Virginia Republicans think Glenn Youngkin is a winner — that he’s got the jock charisma of George Allen, the Judeo-Christian compassion of Bob McDonnell.
Youngkin, an aspiring GOP governor, has two things these former GOP governors, haven’t: Despite a hearty endorsement from Donald Trump, Youngkin has no record on public policy. That could make him difficult to attack. And, having been in the high-end investment business for 25 years, Youngkin has a personal fortune of more than $300 million. That frees him to tell his story as he pleases.
These are the defining characteristics of a largely undefined candidate who must achieve what has eluded Republicans for more than a decade: compete in the blueing suburbs. Having not won statewide since 2009, Republicans — shut out in Richmond because of three years of anti-Trump backlash — could become a curiosity if Election Day 2021 ends as so many have for the GOP: in tears.
“November will decide whether conservatives are dinosaurs,” said Del. James Edmunds II, R-Halifax, whose Southside district — with few industries and fewer people sticking around because jobs are scarce — is an emblem of the Virginia countryside in which Republicans seem trapped because of their rigid positions on guns, abortion, voter access, taxes, racial equity and LGBTQ rights.
Youngkin’s views on these issues are standard-brand Republican — well right of center. He underscored many of them in a stem-winder to 400 mostly unmasked supporters the evening after he was nominated.
When he wasn’t responding to Democratic attacks tying him to Trump with a Trump-like indictment of Democrats as far-left patsies, Youngkin hit on themes that resonate in the suburbs where he was strong against his six rivals for the nomination: reopening the economy and schools from the pandemic, cutting taxes.
Youngkin won Virginia Beach, his hometown after moving from Richmond as a teen. This past year, it fell to Joe Biden, the first Democrat to carry it for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Youngkin took Fairfax County, the state’s biggest — and most Democratic — vote trove. It’s also his home.
Youngkin carried Lee County, in far Southwest Virginia, where two-party competition has gone the way of the coal industry, contributing to a preference for ideological Republicans who feed on resentment.
But in rejecting Trumpier candidates for one merely Trumpy, Southwest Virginia Republicans reverted to form, putting practicalities ahead of passion. Jay Poole, a Wythe County native who lives in Henrico County and whose grandfather was among the few Republicans in the House of Delegates in the late 1940s and early 1950s, said the choice of Youngkin recalled the question that long guided the region’s preferences: “Can he win?”
Republicans would tell you Youngkin’s triumph this spring is an encouraging sign for fall.
This rests on a false equivalency: that the Republican virtual convention, which drew 30,000 of an anticipated 54,000 delegates, most of them male, white and many of them older, is as reflective of Virginians’ centrist whims as the Democrats’ approaching primary. The primary could attract more than 300,000, providing a fuller glimpse of an electorate dominated by women; that is multihued and anchored in metropolitan areas.
In 2017, more than 540,000 votes were cast in a two-way Democratic gubernatorial primary, a measure of enthusiasm — much of it anti-Trump rage — that augured Ralph Northam’s landslide over Ed Gillespie.
Four years later, Republicans are banking on anti-Biden rage; that Virginia, which the president easily carried, will turn against him in an early indication of a national repudiation of Democrats in 2022. In other words, the Virginia Curse will be restored — a pattern, since 1976 and broken once in 2013, in which the party that wins the presidency loses the governorship.
Terry McAuliffe, first elected governor after Barack Obama was re-elected, hopes to disrupt this pattern again with a second run for governor. The front-runner among five candidates for the nomination, McAuliffe depicts Youngkin as an out-of-touch newbie — a charge directed at McAuliffe in his unsuccessful 2009 bid.
Much as McAuliffe was forced to do with holdings that made him a multimillionaire, Youngkin likely will have to answer for his work at The Carlyle Group, a private equity giant that occasionally has drawn fire for controversial investments — and investors.
It’s feuding with pop icon Taylor Swift over the sale of her former record label — a deal that allegedly raised obstacles to her performing her old songs. Carlyle also managed money for the bin Ladens, the Saudi family of which the planner of the 9/11 attacks was a member.
There are questions, too, about Youngkin’s departure from Carlyle as co-CEO in 2020. The financial press says he lost a power struggle. Youngkin dismissed that as the anonymous murmurings of Carlyle malcontents. Besides, he said, he still has a say at the firm as its fourth-largest inside shareholder.
He’s betting the wealth derived from that status — and the $25 million-plus he could he could throw at the race — will give him a big say in November.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @RTDSchapiro