Can parental rights launch Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the White House? It's complicated

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has drawn increasing speculation that he may launch a campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination, as he quietly meets with Republican donors.

The  speculation about a 2024 campaign began just months into his term as governor—after Youngkin's win solidified Virginia's swing state status.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin was a vocal supporter of the parental rights movementa growing cohort of parents across the U.S. seeking more control in what public schools are teaching children.

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It paid off. Virginians swept him, his running mate and attorney general into office. For the first time since 2009, Republicans were back in the Old Dominion's governor mansion.

Now Youngkin is once again emphasizing his education bona fides, recently holding a live town hall with CNN's Jake Tapper focused on public education. But can a campaign focused on parental rights propel Youngkin to victory during the Republican primary for a presidential run?

Advocates and GOP strategists told USA TODAY Youngkin created a lightening-in-a-bottle campaign by latching onto the anger of parents. But recreating his successful 2021 support of education will likely not be enough to dethrone former President Donald Trump's popularity with Republican voters.

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Youngkin doesn't have enough name recognition yet, according to Brian Kirwin, a Republican political consultant with more than 20 years of campaign experience in Virginia.

And with Virginia law barring consecutive governor terms, Youngkin is likely figuring out his next steps, said Kirwin.

"We deal with this a lot in Virginia with one-term governors," Kirwin said. "Especially on the Republican side, a governor automatically is looking for his next job because he can't run for reelection here."

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Parental rights and education, two Youngkin priorities

Youngkin ran for office as a conservative who had ties to former President Donald Trump but without the combative persona that turned-off suburbanite women from the GOP.

But it was the support of parents who were concerned about COVID-19 policies and pushes towards diversity initiatives in school that made him part of a national spotlight.

Men with children supported Youngkin by 59%, an 18 percentage point advantage over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, according to exit polling data. Yet, 47% of //women with children supported Youngkin compared to the 53% who supported McAuliffe.

Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, who led the successful recall effort of three San Francisco school board members, said they would like to see any candidate who can unify the nation around educational efforts not tied to culture wars. The recall stemmed from frustration over school closures and remote-learning during the pandemic, efforts to rename schools and repaint murals deemed racially insensitive. 

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"It's really easy to motivate people to go out and vote because they're angry," said Looijen. "If someone who can give us a better view, a better vision of us as a nation going forward, I think there's a lot of appetite for that ... I think whoever can do that will be a very effective political candidate in 2024."

What are people saying about Youngkin?

Asra Nomani, a mother in Virginia and author of "Woke Army:The Red-Green Alliance That Is Destroying America’s Freedom," said she is excited about a possible Youngkin presidential campaign.

"What was really exciting to me is that the parent movement that we began in Virginia, and its intersection with politics, has now gone national," Nomani, who also cofounded the Coalition for TJ, added.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a northern Virginia school Nomani's child attended, angered parents by withholding announcing merit awards that students had won. 

Elsewhere in Virginia, controversy in Loudoun County public schools over diversity and equity changes, transgender rights and sexual assault incidents fueled parental anger.

Some parents were opposed to anti-racist initiatitives including, critical race theory — a legal concept that examines the effects of racism in U.S. society today — being taught in public schools. (Critical race theory is not taught in any public schools in the U.S.)

Public school officials' handling of a high school student sexually assaulting two female students sparked fierce anger. During one of the assaults, the student, who is male, allegedly wore a skirt and assaulted the victim in the girls bathroom, leading to debate over transgender rights. 

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Enter Youngkin.

He championed the rise of parental rights and defeated McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, in 2021.

During a Sept. 2021 debate Youngkin hit back against McAuliffe saying parents shouldn't dictate what public schools teach.

"I agree with your conclusion Terry that we should let local school districts actually make these decisions," Youngkin said. "But we must ask them to include concepts of safety and privacy and respect in the discussion. And we must demand that they include parents in this dialogue."

Tiffany Justice, founder of Moms for Liberty, a conservative activist group, said Youngkin's win showed politicians can win elections by listening to the concerns of parents.

"What's exciting for us at Moms for Liberty is to see so many candidates who are focused on parental rights and education rising to the top—of possibly taking the highest seat in office in our country," Justice said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd as he attends an event Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd as he attends an event Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.

The DeSantis factor

Other parental rights advocates said they like that Youngkin has remained consistent in  supporting their activism. But they are skeptical it would help Youngkin in 2024.

"He would be better than Biden," said Yiatin Chu, former co-president and co-founder of PLACE NYC, a parent advocacy group for gifted and talented programs in New York City. "I would say that top of mind for me in New York City is like a (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis; so I'd be happy with either."

Similarly, Aiden Buzzetti, head of coalition and candidate recruitment at the 1776 PAC, a conservative group, said DeSantis would be a sizable deterrent to a Youngkin run.

"I don't think it's a bad decision for him to focus on education," said Buzzetti. "I know his administration has been doing a fair amount of good stuff on education. But if Ron DeSantis does run for president, he's going to have an interesting time trying to match up with that."

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The only other 2024 contender to consistently poll better than DeSantis with Republicans is Trump. In a Quinnipiac University poll of GOP primary voters released Tuesday, Trump received 46% of Republican support while DeSantis garnered 32% of support.

DeSantis has also made battling against diversity and anti-"woke" policies part of his public persona—all of which overshadows Youngkin's more moderate conservative tone.

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"Is Youngkin the right one now as a president? I think his platform of parent rights is a powerful one," said Chien Kwok, a co-founder of PLACE NYC, who also advised Nomani during the Thomas Jefferson controversy. "Does he have enough stature yet? He's a brand new governor. So far, so good."

"As far as the presidential candidate, I think there are others like Ron DeSantis who would be stronger. So that would be my take would be vice president. Luckily, he's still quite young in his age."

The 56-year-old Youngkin is 12 years older than the 44-year-old DeSantis. And Kwok also said he could foresee Youngkin as a cabinet member or running for governor again further down the road.

Also adding to Youngkin's DeSantis problem? His chief advisor, Jeff Roe, is joining Never Back Down, a DeSantis-supporting super PAC.

A Youngkin spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press inside the Rotunda of the state Capitol building on Feb. 25, 2023, in Richmond, Va.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press inside the Rotunda of the state Capitol building on Feb. 25, 2023, in Richmond, Va.

Youngkin still too new, some strategists said

Pollster Frank Luntz told USA TODAY that 10 years ago, Youngkin probably would not have run for president on an education plank.

"But over the last 10 years, the mindset of the typical Republican has changed completely," Luntz said. "And with the rise of critical race theory and woke politics, education is now definitely on the table. And that makes Youngkin potentially impactful."

Woke is a phrase created by Black Americans to mean staying alert to racial injustice. But Republican lawmakers are now using it as a catch-all phrase against racial and progressive politics.

Other experts were more skeptical of Youngkin.

"I think he needs a little bit more time to show that he's fully conservative, at a time when we have a party that is much more to the right," said Alfonso Aguilar, political director at Americano Media, a conservative Spanish language news network, and a former Bush administration employee.

GOP strategists are quick to point out that Virginia's 13 electoral votes make Youngkin an attractive candidate for the Republican ticket.

"If a Virginia Republican governor can flip Virginia for a Republican presidential candidate, it makes the Electoral College look a lot nicer for a Republican," said Kirwin, the Virginia GOP consultant.  "So I think Younkin is testing the waters and meeting with donors. I suspect that it has as much to do with how much I can bring to a ticket, whether I'm number one, or VP?"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Parental rights may help Glenn Youngkin run for president in 2024