Virginia’s Part-Time Republican Governor

Photograph Source: Glenn Youngkin – CC BY 2.0

The Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political novice, became the 74th governor of the bellwether (“purple”) state of Virginia on 15 January 2022.

It soon became clear that Youngkin regarded the governorship as a stepping-stone to something greater, coy though Youngkin has been about his presidential ambitions. To some extent this tentativeness is understandable.

If Joe Biden wins a second term in 2024, it will be 2028 before Youngkin can make a run at the presidency. If a Republican wins in 2024, they will almost certainly run for reelection in 2028, which will delay a Youngkin presidential bid by another 4 years, that is, until 2032. So 2024 is probably the optimal date for a Youngkin pitch at the presidency.

The need to start campaigning for 2024 may explain why, his reticence about his intentions notwithstanding, Youngkin is spending a lot of time outside his state stumping for Republican candidates.

In the recent midterms, Youngkin campaigned for Republican gubernatorial candidates in 10 states–  Maine, Connecticut, New York, Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Arizona (the candidate here was Kari Lake). Every one of the 10– all but one on the party’s out of touch far-right– lost, but they received the consolation gift of a trademark Youngkin red fleece vest.

There is a joke on social media: “What is the difference between G_d and Glenn Youngkin? Answer: G_d is everywhere and Glenn Youngkin is everywhere but Virginia”.

Back in Virginia, the peripatetic Youngkin donated to 3 congressional candidates. Two lost, but received the solace of a Youngkin fleece vest like their losing out-of-state counterparts.

Youngkin has the comportment of a sociable and civil-minded country club Republican, but this belies his corporate background as the co-CEO of a ruthless and at times criminal asset-stripping outfit (the Carlyle Group), and the contentious policies espoused by the governor’s office.

Governor Youngkin’s unrelenting preoccupation has been with “wedge” cultural issues.

As becomes a Republican, Youngkin favours restricting abortion, but will only say his preference (for now) is for a 15-week ban, though his other statements on this issue indicate he wants a narrower time limit, probably as low as 6 weeks. The speculation is that Youngkin will wait until the 2023 Virginia elections to see if Republicans hold onto the House of Delegates and flip the state Senate before making his next move on abortion. There is little point in taking up a more radical position on abortion if any move by Youngkin is likely to stall in the general assembly and attract adverse publicity as a result.

Youngkin has also sought to downplay the considerable weight of Virginia’s difficult history where race is concerned. Two episodes come to mind here.

The first is the risible “snitch line” Youngkin set up for people to call in and rat on teachers whose teaching brought-up “divisive issues”. Youngkin, whose own children attend private schools, said this was to preempt the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Virginia’s schools. CRT is not taught in schools, so this was a blatant attempt to whip Youngkin’s ill-informed base into a benighted frenzy. The predicable then happened: hoaxers jammed the line with fictitious reports, so much so that it was taken down quietly in September.

The second was a crude attempt to whitewash the history and social studies curriculum in Virginia’s public-school system. Youngkin and his handlers refused to deny that this draft revision, which was promptly withdrawn after it had been rejected by the Department of Education, was outsourced to “educational services” provided by rightwing think-tanks and foundations.

The introduction to the botched draft said that the aim of the curriculum revamp is “to restore excellence, curiosity and excitement around teaching and learning history…. The standards will recognize the world impact of America’s quest for a ‘more perfect Union’ and the optimism, ideals and imagery captured by Ronald Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ speech…. Students will know our nation’s exceptional strengths, including individual innovation, moral character, ingenuity and adventure, while learning from terrible periods and actions in direct conflict with these ideals”.

These vacuous rhetorical flourishes with their overt political bias (“Reagan” being easily recognizable Republican code), downplayed slavery and the genocide of the first peoples—there is only one mention of the civil rights movement and a couple of sentences on slavery and racism (the draft maintained there were several causes for the Civil War apart from slavery). The draft also referred to Native Americans as “America’s first immigrants”.

Youngkin has also set out to make life difficult for the minuscule minority of Virginia’s trans school students. He has introduced a new school policy requiring students to use lavatories or play for sports teams in line with their biological sex and not their gender identity.

All these attempts to excite Republicans with Trumpian “hot button” issues are not likely to yield much for the crude opportunist Youngkin.

Trump’s star is being dimmed, and Ron DeSantis is making the running when it comes to claiming the Orange Man’s mantle. DeSantis is governor of a red state, and is not going to penalized for stealing Trump’s clothes in the way that Youngkin, governing a purple state, is likely to be.

This accounts for Youngkin’s propensity to speak out of both sides of his mouth when in Virginia, and to leave the rough stuff for his out-of-state campaigning.

So far Youngkin’s strategy (if it is that) has produced very little for him.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.