The issue of election integrity was also raised, with Youngkin being asked whether he agreed with Trump that the election could be “stolen.” No, Youngkin quickly responded, noting Virginia’s history of clean elections. That much is generally true (Virginia does not do a great job keeping its voter rolls updated) and it was the right answer. That didn’t stop one media outlet from noting that Youngkin “breaks with Trump” on the issue. Both candidates quickly agreed to accept the results of an officially certified election, even if it is close if the other candidate won.

An interesting question arose about the recent removal of a large, towering statue on Richmond’s Monument Row of Robert E. Lee, the legendary Confederate general and former University President (Washington and Lee University, Lexington). McAuliffe beamed with pride and satisfaction over its removal, while Youngkin 1) reiterated his view that local monuments are a local decision with 2) hopes that they are relocated to museums. “We should not erase our history,” but learn from it, Youngkin responded. Again, a good answer.

Stylistically, McAuliffe bobbed, weaved, and gesticulated on stage with his usual carnival barker-level energy. His native New York accent obvious, he seemed focused less on persuading undecided voters than motivating his “progressive” base. Virginia-native Youngkin was polished, poised, and unfazed by McAuliffe’s personal attacks and darts, providing contrasts and painting McAuliffe as the extremist with every answer. Youngkin clearly focused his message on undecided voters or “leaners,” and to make as many voters as possible amenable to this first-time candidate as governor.

Both candidates were mostly civil. Neither lost their cool. The next and last debate is on September 28th, in deep-blue Alexandria in the Washington suburbs. If you missed the debate, you can watch it here. If I ever help a candidate with debate prep again, I’ll be sure to make good use of this video.

One call out for Youngkin. He will need to square his support for reducing taxes with promises to increase investment in Virginia schools and law enforcement.

Polls show this race to be a virtual tie, along with races for the other statewide offices, Lieutenant Governor (Republican Winsome Sears versus Democrat Hala Ayala) and Attorney General (Republican Jason Miyares versus incumbent Democrat Mark Herring). Early in-person voting in Virginia starts today (Sept. 17) for 45 days.

This is the race to watch this fall. The keys to a Youngkin victory will be 1) high turnout in “south side” Virginia, outside of Washington’s deep blue suburbs where more than a quarter of the state’s voters reside, a great many of them dependent on federal government jobs and contracts while minimizing losses in those counties, including Arlington (where I live), Alexandria, and Fairfax, along with the formerly-Republican counties Loudoun and Prince William. Loudoun is “ground zero” in the Critical Race Theory debate. Also, it will be interesting to see if the race is “nationalized” the way California’s recall election was. McAuliffe will try, but it could cut both ways with Biden’s plummeting popularity and an interesting set of congressional votes and debates on inflationary and wasteful spending bills and huge tax increases on the docket.

Keep an eye on this one. It has implications.