The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin hits Nebraska like a GOP star, but some want him to take it slow

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, left, greets an attendee at the Nebraska GOP state convention July 9 in Kearney. (Gregory Schneider/The Washington Post)
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KEARNEY, Neb. — Dean and Margaret Applegarth live in the Nebraska panhandle but last year started noticing a fresh-faced Republican candidate in Virginia on Fox News. When they finally got to see now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin in person at the Nebraska GOP state convention over the weekend, they were star-struck.

“He gave a fabulous presentation. Tremendous,” said Dean, 84.

“We need more of him. We need to clone him!” said Margaret, 82.

In just a year, Youngkin has transformed from political neophyte to inspirational winner brought in to energize a red-state crowd, his brand trumpeted repeatedly on conservative national media and recently appearing in more mainstream outlets as well. He’s a telegenic multimillionaire (“so tall,” someone exclaimed as the former college basketball player parted the Nebraska crowd) who tamed a Virginia where Republicans hadn’t won statewide since 2009.

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And Youngkin used his first out-of-state public appearance since taking office in January to make a case that he’s at the start of something big. Speaking Saturday to about 600 Nebraska Republicans at a convention hall in this historic crossroads town, Youngkin said his victory in what he described as a deep-blue Virginia is just the beginning of a conservative phenomenon sweeping toward congressional elections this fall.

“Friends, what’s happening is this red wave, this red wave that found its headwaters last year in the commonwealth of Virginia is cresting across America’s heartland. And I’ll tell you, it’s going to come crashing down on Nancy Pelosi’s California,” he said, to raucous cheers and applause.

Many Nebraska Republicans who heard him speak said they would love to see Youngkin run for president — though some cautioned that the next election might be too soon. “I think he needs to continue to work hard for the people of Virginia,” said Jim Bunch, 62, a Nebraska GOP delegate who has lived in Virginia and got his photo taken with Youngkin. “At some point down the road he would be an attractive candidate for national office.”

Youngkin plays coy about his ambition — “humbled" to be asked has become his stock response — but there’s no mistaking his new national status. Last week Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia political action committee reported raising at least $1.5 million in donations of $10,000 or more — greater than the past three Virginia governors combined had raised at this point in their term, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Most of the donors were from Virginia, but Youngkin has begun wooing out-of-state donors as well.

And Youngkin’s image as a friendly, can-do conservative clearly resonated in Nebraska — a bright-red state that has developed a mixed relationship with former president Donald Trump, who won there by almost 20 points in 2020 but whose favored candidates lost this year’s GOP primaries. More than anything else, Youngkin’s emphasis on parents and schools seemed to set a template for others to follow heading into this fall’s elections.

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Jim Pillen, this year’s GOP candidate for Nebraska governor, has more than a few similarities with Youngkin — he’s a college athlete (football) and business tycoon (agriculture to Youngkin’s private equity). Both men even have four kids and a wife named Suzanne. Unlike Youngkin, though, Pillen was not endorsed by Trump — who supported one of his three primary opponents.

But Pillen’s message is familiar to anyone who saw Youngkin’s campaign: schools, parents, economy and faith.

“I first heard of Gov. Youngkin … last summer,” Pillen said in an interview, "when we were really, really hard into our campaign and my daughter said, ‘Dad, there’s this guy running for governor of Virginia and he’s talking about kids all the time and parents, just like you are everywhere. He’s talking about less government and standing up for our values and making sure we have common-sense education. He sounds just like you!’ ”

Pillen even wears a quilted vest in some of his ads, though aides said that was not a tribute to Youngkin’s signature fleece vest. Both men use the political consulting firm Axiom Strategies, whose logo was on the swag bags handed out at the convention. Afterward, Pillen flew Youngkin to Omaha to appear with him at a fundraiser in a restaurant.

Calling the Virginian “a perfect match for all of Nebraska,” Pillen said in the interview that Youngkin has a bright future on the national stage. “I think Glenn Youngkin can do anything he wants that he sets his mind to do,” he said.


Youngkin’s trip was at the invitation of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), another Axiom client, who is term-limited from seeking office again.

The two got to know each other last year. Ricketts — the co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, which poured almost $11 million into Youngkin’s campaign — was one of several GOP chiefs who offered advice to the novice Virginia candidate.

In an interview, Ricketts acknowledged that part of Youngkin’s success lay in his ability to appeal to the Trump base of the party while offering a moderate image to those looking to move beyond the inflammatory ex-president. And the key to that strategy, Ricketts said, was schools, parents and “kitchen-table” issues.

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“I think what we need to do is focus on … the policies [that] are going to benefit families,” he said. “And I think that’s what Gov. Youngkin did in Virginia to be successful. So he certainly acknowledged the policy successes of the Trump administration, but he really focused on what do families in Virginia care about right now.”

That theme surfaced again and again as Ricketts and other Nebraska officials spoke at the convention, hammering on issues of inflation, energy independence, immigration and national security. All of those topics were couched in a message of fear — dire warnings that “out of touch” Democrats and an “incompetent” President Biden are steering the nation into chaos and disaster.

“Embarrassment and ineptitude on the world stage,” U.S. Rep.-elect Mike Flood told the audience. Warning of “some really troubling days” ahead, he likened Biden to former president Jimmy Carter.

“But remember,” he added, “for every Jimmy Carter there’s a Ronald Reagan just around the corner.” He closed by saying “it’s time for morning in America again," invoking Reagan’s trademark political ad from his 1984 presidential campaign, but not specifying who he thought would take that mantle.

Against that somber backdrop, Youngkin took the stage with a burst of enthusiasm — and more than a little Reagan positivity.

“I guess this is what it feels like to be a Republican in Nebraska,” he shouted, and added over the cheers of the crowd: “Winning! Winning! Winning!”

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Youngkin flipped the script on the other speakers, showcasing a more optimistic narrative he’ll be touring across the country as he stumps for GOP candidates later this summer. He described taking office in a Virginia where Democratic rule had made life “pretty bleak," leaving it up to him to fix it — without mentioning that Republicans had controlled the legislature for many years and that he inherited from a Democratic governor low unemployment, a huge budget surplus and a national reputation as “the best state for business.”

On Wednesday, financial news network CNBC released its latest rankings of top business states, and Virginia had slipped to third after two straight years as number one.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Youngkin said, Virginia Democrats closed businesses and sent workers home — “and oh, by the way, paid [them] to be there,” he added, to groans from the audience.

He said the state’s murder rate climbed because Democrats “demeaned and demoralized … our law enforcement heroes."

Schools shut their doors because of covid-19, he said. And when parents expressed concerns, he said, things got even worse. “Friends,” he said, “schools told parents, ‘You have no say.’ ”

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Parents who rebelled powered his candidacy for governor, Youngkin said, and put him in position to set things right. He closed with a soaring call to action, invoking Virginia’s Founding Fathers and a need for unity.

“We can do this. We’re bonded together by a spirit of liberty,” he said. Youngkin urged Nebraskans to “recognize that this melting pot of this great America is brought together by a determination, by patriotism, by a recognition that our best days are in front of us, not behind us.

“And together we can do this with faith in government, with faith in our families, and an unwavering determination to win this fall and make America [what] we all know, all know she must be — that shining city on a hill,” he said, citing a line used by Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

After a standing ovation, delegates and guests said they were thrilled by the Virginian.

“He needs to run for president,” Taylor Royal, 32, an accountant from Omaha, said. “He hits all the right notes."

Youngkin can appeal to the party’s base, Royal said, "but he’s not also your kind of throw-it-in-the-face die-hard Republican. … We’ve been so polarized and he kind of cuts through all that, which is nice.”

“He was basically the start of the red wave to get our school systems back,” said Harold McPheron, 66, a Navy retiree who lives south of Lincoln and has family in Virginia. McPheron said he followed Youngkin’s rise, watched him on Fox and expects to see him run for national office — once he’s finished being Virginia’s governor.

“I would say more like in ’28 or ’32,” McPheron said, adding that he thinks Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is “showing a good, strong case” for being the nominee in 2024. Trump might want to run again, he added, “but I think a fresher face would be more appealing because so many people don’t like the orange man.”

Dean Applegarth, a retired railroad engineer, had come to the convention to support his wife, a delegate. But he found himself drawn in by Youngkin.

“I was amazed at how motivating he was,” he said. “He makes you want to get involved and get things done."

Margaret Applegarth, wearing a rhinestone Trump pin, described herself as “a redneck” who would vote for Trump again in a heartbeat. But she has her eye on Youngkin for the future. “He needs to get more practice,” she said, but “I think he’s just right. I think he’ll appeal to a lot of the masses.”