Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is becoming a growing presence for Republicans on the campaign trail, raising his own national profile amid speculation of a future presidential run.
On Monday it was reported that Youngkin would hit the trail for Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake as part of a broader effort to boost the GOP in key midterm states. Youngkin is also slated to campaign for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) later this month.
The Virginia governor has already been to Maine, Nevada, Michigan and Kansas in an effort to advance Republican candidates there.
Youngkin has also been making the rounds with Republican mega-donors. The Washington Examiner reported that Youngkin took part in a question-and-answer session with the American Opportunity Alliance, which is made up of major GOP donors.
Youngkin has become a rising star in the GOP and is the latest Republican governor to be floated as a potential 2024 contender — but experts say that’s not the only reason other candidates want to be associated with him.
“Yes, that’s an obvious part of the story, but also he’s a new governor who’s a fresh face and is in demand,” said veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye. “If you’re a Republican candidate running, he’s at the top of the list of folks you would like to have come campaign for you.”
Youngkin shot to stardom among Republicans last year when he narrowly defeated former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in the state’s gubernatorial race. The contest was largely viewed as a litmus test for the 2022 midterms, providing them with a blueprint of what issues to focus on.
“Everything that the governor is doing you can tie directly back to the campaign,” said Kristin Davison, a political adviser to Youngkin.
Youngkin last year zeroed in on the issue of parents’ role in education, specifically targeting teachers unions, school boards and critical race theory, and harnessing anger over coronavirus pandemic school closures. The campaign also focused on combating crime and slashing taxes, with Youngkin calling on Virginia’s grocery tax to be eliminated and for suspending a gas tax hike.
A year later, education and parents’ role in it is a prominent topic for candidates in states like Florida and Texas, and the national GOP platform focuses on inflation and crime.
“The problems that Virginia had been seeing are problems that the country has been facing and the governor got to work on day one,” Davison said.
While McAuliffe and Democrats worked to paint Youngkin as an extremist with ties to former President Trump, Youngkin appealed to moderate and independent voters even as he was able to turn out the conservative base.
The strategy was enough to put Youngkin over the edge in the purple swing, defeating McAuliffe by 2 points.
“Youngkin has the unique ability to walk through that eye of the needle and it’s a big part of the reason that folks are looking toward his leadership and want him on the campaign trail,” Heye said.
Lake, a strong backer of Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, will be one of the higher-profile candidates Youngkin has campaigned for this cycle. While Youngkin called for an audit on voting machines in Virginia during the gubernatorial race last year, he has repeatedly said that President Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
In his statement confirming his Arizona visit, Youngkin praised both Lake and outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who certified the 2020 election results in Arizona despite objections from Trump. Ducey supported Lake’s primary opponent earlier this year but endorsed Lake following the election.
“There’s no doubt about it — Republicans make better governors than Democrats,” Youngkin said. “Governor Doug Ducey championed hallmark education reforms and the state’s largest tax cut during his term. Arizona deserves another Republican governor.“
Republicans praise Youngkin for being able to walk the fine line between moderate and more conservative candidates, but Democrats say the strategy amounts to the governor talking out of both sides of his mouth.
“It’s clear that Gov. Youngkin can’t have it both ways,” said Gianni Snidle, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “He can’t go and campaign for an unabashed racist like [Maine Republican gubernatorial candidate] Paul LePage and a complete MAGA election conspiracy theorist Kari Lake and then come back to Virginia pretending all is well in that ‘I’m a governor for all Virginians.’”
Snidle was referring to remarks made by LePage, first reported by The Washington Post, in which he said that over 90 percent of people arrested for drug trafficking in Maine were either Black or Hispanic.
Virginia Democrats quickly tried to tie Youngkin to the comments.
“I don’t agree with the inarticulate things that were said. And oh by the way neither does Governor LePage,” Youngkin told WJLA-TV earlier this month. “I talked with him today. He has apologized and has tried to bring people together. Anyone who knows his story knows he loves people and that he’s worked to bring people together. That’s the campaign he’s running. And that’s the campaigns all Republicans should be running — campaigns that bring people together and move us forward.”
Still, Democrats are pushing back against the notion that Youngkin is a moderate or establishment Republican.
“Gov. Youngkin for some reason was branded as a country club Republican on the campaign trail, but ever since he’s been in office he hasn’t been that way whatsoever,” Snidle said.
Youngkin made headlines this week after he issued new guidance that would remove accommodations for transgender students in Virginia public schools and, among other things, require students to use facilities like bathrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth. The new guidance also calls for minors to be called by the name and pronouns seen in their official records unless a parent says otherwise.
Other Republican governors who are also floated as potential 2024 contenders have made similar moves when it comes to education policy. Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Act, which prohibits public primary school teachers from engaging in classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Polls show DeSantis as the leading potential Republican 2024 contender in the case that Trump does not run.
In Virginia, a Roanoke College poll released earlier this month showed Youngkin with a 55 percent approval rating, marking a 2-point increase since May. However, when asked whether they thought Youngkin should run for president, 54 percent of Virginians said he should not run for president while 36 percent said he should.
Youngkin has brushed off questions about whether he will make a run for the White House, saying he is focused on his job as governor and electing other Republicans.
“The goal of all of the travel and events has been to boost Republican candidates for governor,” Davison, Youngkin’s adviser, said.
–Updated at 9:12 a.m.