By Jason Lange
CHESTERFIELD, Va. (Reuters) -At a recent Virginia rally, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin talked up his plans to boost the economy and fight crime, and said nothing at all about false claims that Democratic President Joe Biden's election victory was the result of fraud.
But some in the crowd heard the message all the same, moments before the former private equity executive's speech, when Republican state Senator Amanda Chase told Youngkin supporters - offstage and without a microphone - that she was on guard against a repeat of election cheating.
"I know what the Democrats are trying to do," she said in an interview after remarks that drew cheers. "If things happen again like this past year, they will be caught," said Chase, one of Virginia's leading voices in support of former President Donald Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud, who last year called on him to declare martial law following his loss to Biden.
The dynamic illustrated the fine line Youngkin walks on the campaign trail. He is trying to avoid turning off die-hard supporters of Trump, a Republican, whose allegations the election was stolen from him were rejected by dozens of courts, state election officials and members of his own administration.
But Youngkin also does not want to alienate the independent voters who disapprove of Trump and his role in sparking the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol intended to overturn his election defeat.
The Nov. 2 contest between Youngkin and his Democratic opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, is widely seen as a bellwether of the 2022 congressional races that will determine which party controls Congress for the second half of Biden's term.
"Youngkin has the difficult task that many mainstream Republicans have," said Jessica Taylor, an analyst at the Cook Political Report, who considers the Youngkin-McAuliffe race a toss-up. "You have to thread the needle very tightly here because you cannot anger the Trump base that you also need."
Trump has endorsed Youngkin and has warned that the vote could be rigged against the Republican.
Youngkin, however, has called Biden's victory "certifiably fair." He has made more nuanced statements about election integrity, saying this month that Virginia's voting machines need to be audited, something which is already done.
At his rally on Friday, held under a covered horse-riding arena in Chesterfield, south of the state capital, Richmond, Youngkin told the crowd: "We need election observers. Please volunteer to be election observers."
He also told the rally he was thankful that Chase had talked there. "Thanks for being our partner," he said, pointing her out in the crowd. Chase, who lost to Youngkin in the Republican primary, has been at several of his campaign events.
Asked about the disconnect between Youngkin's and Chase's comments on election fraud, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter cited McAuliffe's ties to Democrats involved in past election disputes, including former Vice President Al Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush after the Supreme Court halted further recounts, and Stacey Abrams, who disputed her 2018 defeat in the Georgia governor's race.
McAuliffe's campaign has seized on Youngkin's comments on election machine audits, running a television ad last week that compared Youngkin's position with what a voice in the spot described as Trump's "conspiracy theories," juxtaposed with images of the Jan. 6 riot.
Virginia shifted Democratic over the past decade, thanks in part to population growth in its liberal-leaning suburbs of Washington.
Biden beat Trump in Virginia by 10 percentage points, the fourth straight election in which a Democratic presidential candidate carried the Southern state. Republicans carried Virginia in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004.
Many Youngkin supporters at his rally said they were savvy to Youngkin's balancing act regarding Trump's loss in 2020.
"He probably can't come out and say it was stolen like I can," said Tim Ashlin, 63, a retired utilities systems operator from Cumberland, Virginia. "He has got to be more centrist."
Some experts worry Youngkin's messaging - and his campaign's use of Chase - could undermine people's faith in U.S. elections.
"He is clearly trying to have his cake and eat it too," said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a voting rights watchdog group.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)