Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Stealth Presidential Candidate?

Photograph Source: Governor Glenn Youngkin – CC BY 2.0

Virginia’s plutocrat Republican governor Glenn Youngkin has not so far declared himself a candidate in the 2024 presidential election even as he goes out of state for appearances where, to all intents and purposes, he conducts himself as a presidential campaigner.

Youngkin campaigned in 15 states last year for Republican gubernatorial candidates– only 5 of his candidates won, and 4 of those were in solid red states. At least 2 of these candidates promulgated Trump’s fabrications about the 2020 “stolen election”. Youngkin’s PAC dispenses largesse to “stolen election” liars and supporters of the 1/6 insurrection.

At the same time Youngkin plays a delicate balancing act with Trump and his supporters. He accepted Trump’s endorsement for the governorship but did not invite Trump to his campaigns. Youngkin sucked-up to Trump by criticizing the FBI raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in search of illegally removed classified documents, calling it “a stunning move by the DOJ and FBI”. Youngkin also refuses to say whether Trump should cease pushing the 2020 election lie, though he also accepts with some wavering here and there that Joe Biden won the presidency legitimately.

Fox News now touts Youngkin as a presidential candidate and has had him in at least 6 live interviews on FN in the period from this mid-June to mid-July — twice on Hannity, and once each on Fox & Friends, Fox & Friends Weekend, America’s Newsroom, and Fox News Tonight.

In these FN appearances Youngkin caters to right-wing Republicans by boasting about how he’s taking on “progressive liberals”, while in his in-state public appearances he confines himself to his more moderate-sounding pitch about raising standards in schools (while proposing budget cuts for public schools in order to fund vouchers for home-schooling and private education—thankfully the Democrats nixed this in the state legislature); giving parents more rights; and reducing people’s taxes (he’s proposed a package of $4bn tax cuts, which is easy to do because Virginia is currently running a large surplus).

Youngkin has a proclivity for gesture politics. He banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Virginia schools even though it is not taught there, and he set up a tip-line for people to rat on teachers who taught “divisive concepts”. The tip-line had to be discontinued after a few weeks when it was swamped by a large number of hoax calls.

Next month Youngkin will attend a fund-raising party on Long Island hosted by Wilbur Ross, Trump’s controversial commerce secretary, who appears to have switched his political allegiances away from his former boss.

Doubtless fat-cat Youngkin fans will be prodded by Wilbur to open their wallets for the Virginia governor who resembles  a Trumpster in more ways than one (albeit as someone who is always careful to lead Trump supporters from the back).

Youngkin, with his trademark tech bro fleece vests, but unlike the boorish Trump, gives the appearance of an affable and couth country-club Republican. However, this belies his 25-year-long career with the Carlyle Group—Youngkin ended up as co-CEO of this hardened and at times criminal corporate-raiding outfit from 2018 to 2020.

Forbes estimated his wealth to be about $440million in 2021, $165 million of which Youngkin loaned to his own gubernatorial campaign. Youngkin makes no reference to his enormous wealth and only says he was a “financier” before entering politics.

Youngkin, however, has continuing legal problems relating to his previous career as a “financier”. According to NBC News:

In January 2020, Glenn Youngkin… got some welcome news. A complex corporate transaction had gone through at the Carlyle Group, the powerful private equity company that Youngkin led as co-chief executive. Under the deal, approved by the Carlyle board and code-named “Project Phoenix,” he began receiving $8.5 million in cash and exchanged his almost $200 million stake in the company for an equal amount of tax-free shares, according to court documents.

The Project Phoenix payout came on top of $54 million in compensation Youngkin had received from Carlyle during the previous two years, regulatory records show….

NBC News says the lawsuit filed against Carlyle by the city of Pittsburgh Comprehensive Municipal Pension Trust Fund, a Carlyle stockholder, charges that

         the $344 million deal harmed Carlyle’s stockholders, who received nothing in return when they funded the payday….  the Carlyle insiders who received the payouts escaped a tax bill that would have exceeded $1 billion, according to the complaint, which accuses Rubenstein , Youngkin and other Carlyle officials of lining their own pockets at the expense of people like police officers and firefighters.

Youngkin clings to the typical Republican pose as a friend of law enforcement, and it will be interesting to see if this and other legal issues related to the “financier’s” complex employment past come to light should he be a candidate for the presidency. The Democrats would be fools if they did not focus on his chequered past if they have to campaign against the “financier”.

(I have detailed some of Carlyle’s legal problems when Youngkin was employed there in a previous CounterPunch piece.)

Youngkin, if he decides he wants to be president will probably campaign, in the Republican primaries at any rate, by rehashing his relentless preoccupation with wedge “culture wars” issues– albeit undertaken by him without Trump’s feverishly unhinged bombast and Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s snarling soullessness.

Youngkin uses the benign sounding notion of “parent’s rights” to enact an array of right-wing education policies.

Youngkin’s predecessor as governor, the Democrat Ralph Northam, implemented policies that permitted some Northern Virginia school districts to let students decide on the names and pronouns they wanted to use in class. Youngkin’s new policy hands back control of the way students express their gender identity to their parents. In addition, school activities are to be based on biological sex at birth, rather than gender or gender identity.

Youngkin’s attempted whitewashing of Virginia’s history curriculums turned out to be a fiasco. The templates for the new curriculums, created by shadowy right-wing think tanks, excluded lessons about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Juneteenth Holiday, as well as referring to indigenous people as America’s “first immigrants”. Ronald Reagan was referred to in numerous places, but there was no mention of Barack Obama; and the history of Algonquian chief Powhatan long featured in Virginia civics education was excised.

After a huge public outcry, the state Board of Education sent the templates back for revision before voting on February 23 this year to advance the revised syllabuses, though final adoption isn’t expected until later this year.

Youngkin nominated a former coal lobbyist and Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency chief, Andrew Wheeler, for a cabinet position overseeing Virginia environmental policy. When Wheeler did not receive confirmation from the Virginia legislature, Youngkin made him a senior adviser.

As Trump’s star starts to fade overall while his legal woes mount, and his appeal is confined increasingly to his cult-like base, and DeSantis plods on with his flatlining campaign, the Republican establishment may decide that Youngkin is the horse they want to ride to the White House (oh well– he owns a 30-acre luxury horse farm in Fairfax county, Virginia).

Youngkin will probably get a fairly easy ride in the early stages of the Republican primaries. Trump is a well-recognized crook who can’t challenge Youngkin on the latter’s legally volatile business career (though he could say Mr Fleece Vest is not up to the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign, a la his jibe against a “low energy” former governor of Florida in a previous presidential run), and the milque-toast DeSantis has confined himself so far to saying Trump’s legal issues do no more than distract Republicans in the run-up to the 2024 election.

DeSantis is miles behind Trump in the opinion polls, and his only hope, without saying so in public, is that the legal system will take care of his orange-hued opponent before the presidential race intensifies.

Meanwhile, Trump hopes a successful presidential bid will enable him to side-step his legal woes by getting his lawyers to invoke some kind of presidential immunity.

Youngkin could perhaps be sharing DeSantis’s hopes on this issue since—phew!– he will no longer have to tip-toe round Trump and his more feral supporters.

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