The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s signature red vest didn’t deliver big wins for GOP nominees

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) with Yesli Vega, the Republican nominee for Virginia's 7th Congressional District, in Triangle on Monday. Vega lost her race Tuesday. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) logged a lot of miles campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidates in other states this year, touting his own election in Virginia as the “headwaters” of a “red wave” that was going to sweep across the country.

But the results of Tuesday’s elections left many of those Republicans high and dry.

Of the 15 states where Youngkin traveled to stump for GOP candidates, four saw clear Republican victories. Three of those were already bright red — Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota — while the fourth was Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp led all summer.

Nine — Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin — were losses for Republicans. And the remaining two — Arizona and Nevada — are close contests in which Democratic candidates are within reach of victory.

2022 Election results for governor's races

Even in Virginia, only one of the three competitive congressional races went Youngkin’s way — for state Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) over Rep. Elaine Luria (D) in the 2nd Congressional District.

All of which raises the question of whether the Youngkin magic that brought a Republican victory to blue-leaning Virginia is a template that can be repeated for others, like a one-size-fits-all version of his signature red fleece vest. Or whether it can propel the potential 2024 presidential candidate to the White House.

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“I know Republicans were very buoyant after Youngkin won in 2021 that they could apply this across the country,” Jessica Taylor, who analyzes gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the day after Tuesday’s election. “I think we clearly saw last night it doesn’t translate everywhere.”

Youngkin’s circumstances were different, she said, noting that President Biden’s approval rating was especially low last year and that Youngkin never had to endure a tough primary election. “He won via a convention and ranked-choice voting, and didn’t have to kiss Trump’s ring in the way others have had to this cycle to win their primaries,” Taylor said.

That allowed Youngkin to accept former president Donald Trump’s endorsement but keep him at arm’s length, never campaigning with him in a state where the ex-president was deeply unpopular with moderate voters. Some of the candidates Youngkin stumped for this year — such as Kari Lake in Arizona and Tudor Dixon in Michigan — have been especially enthusiastic in their embrace of the former president and his false claims.

Dixon lost to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), while Lake was narrowly trailing Democrat Katie Hobbs with about 70 percent of Arizona votes counted as of Wednesday evening.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato argues that Republican candidates’ unexpectedly weak showing in gubernatorial contests around the country also undercuts Youngkin’s status as a national figure.

“Youngkin hoped his extensive out-of-state travels would create a big buzz and real momentum for a presidential bid. But the GOP flopped, Youngkin is at zero percent in the presidential polls, and his bandwagon has barely moved,” Sabato said via email.

Kristin Davison, Youngkin’s political strategist, said the governor’s only aim was to help as many Republican gubernatorial candidates as he could. “Many of them were in very tough states, blue states, and in very tough races,” she said. “And I believe the governor’s efforts helped put a lot of those on the map.”

It was a disappointing night for Republicans across the board, Davison said, but she pointed out that Youngkin-assisted candidates in deep-blue Oregon as well as in Nevada, which has a Democratic incumbent, could still win as vote totals inch along. Oregon was later called for the Democrat.

Davison gave Youngkin credit for injecting “excitement” and “kitchen table” issues into other states’ races — saying that after campaigning with Youngkin, Arizona’s Lake talked about cutting the food tax and Joe Lombardo (R) emphasized education in Nevada.

But Davison said Youngkin didn’t offer his victory in Virginia as a template. “What the governor said is that you can’t copy and paste a campaign — every state is different, every candidate is different,” she said.

Former Virginia governor George Allen, a Republican who served from 1994 to 1998, said Youngkin was a powerful messenger for the GOP across the country.

“Youngkin winning last year really cheered people up across the country, and so he’s got that cachet, that popularity,” Allen said Tuesday night at Kiggans’s victory party in Virginia Beach, which he attended along with his wife, former first lady Susan Allen, as well as former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The only glimpse of Youngkin that night, though, was on the big TV screen at the front of the room, where he popped up giving an interview on Fox News.

Davison said Youngkin had always planned to watch the results from Richmond with his family and “let these candidates be the stars of their show.”

Virginia Democrats have assailed Youngkin for the time he spends outside the state, mocking him on Twitter at times by listing his campaign stops on a T-shirt, concert-tour style. His office sometimes releases a daily work schedule that reads “No public events,” only to have Youngkin turn up at a political event in some other state.

On Wednesday, some Democrats zeroed in on Youngkin’s travels. “Good morning to everyone except the candidates who received a visit from @GlennYoungkin and suffered the #curseoftheredvest,” Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) tweeted.

“I think Glenn Youngkin’s approach and style has proven to be not very effective,” said David Turner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, which poured millions of dollars into defeating the candidates who campaigned with Youngkin.

Even fellow Republicans have grumbled about Youngkin’s travel. In August, well before Youngkin’s midterm travel peaked, Virginia Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) lamented that the governor’s attention seemed to be elsewhere. “I am hopeful he will intensify his focus on the commonwealth’s issues,” he told reporters at a state budget event in August.

Youngkin alienated some Republican supporters — drawing a public rebuke from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), for instance — for lending a hand to candidates who embraced Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Youngkin himself declined to acknowledge Biden’s victory until after winning his party’s nomination last year.

They include: Lake in Arizona, who has said she would not have certified Biden’s victory had she been governor in 2020; Dixon in Michigan, who has indicated she does not believe Biden won her state; Derek Schmidt in Kansas, who as the state’s attorney general urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear lawsuits brought by Pennsylvania and Texas challenging the 2020 results; and Tim Michels in Wisconsin, who has dodged questions about whether he would try to reverse Trump’s 2020 loss.

Democrats also slammed Youngkin for campaigning for former Maine governor Paul LePage, who has a long history of racially inflammatory statements. Youngkin distanced himself from those remarks but insisted — as he has multiple times — that Republicans just make better governors.

Youngkin to boost Maine’s LePage despite racially incendiary rhetoric

Youngkin’s rhetoric on the stump put some dents in his own nice-guy image. At a congressional campaign rally late last month he commented on the hammer attack against the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and said Republicans would “send [Pelosi] back to be with him in California.” He sent Pelosi a note of apology but never apologized in public.

By one measure — perhaps the one most important to Youngkin as a potential 2024 presidential candidate — his cross-country mission was entirely successful: He got his name out there, said longtime Richmond political analyst Robert Holsworth.

But Holsworth said Youngkin’s inability to deliver two of the three competitive congressional races in his own state pokes holes in the notion that the governor appealed equally to Trump fans and suburban moderates.

During last year’s campaign, he said, Youngkin leaned into K-12 culture wars that were roiling the Loudoun County School Board — but the messaging played far better in red corners of the state, driving up record turnout there that compensated for losses in blue suburbs.

“There’s this kind of myth that Youngkin and Fox News has pushed that somehow Youngkin did well in the Northern Virginia suburbs. He never did. He ran behind Ken Cuccinelli in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun,” Holsworth said, referring to the GOP’s 2013 gubernatorial nominee.

Taylor, the Cook Political Report analyst, said Virginia’s unique prohibition against governors serving a second consecutive term encourages an ambitious figure such as Youngkin to look beyond the state.

“He’s had to mold himself more in line with national interests to be a little more relevant,” she said. And she doesn’t think this cycle’s failures will change that.

“The red vest became such an icon,” Taylor said. “I think he’s still one to watch.”

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