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Glenn Youngkin’s Presidential Dreams Will Be Decided Next Tuesday

If Republicans sweep next week’s elections, he’s probably in. He’s more affable and appealing than Trump. But don’t let that fool you.

Youngkin at the Amazon HQ2’s grand opening
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Youngkin at the Amazon HQ2’s grand opening on June 15 in Arlington, Virginia

There’s been enough big news in the past week that you may have missed Glenn Youngkin’s “Red Vest Retreat” in Virginia, headlining Mike Pompeo and featuring a hundred or so millionaires and billionaires. Ostensibly, the gathering is to add to the GOP war chest as critical state elections loom in Virginia. But the army of fat cats did not come to Virginia Beach simply to save the state. They were there to advance the potential presidential campaign of Virginia’s governor. Reports are that Rupert Murdoch fancies Youngkin, as does former Attorney General Bill Barr. And Youngkin has already amassed a pile of money in fundraisers at the Hamptons and elsewhere. In the immediate term, much of the money is going into the state legislative races—if Republicans are able to take full control of a state that was trending blue before Youngkin won the governorship, it will be a big boost to his presidential credentials.

Why Youngkin? Of course, a good part of it is the fear among the GOP and hedge fund elite that Donald Trump’s baggage will get so heavy that he will be unelectable—combined with what they see as Ron DeSantis’s weak campaign and wooden personality, and a lack of confidence in the others in the candidate gaggle. But it also reflects their assessment that the affable Youngkin, who comes across as the dad next door wearing his fleece vest, will have a wider appeal in the electorate as someone who is more pragmatic and less ideologically rigid than the main alternatives. That image is the one Youngkin has managed to promote in mainstream media during his gubernatorial campaign and beyond.

It carried Youngkin to the governorship of Virginia and has kept him popular in a state that has otherwise trended blue. But image and reality collide when you look more deeply at his record. Youngkin may look and seem nice and reasonable. But his record is that of a full-bore Trumpist.

To be sure, Youngkin does not use combative or in-your-face rhetoric, and he avoids outrageous stunts like DeSantis’s kidnapping of unsuspecting asylum-seekers in Texas to spirit them to Martha’s Vineyard. He has not blocked a bridge, as Chris Christie did in his time as governor of New Jersey, or blamed Joe Biden for Hamas’s brutality, like Tim Scott did in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Israel. He has not proposed cutting government employees by 75 percent, like Vivek Ramaswamy, or promoted ending virtually all abortions, like Mike Pence, or sending American forces into Mexico like Nikki Haley and others.

But the carefully cultivated public face and voice do not match the actual behavior. Some of that was evident during his campaign for governor. His appeal in southern Virginia, attacking “critical race theory” and promoting parents’ rights, was a U-turn from the words and themes he pursued in the D.C. suburbs—bringing praise from journalists for his clever dual approach to campaigning, hinting that Youngkin was really just a savvy pragmatist. But he also was happy to get ardent support from a set of far-right characters, including Yesli Vega, the Trump-endorsed GOP candidate, against Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger last year, and extremist gubernatorial candidates Tudor Dixon and Kari Lake. And Youngkin returned the favor with election denier and conspiracy theorist Lake, campaigning enthusiastically for her campaign to be governor of Arizona.

Once he was inaugurated as governor, it became apparent that the real Youngkin was the one who campaigned in the southern part of the state—the one who used thinly veiled racial appeals and anti–vax and mask sentiment during the campaign. It showed in his appointments. He picked anti-CRT firebrand Elizabeth Schultz as assistant superintendent of public instruction, along with McKenzie Snow, Betsy DeVos’s policy director, for a major role in the Department of Education, although she subsequently left to work for Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. He appointed a voluble critic of vaccine mandates, Dr. Marty Makary, to his medical advisory team and Andrew Wheeler, a Trump Environmental Protection Agency official and climate change denier, as a senior adviser.

On education, he set up a “tip line for divisive practices,” widely criticized for its politicization, and, taking a page from DeSantis, signed an executive order banning CRT from being in the public school curriculum, saying that children should not be taught that they are “inherently biased.” A book-banning bill that passed in the GOP-led House of Delegates died in the Virginia Senate, but Youngkin said that if the bill had passed, he would have signed it.

Youngkin attacked voting rights, bringing back lifetime disenfranchisement for former felons—making Virginia the only state to say that anyone convicted of any felony would be banned for life from voting (think about that: not even Mississippi). He vetoed a bipartisan bill allowing local governments to go after landlords who fail to address serious housing violations that create safety hazards. And in the run-up to the elections next week, his elections team admitted they removed almost 3,400 qualified voters from the rolls.

Tearing a further page from the Trumpist playbook, Youngkin took a series of steps against the LGBTQ and transgender communities. He quietly removed LGBTQ suicide-prevention resources from a state website, and he supported a school guidance policy requiring trans and nonbinary students to “out themselves to their parents to obtain permission to be called by their names and pronouns and to use the correct bathroom.”

On Covid, Youngkin rescinded the vaccine mandate for state employees and banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks in school. And he offered full-throated support for a 15-week ban on abortion.

Currently, Democrats have a two-vote margin in the Senate—if they lose two seats, Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears would break the tie and give Republicans control of the agenda. Republicans, in turn, have a 52–48 majority in the state House. Most of the legislative seats are safe, leaving a handful that will decide control in both chambers. A key toss-up Senate contest in northern Virginia, where abortion and education are the key issues and the airwaves have been flooded with ads, pits Democrat Russet Perry against Republican Juan Pablo Segura. Perry has focused on Segura’s support for Youngkin’s abortion limitations; Segura on parental rights. Other pivotal races are in the Richmond suburbs and in the more rural southeastern corner of the state.

In the House, eight seats appear to hold the balance, with six of them open after incumbents retired. The most watched—and controversial—is in the Richmond suburbs, where the focus has been less on the Republican incumbent, David Owen, than on Democratic challenger Susanna Gibson, after news that she had performed sex acts with her husband on a website. But other pivotal races, in the areas around the Washington suburbs, Richmond and Hampton Roads, have seen ads focused more on the key divisions surrounding abortion, crime, and education.

If the 2022 elections were a harbinger of the outcome, Democrats would be very optimistic. But the money pouring into the contests, along with the low approval for President Biden, make the outcome a toss-up. The stakes, though, are high for more than Virginia. If Democrats can hold the Senate and, even more, if they win the three seats needed to take the majority in the House, it would be a grievous blow to Youngkin’s image as the guy who can win in a previously blue state while still promoting Trumpist policies.

Youngkin’s record as governor is a template for what he would do if he were elected as president. He would be affable, to be sure. But in governance, from voting rights to abortion to climate to LGBTQ rights, from race to education to judicial nominations, from Cabinet choices to White House staff, Glenn Youngkin’s approach would be little different from that of DeSantis and other Trumpist governors and presidential candidates. Fleece vests and smiles should not disguise that reality.