Based on his early moves to sideline hot-button issues like abortion and gun rights, Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin is joining the ranks of popular GOP middle-of-the-road governors like Larry Hogan in Maryland (68 percent approval), Charlie Baker in Massachusetts (69 percent approval) and Chris Sununu in New Hampshire (54 percent approval).
You could call them the party’s kinder, gentler political killers, to borrow a line from George H.W. Bush, whose chief of staff was Chris Sunnunu’s father John.
That crew now includes Youngkin, who can only serve one term under Virginia law, but the sky’s the limit for him in Republican politics if he can scale up the model he followed to turn the state red again by bringing college-educated suburban women back into the GOP fold.
Hogan is term-limited after next year and since “Everybody loves Larry” he’ll toy with a 2024 presidential run, while Baker is getting out while the getting’s good after two terms rather than face both a Trump-backed primary challenger and then a tough general election in a mostly Democratic state. Sununu just announced he’s seeking a fourth two-year term after turning down his party’s pleas to run for the Senate, a demotion in his view.
“I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” he said, crushing the hopes of GOP leaders who saw him as a sure bet to flip a Democratic seat and win back the Senate.
Youngkin saw the payoff to this kinder, gentler results-oriented approach in last month’s election when about a quarter of voters cited education as their top issue, and more than half of those (53 percent) voted for Youngkin, according to The Washington Post’s exit poll. He won 74 percent of white women without a college degree while Democrat Terry McAuliffe won 61 percent of white women with college degrees. Although hundreds of thousands of women showed up spontaneously to march in Washington and protest Trump’s presidency in 2017, more than half of white women (55 percent) voted for him in 2020.
By stressing education and the economy, speaking softly and stressing his suburban dad credentials, Youngkin came across as different enough from Trump to win back the white women he needed to close the gap in Virginia in a race that initially looked like a slam dunk for McAuliffe, a popular former governor seeking to claim a second term facing a political novice who’d spent his career in the closeted wealth of the Carlyle Group, a political equity firm in a state where Democrats had held every statewide office for a dozen years .
But Youngkin proved deft at ducking and weaving and not saying much, and McAuliffe made a fatal error by appearing to dismiss parental concerns about school curriculums. Youngkin’s biggest applause line at rallies was promising to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools, where it is not taught but had become a catch-all for everything parents disliked about pandemic policies and politics.
By the time Youngkin won, the pundits saw it coming—but not until then. He was an amateur, and yet his gifts of evasion were allowing the voters to see him as something more, or less—you couldn’t be entirely sure which it was. Even now, a month into the transition, it’s a game of cat and mouse. Pressed on where he stands now on the issues that defined the campaign, like privately telling abortion opponents he would go “on offense” after elected and wouldn’t “go squishy on you” and promising to overturn gun restrictions put in place by Democrats, his transition office released a statement saying Glenn is “laying the foundation” for his “Day One Game Plan to restore excellence in education, make our communities safer, lower cost of living, make government work for the people, and reinvigorate job growth.”
Abortion is not part of Youngkin’s “Day One Plan” though he said when pressed that he would “entertain” a pain threshold bill that would limit abortion to 20 weeks. On guns, he has turned aside entreaties to remove gun-control advocate Lori Haas from the state’s Commission on Crime. Haas was appointed by then-Governor McAuliffe after her daughter was among those killed in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Governor Northam reappointed her.
Activists on the right, who typically can be counted on to make a lot of noise, are fine with Youngkin’s new subdued approach because SCOTUS has got their backs with rulings expected to expand gun rights and further restrict access to abortion. Even the NRA is staying quiet, giving Youngkin room to maneuver.
“Be cautious, he has no record,” warns Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He displayed a talent in the campaign for giving all the right signals to the right groups without committing to very much. He’ll be doing a tap dance, depending on the issue. It’s clever, but you don’t have to admire it or think it’s courageous. It worked politically.”
Sabato adds Vermont Governor Phil Scott to the constellation of Republican governors with high approval ratings. Scott is at 69 percent with Democrats giving him 77 percent. Any one in this rarefied group of governors theoretically could win the presidency, but none could win the nomination in a Republican Party beholden to Donald Trump.
This is the political stratosphere that Youngkin appears poised to enter, but his ambition and our evolving politics may dictate another path. “He is going to run for higher office,” Sabato declares. “But how is he going to get the Republican nomination if he turns into another Charlie Baker, Larry Hogan, or Phil Scott? The answer is he’s not.”
Back in the day, Richard Nixon was first to opine that if you’re a Republican you run to the right in the primary, and then back to the center for the general. It’s a harder move to execute in today’s hyper-partisan politics. Better perhaps to heed the advice of the infamous John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, who told the press at the outset of a presidency that did not end well, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”