RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Glenn Youngkin swept into office as a Republican sensation with a fresh formula for victory as the GOP contemplated its future beyond Donald Trump.
But one year after Youngkin became the first Republican in more than a decade to win the Virginia governorship, some in his party believe the shine of his national star is being tested just as he quietly contemplates a 2024 presidential run.
Most of the midterm candidates Youngkin tried to help this fall were defeated. Major presidential donors, even those who support him, see the 55-year-old former private-equity chief as simply one in a crowded class of would-be Trump alternatives. And there's concern that Youngkin has few resonant accomplishments to sell skeptical Republican primary voters.
“Youngkin’s only campaign talking point right now is, ‘I won Virginia.’ He’s going to need something more than that,” said Iowa Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, an influential voice in the state’s first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucus.
With the next presidential primary season already underway, Virginia's upcoming legislative session offers Youngkin a critical opportunity to demonstrate executive leadership and burnish his conservative bona fides on issues including guns and abortion.
He'll hardly be alone. Other ambitious Republican governors in Arkansas, Florida, New Hampshire and South Dakota are eyeing legislative successes to bolster their national political standing.
Youngkin, who downplayed his opposition to abortion rights during his campaign but has said he would sign “any bill” to “protect life,” wants allies in the General Assembly to pass a 15- or 20-week ban. But with Democrats narrowly controlling the state Senate, those plans face steep odds.
At the same time, he's facing pressure on both sides of the gun debate after a fresh series of deadly shootings rocked the state, leaving 13 victims dead in three shootings last month alone. Youngkin, who was not endorsed by the National Rifle Association during his campaign last year, vowed to release a comprehensive mental health platform in January but said any consideration of new gun safety measures before criminal investigations into the shootings conclude is premature. Any push on guns would face a serious hurdle in the GOP-controlled state House.
Some close to Youngkin, who publicly downplays the 2024 speculation, are actively encouraging him to seek the presidency, seeing no downside given that Virginia law prevents him from seeking a second consecutive term as governor. But they are under no illusion it will be easy for a lower-profile first-term governor entering a field that already includes Trump and is expected to include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, among other nationally known Republican heavyweights.
Still, donors and early state operatives believe there is an opening for a candidate who can appeal to moderates, independents and suburban voters while offering a clear stylistic contrast with the likes of Trump and DeSantis.
“This year is a big test for Glenn,” said prominent Republican donor Bobbie Kilberg, who attended a private retreat Youngkin hosted in September. “He is sophisticated, he is smart, he can work across the aisle with Democrats.”
Kilberg says she's eager for her party to move past Trump. And she is not inclined to support DeSantis, saying, “I’m looking for someone whose edges are not quite so sharp.” Still, she isn’t ready to commit to a prospective Youngkin 2024 bid.
“Glenn is one of four or five individuals that I would be very pleased to support,” she said.
Youngkin captured national attention by winning in a state that Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points just one year earlier in his successful Democratic presidential campaign. Youngkin did it by keeping Trump at arm's length and focusing on education, parental rights, public safety and the economy — all the while casting himself as an upbeat suburban dad and political outsider.
With no election of his own this fall, he spent recent months traveling the country to stump for other Republican candidates.
The national tour didn't go particularly well.
Trump is often blamed for elevating flawed candidates, but Youngkin’s endorsement record was worse. The Virginia governor publicly campaigned with at least 15 Republican candidates for governor between July and early November, including Arizona’s Kari Lake and Michigan’s Tudor Dixon. Of the group of 15, just five won, and of those, only one — Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo of Nevada — flipped a seat from Democrat to Republican.
Youngkin did equally poorly at home in Virginia, where he stumped with the Republican challengers in Virginia’s three most competitive congressional districts. Only one unseated the Democratic incumbent.
Youngkin also drew Trump's ire as talk of his presidential ambitions grew.
Just three days after the election, Trump unleashed a racist attack against Youngkin on social media, suggesting his name “sounds Chinese," while taking credit for his political rise. Hinting at a perceived lack of accomplishments, Trump also noted that Youngkin was “having a hard time with the Dems in Virginia."
John Fredericks, a right-wing radio host who previously led Trump's campaign in Virginia, said it was a mistake for the former president “to punch down” at Youngkin.
“He's not a serious candidate in 2024,” Fredericks said of the Virginia governor, describing him as "a poor man's DeSantis.”
“What does Youngkin bring to the table? He doesn’t have a record in Virginia to run on, and before that he was CEO of a company that was shipping jobs to China,” Fredericks said.
Francis Rooney, a businessman, major GOP donor and former congressman and ambassador, disagrees. Rooney, who also attended the retreat and whose company has donated to Youngkin, credits the governor with notching economic development wins, sparking a parents' rights “movement” in education and signing into law a budget that included tax cuts as well as raises for teachers and law enforcement.
Kristin Davison, a political adviser, said Youngkin is leading “with results, not just words," also noting his administration's efforts to improve government efficiency and end school mask mandates.
"Many folks across the country look to Governor Youngkin as an example of leadership and the future of the Republican Party," she said.
Youngkin, who did not grant an interview for this story, will soon be heading into his second legislative session with a lengthy to-do list. He has said he wants to find bipartisan solutions to curtail violent crime, while pursuing additional tax cuts. He also recently rolled out a multifaceted plan to address the strained housing supply and has pledged to advance Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals and decouple Virginia from California’s clean car standards.
He'll have another chance to demonstrate his political skills later in 2023, when every state legislative seat is on the ballot in an off-year election. That will give Youngkin the chance to rally Republicans to defend their House majority and retake the Senate.
For now, Youngkin continues to be a regular feature in the early 2024 conversation, according to Eric Levine, a New York-based Republican donor who's actively encouraging his party to find an alternative to Trump.
“I never heard anyone say, ‘Youngkin, he’s my guy,' but he comes up almost all the time on people's relatively short list,” Levine said, acknowledging that he'd want to learn much more about Youngkin before deciding whether he could support him. “The one impression I have of Glenn Youngkin is that he’s a very rational actor, a very smart guy, and he’s not going to damage his brand by jumping into a race he can’t win.”
Peoples reported from New York.
Steve Peoples And Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press