Megan Abbey is a mom of three and the first female mayor of a very small town an hour south of Richmond. Abbey, 35, said she doesn’t identify with either party and doesn’t support candidates who are “too extreme in either direction.”
Glenn Youngkin’s views on education, she said, secured her support for the Republican candidate: boosting the role of parents in schools, how public schools could be better.
“I don’t identify as a Republican but am still inspired by the things he talks about,” said Abbey, one of a few dozen people gathered to greet Youngkin outside a convenience store in McKenney, the Dinwiddie County town where she lives.
“I wouldn’t put him in the same category as Donald Trump. Trust me, if I connected them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are in a close, heated race to become Virginia’s next governor, a contest that will ultimately come down to an energized party base, and particularly for Youngkin, winning over self-described independents like Abbey.
Virginia Democrats, who in one decade wrestled control of the state from Republicans, and trounced Trump, came into the race with a sizable advantage but waning enthusiasm.
As Youngkin closes out his campaign, he’s vying to capitalize on the enthusiasm gap over Democrats and an aggressive push for moderate suburban voters that has centered on the culture wars he says are playing out first and foremost in schools.
In a race seen as a test of the post-Trump era, Youngkin’s support for the former president has looked a lot like a game of peek-a-boo: Youngkin said publicly he would back Trump if Republicans nominate him for president in 2024, but more often than not, he avoids saying Trump’s name altogether.
That hasn’t stopped Youngkin from leaning on the kinds of issues that Trump has used to energize his own base. Youngkin’s first policy proposal was to bring “election integrity” to Virginia, and like Trump, he has attacked the teaching of systemic racism in schools as “divisive.”
On Tuesday, Youngkin could deliver a meaningful victory to Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere without a single Trump sighting in Virginia.
‘Rallying cry’ over schools
Chris Hillman, the pastor of a small Baptist church in Blackstone, approached Youngkin at a recent event and promised that his congregation would turn out for him.
Asked what was driving that support, Hillman said enthusiasm for Youngkin right now is all about what he says on education. In particular, Youngkin’s support for parents having more control over books and curriculum in schools.
Youngkin has also vowed to eliminate “critical race theory” from classrooms, station police at all schools, bring more private options to education and let districts make their own policies when it comes to the inclusion of transgender students.
Hillman said it’s animating parents and beyond. He said many people in particular oppose making white historical figures the “fall guys or fall gals,” in school curriculum. He said the relationship between parents and school boards has gotten “aggressive” and is a source of frustration.
Hillman also cited incidents in Loudoun County, where parents have protested the school district’s disciplinary process after two students at different high schools allegedly were sexually assaulted by the same student, months apart. A man who identified himself as the parent of one of the victims was arrested during an altercation at a school board meeting.
“That’ll be the rallying cry. The whole issue with education. That’s going to bring people out,” Hillman said. Gleefully, he added: “This has been a Democrat state for so long. It shouldn’t be this close.”
Crystal Conner, whose son attends Augusta County schools, attended a Youngkin campaign rally carrying a placard that has become commonplace at Youngkin events: “Parents for Youngkin.”
She said her support for Youngkin stems from his comments about improving public schools, and “the whole critical race thing.” Conner said that she generally supports her school board, but that often when policies are presented that local parents oppose, like gender-neutral bathrooms, “they say, it’s coming from Richmond; it’s coming from Richmond.”
Beyond schools, Youngkin has leaned on a broad pitch to reduce taxes as he closes out his campaign.
In McKenney, clad in his signature fleece vest and wearing cowboy boots, Youngkin filled up tanks of gas, cracking jokes and telling smiling drivers, “Prices are so high. It’s your money, and I want you to keep more in your pocket.”
Youngkin told the crowd that Democrats “overtax Virginians an extraordinary amount,” and laid into the basics of his plan: Eliminate the 2.5% tax on groceries, delay for a year the most recent 5-cent increase to the gas tax Democrats passed to pay for infrastructure improvements, and give Virginians a one-time tax rebate of $300 for individuals and $600 for joint filers.
In his closing ad, Youngkin said the campaign is about “Virginians who deserve lower taxes.” It’s unclear how viable Youngkin’s plan is fiscally and politically, particularly if Democrats hold on to the House of Delegates. All 100 House seats are up for election Tuesday. The state Senate is not up until 2023.
Youngkin has been emphatic about his Christian faith throughout the race. His religious views, which inform his opposition to abortion, came to the forefront of the race toward the end of the summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a Texas abortion ban to go into effect.
Youngkin said during a debate that he would support banning abortions at the point when a fetus could feel pain, which some advocates for that policy have defined as 20 weeks.
Yvonne Wilson, and her husband, John Willis, both from Staunton, said they were enthusiastic about Youngkin after they heard him speak about support for veterans. In particular, they support his plan to eliminate the tax on military retirement pay.
“Glenn actually gives a damn about veterans. He doesn’t make the same old empty promises,” said Wilson.
Willis, who has seen Youngkin speak twice, said more than anything, Youngkin’s charisma has secured his vote.
“He hasn’t forgotten me, and that makes a difference,” Willis said.
Youngkin emerged as the Republican nominee from a chaotic GOP convention process that embarrassed many within the state party, which was cash-strapped and in some ways deflated after a dozen years without a victory in a statewide race.
The party had lost control of the governorship, the positions of lieutenant governor and attorney general and both legislative chambers. Trump lost here by 5 points in 2016, then by 10 points in 2020.
Many voters interviewed on nomination day in May said they were excited by candidates like Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a Trump loyalist. But, their vote was going to Youngkin, who they saw as having the best chance to deliver victory for the GOP.
Part of that was Youngkin’s polished image and charisma, and a big part of that was his money. With a month until the June Democratic primary, McAuliffe, a powerful fundraiser, already looked poised to win, and the successful GOP candidate would need a war chest to be able to compete.
Youngkin privately pledged his own funds to not only boost his candidacy but also that of down ballot candidates, from House of Delegates hopefuls to conservatives running for their local school board. Through Oct. 21, Youngkin had poured $20 million of his own money into his campaign for governor. Through September, he had contributed an additional $1 million to his leadership committee, Virginia Wins PAC.
Youngkin had spent 25 years at The Carlyle Group, which is based in Washington and has more than $200 billion in assets. His compensation package approached $17 million when he stepped down as co-CEO shortly before launching his campaign. His net worth is variously estimated to be at least $200 million according to published reports.
When he launched his campaign, Youngkin said he left his well-paying job because the state of affairs in Virginia kept him up at night. But, reporting from Bloomberg citing Carlyle colleagues suggests Youngkin left amid a power struggle after a series of decisions that resulted in big losses for the private equity firm.
Still, Youngkin brought the experience to the campaign trail, saying often that, unlike politicians, “business folks get it done or get fired.”
Youngkin was born in Richmond and lived in Chesterfield County before his family moved to Virginia Beach, where he attended Norfolk Academy, one of the oldest private schools in Virginia. Youngkin went to Rice University on a basketball scholarship, and later got an MBA from Harvard University. Youngkin eventually settled with his wife, Suzanne, and four children in Great Falls, an affluent part of Fairfax County.
Youngkin said that as a teenager he worked back of the house at a local diner in Hampton Roads. His dad, who worked in finance, had lost his job. Youngkin often refers to the experience to illustrate that he “embraced hard work.”
His Twitter bio still reads, “Former dishwasher.”
The Trump factor
As McAuliffe peppers the end of his campaign with appearances from prominent Democrats like President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Youngkin’s end-of-the-race bus tour features one notable policy: no surrogates.
One particular Youngkin supporter, Trump, has weighed heavily over the race, and the results of Tuesday’s election could offer clues about the future of the Republican Party now that Trump is no longer in office.
McAuliffe and Democrats here have sought to connect Youngkin and Trump in an effort to replicate Trump’s decisive 2020 loss in Virginia.
“Remember this: I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump,” Biden said in a recent visit to Virginia to stump for McAuliffe.
Dave Bourne, who leads the Augusta County GOP, said Trump’s base is solid in his part of the state, but said enthusiasm for Youngkin comes close.
“Only Trump can be Trump,” Bourne said in an interview. “But I think all three GOP candidates are good on their own feet.”
Out in the Augusta County community of Fishersville, Youngkin drew a few hundred people on a rainy Thursday night to an energized event hall. Bourne said he was surprised by the number of people who made it out.
Trump has endorsed Youngkin multiple times and called into an Oct. 13 Henrico County rally Youngkin didn’t attend, in order to encourage Republicans to back the GOP candidate, repeating false claims that he won the presidential election. On Monday, the former president plans to host a “tele-rally” meant to drive his base of support to the polls for Youngkin and other Republican candidates.
“The president is very inspired by this race, under the belief that Republicans will win big,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and the former chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia, confirming plans for the rally. “The president believes that as goes Virginia goes the nation,” he said.
“We can only do that by getting thousands of Trump supporters to the polls.”
Youngkin, during a campaign stop, said emphatically that Trump wasn’t coming to Virginia, and it’s not clear how his campaign will engage with Monday’s tele-rally. The campaign did not respond to questions on the matter.
“We would encourage him to participate,” Fredericks said. “But this goes beyond Glenn Youngkin.”