“We are just at the beginning,” he said to cheers of “Glenn! Glenn! Glenn!” “Because we, as Republicans, are no longer going to celebrate an episodic victory. We are going to celebrate continuous victories year after year after year.”
Youngkin’s win in November over former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) gave the party its first statewide victory since 2009 — and shattered the notion that demographic trends and anti-Trump sentiment had turned the onetime purple state solidly blue. The race drew national attention as an early referendum on President Biden, who won Virginia by 10 points last year, and as a preview of what might come in midterm elections next year.
Youngkin has been taking a victory lap around the state since Election Day with a series of campaign-style rallies. But nowhere was his win more deeply relished than at the annual post-election gathering, long ago dubbed the “Republican Advance” to assert that the GOP was not in “retreat.”
“There is no such thing as a Republican retreat,” he declared. “We only move forward.”
During the long stretch when the Advance failed to live up to its upbeat billing, the event took on a funereal vibe, even amid the splendor of a historic hotel decked out for Christmas. Not so this time, particularly at the hospitality suite sponsored by Axiom Strategies, the campaign consulting firm that helped lead Youngkin to victory.
Axiom founder Jeff Roe presided over a lavish buffet that included Maine lobster mascarpone mac-n-cheese and an ice sculpture melding the company logo with the number 74 — a nod to Youngkin’s position as Virginia’s 74th governor. The reworked logo was splashed on all manner of swag: phone chargers, Christmas ornaments — even sugar cookies, with the image etched in royal icing.
“This is the happiest [Advance] I’ve been to,” said Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), who was glad to down “celebratory” drinks “as opposed to drowning your sorrows.”
Clad in his signature red vest bearing his campaign logo, Youngkin mingled with activists in the Axiom suite late into the night. At a welcome reception hours earlier, he delivered an upbeat address similar to his campaign stump speech — complete with swipes at McAuliffe.
“Virginians flat out rejected Terry McAuliffe’s divisive campaign,” he said.
More than 400 party activists attended and others had to be turned away, with capacity limited this year because of renovations at the hotel, said state GOP Chairman Rich Anderson, a veteran delegate from Prince William County who lost his seat in 2017 amid an anti-Trump wave. That was perhaps twice the number who attended in 2019; Anderson was fuzzy on the number of attendees that year but was clear that turnout had been “embarrassing.” The event had to be canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It feels like it did in 2009,” Anderson said, referring to when former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) led a sweep of statewide offices.
McDonnell attended this year, participating in a panel discussion on how to build coalitions.
“I came to formally give up my title as the last Republican governor of Virginia,” he said.
McDonnell, who served from 2010 to 2014, saw his largely successful governorship crumble amid a gifts scandal at the end of his term. But during the party’s long losing streak, many Republicans looked back fondly on his campaign strategy, which had focused on everyday issues under a “Bob’s for Jobs” slogan.
Youngkin had to navigate far trickier political terrain, with the GOP fractured into pro- and anti-Trump camps as well as its long-standing split between social warriors and pragmatic pro-business types. He managed to win by projecting a sunny, basketball dad persona while still throwing red meat to the GOP base. He spoke against abortion and promoted gun rights early on without ever committing to specific policies. Toward the end, he focused on schools — classic kitchen-table fare — but with an emphasis on the cultural issues roiling public education, including what he deemed misguided efforts to promote racial equity and transgender rights. He walked a fine line on coronavirus vaccines, encouraging Virginians to get the shot but opposing mandates.
Whether he can keep up the balancing act in office remains to be seen. His speech at the Homestead hit on tax relief and schools. He also volunteered that he’d just gotten his booster shot.
“But I will never mandate it,” he said to cheers.
He made no mention of abortion or guns, two issues highly animating for the GOP base. Rather, he touted his efforts to “build a bigger tent,” noting outreach to non-English speakers with a variety of bumper stickers.
“Translating ‘Virginia runs on Youngkin’ into 12 different languages isn’t easy,” he said.
The welcome reception began with the lighting of a Hanukkah candle by Ken Reid, a Republican leader from Norfolk. Earlier this year, he had to fight the party to win religious accommodations for Orthodox Jews and others with Saturday religious obligations, who wanted to vote absentee in a Saturday nominating convention. It took the intervention of the Republican National Committee for the state party to relent. So the inclusion Friday was a welcome shift for him.
Yet there may be limits to just how far the party wants to expand its tent. While a representative from Richmond’s chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBT rights group, took part in a panel discussion Saturday, Reid voiced hope during the candle-lighting that Republicans would “keep the LGBT envelope from being pushed.”
Reid said later he was referring to efforts to promote transgender rights in schools, which he said “sexualizes” children.
There was grumbling among a few activists that Youngkin made no mention of social issues, although panel discussions Saturday included representatives of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia and the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group to the right of the National Rifle Association.
Both groups have said they are willing to give Youngkin the space to pursue other priorities before turning to guns and abortion.
Conservative radio host John Fredericks, who arranged for Trump to phone into two rallies ahead of the election, said he was wary that Youngkin would move away from the “MAGA voters” who turned out for him in record numbers.
But the gripes were few and far between.
“We changed the culture of defeat,” Youngkin told the crowd. “Folks, we have a winning team and everybody wants to be on it.”