RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin flew to New York last week to meet privately with GOP megadonors in Manhattan, a move that underscores recent hints that the Republican is considering a run for president in 2024.
Youngkin, a multimillionaire and former private equity executive, used to respond that he is solely focused on his new job in Virginia. More recently, he has begun saying he is “humbled” that so many people “request” that he run.
“I am always humbled by this request, but we have a lot of work to do today in Virginia,” Youngkin told Brian Kilmeade last week, as the “Fox & Friends” co-host queried him about a run during an interview in Richmond. But when Kilmeade pressed him on whether he’d made a decision, Youngkin seemed to acknowledge that he was actively considering a bid, saying, “I have not made a decision yet.”
Youngkin appeared to encourage the speculation in a separate Fox interview that aired Monday, when Kilmeade noted that there’s “a buzz about you running for president.”
“We’ll see what comes next,” Youngkin replied.
Matthew Moran, a former deputy chief of staff for Youngkin who is transitioning to a new role as his full-time senior political adviser, confirmed that the governor met separately with three Republican megadonors in Manhattan on June 23, two days after Virginia’s congressional primaries, seeking donations to his Spirit of Virginia political action committee.
Moran declined to identify the potential donors or say whether the governor succeeded in raising money. Asked if the fundraising and media appearances were signs that Youngkin is inching toward a presidential run, Moran did not answer directly.
“The governor’s made it very clear that he’s focused on doing the job he was elected to do in Virginia, and that includes rebuilding our party here, winning back these competitive Virginia congressional seats, and showing Republicans across the country that there’s a path forward in competitive states,” he said.
Presidential buzz revved up around Youngkin even before he assumed the governorship — his first public office — not quite six months ago. Most of the excitement centered on the high-wire act he pulled off to win a swing state that a year earlier had gone for President Biden by 10 points.
By projecting an upbeat, basketball-dad persona while leaning in on “election integrity,” critical race theory and other culture war issues popular with supporters of former president Donald Trump, Youngkin managed to excite the deep-red base without alienating moderate suburbanites. He engaged in an awkward dance with Trump throughout, by turns embracing and distancing himself from the 45th president.
Republicans pointed to his win as a template for a way forward from the Trump presidency, vaulting Youngkin from political obscurity to lists of potential 2024 contenders.
“I think the governor showed real political skill in his 2021 campaign,” said Alex Conant, a founding partner at Firehouse Strategies and communications director for Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “I think he also created some national name ID overnight by winning a state that Biden had won just a year earlier. And now serving as governor in a big state with the national media in the backyard, he has a platform to potentially run for higher office.”
That said, Conant and some other political observers think it would be a challenge for Youngkin to break through, even if Trump, who has broadly hinted he will run and would surely dominate the field if so, does not enter the race.
“I think he has a lot of fans and there’s a lot of interest, but there’s a lot of people who’ve been running for president for several years now who are spending a lot more time in New York and Florida with the Republican megadonors,” Conant said.
The PAC that Youngkin pitched to donors in Manhattan is one of two political organizations he established this year — ostensibly to promote fellow Republicans running for office in Virginia and elsewhere, but with the fringe benefit of raising his national profile through cross-country travel.
While Virginia governors routinely set up PACs to help bankroll in-state races, and some have traveled out of state to raise money, Youngkin’s entities stand apart with their national objectives — feeding speculation about his own aspirations.
During a Richmond political roast in May, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach) joked that he was keeping Youngkin in the loop on budget negotiations — but had to go to Iowa and New Hampshire to catch up with him.
In truth, Youngkin put travel on hold until the budget was behind him, although just barely. Two days after ceremonially signing the spending plan, he was in New York. Next week, he will be in Nebraska, headlining the state GOP’s convention.
The Nebraska appearance, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is the only out-of-state event of its kind on Youngkin’s calendar so far, political aides said. But the governor is expected to campaign aggressively around the country starting in August, once primaries have concluded in most states.
Youngkin has yet to pick the out-of-state candidates he will stump for, but he will focus on those running in blue districts that he thinks can be flipped red, Moran said. For the time being, Moran said, Youngkin is focused on three competitive congressional races in Virginia, in the 2nd, 7th and 10th districts.
Youngkin’s New York trip came after he reached a key milestone of his young governorship: getting $4 billion in tax cuts out of a divided General Assembly. He touted that partial victory — he’d wanted $5 billion — in his in-studio interviews June 23 with “CBS Mornings,” Bloomberg TV and Yahoo Finance. Among other wins he noted: adopting a record education budget, ending school mask mandates, and landing big-name businesses, including Raytheon, Boeing and Lego.
The CBS interview took him well outside his usual orbit of Fox News and Fox Business, offering the Republican a more mainstream audience but also more aggressive questioning on topics he has typically tried to sidestep, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection, gun control and abortion.
The nearly seven-minute interview, led by host Gayle King, had Youngkin reprising his balancing act, as when he was asked what happens to abortion rights in Virginia if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide. In the interview, which came the day before the court issued its ruling overturning Roe, Youngkin said he’d respect the right to protest but also enforce any law needed to “keep Virginians safe,” including the three Supreme Court justices who live in the state.
As King pressed him on what he’d say to “women who may be worried” about losing access to abortion, Youngkin kept any policy plans to himself. He said that “nothing changes immediately” under state law, adding that as a “pro-life governor” he would “work with our legislature to see the next path. … We’re going to start that work.”
Youngkin was more specific in an interview with reporters, editors and editorial writers at The Washington Post the next morning, just as the court announced its decision. He said he will support banning the procedure after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk, but would settle for a ban at 20 weeks if he can get that through Richmond’s divided Capitol.
This week, he said he believes life begins at conception and would sign “any bill … to protect life” that passes the General Assembly.
In the CBS interview, Youngkin treaded lightly on the subject of the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump’s false claims that Biden stole the 2020 presidential election. Last year, Youngkin refused to acknowledge that Biden had legitimately won the White House until he’d secured his party’s gubernatorial nomination, and he appeased election deniers by pressing for “election integrity” throughout his campaign.
Noting the work of the House Jan. 6 committee, King asked Youngkin whether Trump was hurting the GOP by refusing, “even as we sit here today,” to acknowledge that Biden won the presidency.
“I do believe that Joe Biden was elected president in this country and I think what happened on January 6 was awful, awful. It was a real blight on our democracy,” Youngkin told King.
He went on to assert that Jan. 6 is not the kind of “kitchen table” issue that ordinary Americans focus on and suggested that TV ratings for the committee hearings had been poor. (The first hearing, in prime time, drew at least 20 million viewers, well below viewership for presidential debates but on par with “Sunday Night Football,” the New York Times reported.)
“I think the media cares more about this than the people do,” he said. “There’s prime-time coverage and, candidly, not many people are watching it. And this is because around the kitchen tables in Virginia and, I think, America, it’s runaway inflation. It’s crime. It’s schools. These are the issues that Virginians and, I think, Americans are worried about.”
Virginia is the only state in the nation that prohibits its governors from serving back-to-back terms, so they all enter the office knowing they’ll need a new job in four years. But Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst, cautioned that aiming for national office while governing can be a difficult road.
Divided attention can make it harder to get things done in Virginia, he said, and Youngkin’s ambitions could be costly for his party if it hampers the GOP performance in legislative elections next year.
“Doug Wilder often said that was the worst mistake he ever made, trying to do that,” Holsworth said, referring to the Virginia Democrat who entered the 1992 presidential race not two years after he was sworn in as the nation’s first elected Black governor.
More than a few political observers have suggested that Youngkin needs to learn the ropes of his first job in government before seeking a promotion to leader of the free world.
“He hasn’t been around enough. He hasn’t toured enough. He doesn’t have the faithful cadres in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Ed Rogers, a veteran of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and founding partner of the lobbying and communications firm BGR Group.
Rogers nevertheless thinks running would be “a good audition” for Youngkin, perhaps leading to a Cabinet post that could boost his profile and chances down the road.
But others say Youngkin has a shot given that social media has made it easier for non-household names to mount credible campaigns.
“You don’t necessarily have the standard we used to have — they have to be, like, a two term-governor or a very established politician. That’s definitely changed in the era of digital politics,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican operative who advised 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and is an executive at the philanthropy Arnold Ventures.
“Pete Buttigieg was nobody and became a national political figure in the space of a few months,” he said, referring to Biden’s transportation secretary, who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination as mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Youngkin’s swing-state win is reason enough to take him seriously should he decide to run, Madden said.
“He won in the state of Virginia by talking to these disaffected votes that had previously been motivated by Trump, but he did so without having to wear a MAGA hat,” Madden said, noting a plethora of potential contenders for the nomination aside from Trump. “The question is, is there really a market for a Trump alternative and, if so, is he the best one?”