Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is crisscrossing the country this fall to stump for the whole gamut of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls – from ardent pro-Trumpers like Kari Lake of Arizona and Tudor Dixon of Michigan to establishmentarians like Jim Pillen of Nebraska. And on Tuesday, Youngkin joined the GOP governor Donald Trump hates the most, Georgia’s Brian Kemp.
In a GOP often plagued by factionalism, Youngkin is “hugging everyone,” said a person close to the governor. “No one else in the party is doing that.”
As a result, the governor who flipped a Biden state last year has become a sought-after surrogate for Republicans. By November, Youngkin will have campaigned for at least 10 gubernatorial candidates, including in many of what the Republican Governors Association considers top target races. Having kept the former President at a distance during his own campaign, Youngkin is now stumping for nominees who have been boosted by Trump and those, like Kemp and Pillen, who have defied Trump-backed primary challengers. Republicans currently control a majority of governorships, with 36 total seats up this year and more than a dozen competitive.
In Georgia – home to a competitive rematch for the state’s top job between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams – Youngkin rallied with Kemp while wearing his signature red vest, handing his fellow governor a matching zip-up on stage. (Each candidate he appears with gets a personalized Youngkin-like red vest.)
“This is about coming together,” Youngkin said. “Let’s make sure you make a very large Georgia statement that we are going to make sure Brian Kemp has four more years.”
Youngkin’s campaign efforts this year come as the Republican Party seeks a path for the future – and the Virginia Republican is putting himself out there as a potential champion. The party’s base remains enamored with Trump, who is moving closer to a potential third White House run, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be waiting in the wings should the former President decline to run or stumble along the way.
But where both Trump and DeSantis employ a combative approach to winning the hearts of GOP voters, Youngkin tries to strike an ecumenical tone in order to appeal to all stripes of Republican. That’s how he characterizes his 2-point win last year in Virginia, a state that voted for Joe Biden over Trump by 10 points in 2020.
“We brought people together that had never been in the same room together: forever Trumpers, Never Trumpers, Tea Party, libertarians, independent moderate voters, and a lot of Democrats,” Youngkin told journalist David Drucker onstage last week in Austin at the Texas Tribune Festival – another out-of-state appearance that suggests the relatively new governor may already have national ambitions.
Some Republicans have started to take notice.
“One person I don’t think gets enough credit if Trump doesn’t run is Glenn Youngkin in Virginia,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, a social conservative group. “He’s a red governor in a purple state, who won a tough election against [Terry] McAuliffe, and is doing a lot under the radar on these issues that families and conservatives and Americans care so much about.”
In a sign he is testing the waters for a future in national GOP politics, Youngkin is holding a donor retreat Thursday and Friday at Keswick Hall, a resort near Charlottesville, Virginia, CNN confirmed. The event, dubbed the “Red Vest Retreat,” will include donors from all over the country, according to a person familiar with it. The Washington Post first reported on the retreat.
On the trail this year, Youngkin’s pitch for a winning Republican message is that voters reward the party for responding to “kitchen-table” issues – not just economic concerns over inflation and taxes but also cultural issues around public schools. Drawing on his winning message last year, he hits the theme consistently as he stumps for Republican candidates – some of whom are better known for pandering to those who deny Biden won the 2020 election or outright repeat election lies themselves.
Dixon won her primary in Michigan after expressing her “concerns” about the conduct of the 2020 election and earning an endorsement from Trump. And while Youngkin has not waded knee deep into related conspiracies, he did characterize “election integrity” as a top issue when campaigning last year and also called for an audit of voting machines in Virginia, mirroring a broader Republican push to interrogate the 2020 election results.
But when Youngkin spoke on Dixon’s behalf last month at the state GOP convention in Lansing, he avoided touching the false claims and instead focused on his familiar themes about the economy and education.
“We are on the side of strong families, low taxes, safe communities,” Youngkin said. “We are on the side of small government, low inflation, American-made products. We are on the side of patriotism, God-given liberties and the limitless opportunities that can lift up all Americans. We are on the side of teaching our children how to think, not what to think. We are on the side of parents – because guess what? Parents matter.”
The refrain has become familiar for Youngkin’s political speeches, and it’s one Republicans say speaks to the concerns of their voters.
“He’s more conservative than you think, being governor of Virginia,” said one GOP operative who requested anonymity to speak freely. “He can talk really well about parental rights in education, culture creep. Voters want to hear about it. That’s the bread and butter right now.”
Governing as a conservative in Virginia
Virginia’s unique law that bars governors from serving consecutive terms has tended to limit the state’s chief executives’ national ambitions. But Youngkin has turned that disadvantage on its head, embracing a more conservative agenda than might be expected in a Democratic-leaning state to remain in the national conversation.
In particular, Youngkin has become a conservative-movement hero in the fights over the teaching of racial and gender identity concepts in Virginia’s public schools. During his campaign for governor, the Republican successfully rode a broad range of frustration on education from some voters – from Covid-related school closures to curriculum that addressed the legacy of racism in America.
And Youngkin’s most recent policy to thrill the right are new draft guidelines from Virginia’s education department requiring parental approval and documentation for schools to recognize a child’s preferred name or pronoun and requiring transgender students to use school facilities that match the sex listed on their birth certificates.
The guidelines, which still have to be adopted by individual districts, have prompted backlash from transgender-rights advocates and Virginia students, thousands of whom organized student walkouts this week in protest.
Between the national attention to these issues and his appearances in other states, Youngkin has Democrats calling foul.
“He is not focused on his day job that he was elected to last November. He was governor for about three seconds before he decided to travel the country to support other right wing cultural warriors,” said Susan Swecker, chairperson of the Democratic Party of Virginia, who blasted Youngkin as having “a mean spirited edge to everything that he does.”
Raising questions about 2024
All of this activity has helped Youngkin remain a frequent presence on Fox News, where he is often portrayed as a leader for the Republican Party.
In one appearance on the network this week, Youngkin was asked about the GOP’s campaign to win majorities in Congress. The chyron at the bottom of the screen read, “GOP EYES YOUNGKIN’S PLAYBOOK TO TAKE CONGRESS,” as Youngkin hit his talking points.
“Voters are really focusing on those issues that they care most about,” he said, listing off inflation, crime and education as top priorities.
His ability to command attention has put Youngkin on the radar of those Republicans looking for presidential options outside the Trump-DeSantis dynamic.
“Right now, it is Trump vs. DeSantis and, just maybe, Youngkin is the dark horse who could possibly come out of the blue,” said one senior official at a prominent conservative organization in Washington.
Kristin Davison, a top political aide to Youngkin, swatted away suggestions this current tour of the country in support of Republican governors and candidates is an early campaign for 2024, arguing Youngkin’s name is “in the mix” because of “the movement” he started in Virginia and the swift way he’s delivered on campaign promises after becoming governor in January.
Youngkin himself has also dismissed questions about his presidential ambitions, including when he was asked last week in Austin.
“When I see folks step back and ask this humbling question about 2024, it’s just very easy to really, very candidly say, we’re not thinking about 2024,” he said. “We’re focused on 2022.”
Gabby Orr contributed to this report.