Is Youngkin already eyeing Washington?
Virginia’s new governor faces a blitz, but how will the former private equity executive maximize his political capital?
VIRGINIA—Reg. Glenn Youngkin returned to his birthplace earlier this month as a conquering hero.
The rising political star spent his youth 90 miles down I-64 in Norfolk and then days in college basketball at Rice in Houston, then Harvard, then a long career with the Carlyle Group in Washington (while raising a sprawling family in the Old Dominion suburb of Great Falls). Richmond, known for its insider people — “the Virginia Way” — marked the end of an era ushered in by an onslaught from outside forces with Youngkin’s inauguration last week.
The drastic change in “the Holy City” is evident, of course, on the streets: national uproar over race besieged the tributes to these highly controversial sons of Virginia – Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson – on historic Monument Avenue.
But a Commonwealth that for a century and a half has sought to correct its revolutionary birth with its counter-revolutionary legacy saw its latest state party system in place last week: Youngkin’s rise, that of a complete political maverick, not only marked the formal end of the “pay-your- fees” policies in the sometimes narrow-minded Southern state, but also the conclusion of the dominance of a generation of social justice-oriented but corporately compliant “Virginia Democrats.” Youngkin’s victory in November marked the first time in the millennium that the cadre of elite-educated modernizers (Virginia household names like Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, or Terry McCauliffe—this crew of senators, governors, presidential consulates, party leaders, and vice-presidential candidates) actually attended the ballot box lost. Kaine lost in 2016, of course, and Youngkin’s win last year was arguably the biggest Republican triumph since.
Youngkin has tried to feel at home with what, to outsiders, are probably unnecessary and bizarre incantations of the “Commonwealth” and visibly delved into the rich history of the state he hails from, but only so much (Great Falls isn’t Gloucester) . . But the national significance of his triumph looms above all. Or like them Washington Post gasped this week: “Youngkin stormed into Richmond with a claim of executive power that has delighted the GOP base but surprised even some allies, and he has made it clear that he took his two-point win as a mandate for conservatives.” Changes considered.”
Youngkin is a temperament save for his nakedly combative colleague (and potential rival) down in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, but a spate of executive orders on everything from masks in schools to racial quackery in schools has the right licking their chops a chance of repeat business up and down the Southeast.
Like Willie Stark in All the king’s men, the obvious question for almost every audacious Southern executive is when the White House volley is coming. In Virginia’s case, however, there is a political “curse of the bambino.” The question here is when does the reprieve come from the fact that the last President of the Commonwealth of the United States was John Tyler, who led quite an interesting life but died in disgrace for the purposes of 2022, a former traitor on the Backseat among the Confederates?
Youngkin’s interest in the challenge is evident. The open question is whether the advice he’s getting is to strike while the iron is hot, as Barack Obama did in 2008 and as critics argued Chris Christie didn’t do in 2012. Youngkin’s adviser is Jeff Roe, a scorched-earth conservative activist who ran Ted Cruz for the White House in 2016, in what some would say was premature but a gamble others would object to that made Cruz a ubiquitous name and failed only because of a certain Donald J. Trump. If Youngkin is like-minded, he’d throw himself headlong into the maelstrom that involves an apparent feud between Trump and DeSantis (though an inside column by Hugh Hewitt said over the weekend that feud is kayfabe), not to mention Cruz, whose wish to become president is more obvious than the current White House occupant has been for half a century.
Meanwhile, Youngkin has shown a certain seriousness on the Virginia side, but also a lack of desire to storm into Virginia’s Capitol like a Robespierre of Taylorism. Youngkin may have leveled the state’s (intolerably lame) Democratic establishment for now, but he’s also hired a real cat’s foot of the once-powerful Republican old guard in Richard Cullen, the former attorney general and all-round state honour, at McGuire Woods, the first or second most powerful law firm in the Commonwealth. It’s a Machiavelli choice, but one that raises questions about whether Youngkin’s appetite for explosive change is really aimed at Richmond.