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Youngkin’s CNN appearance poses opportunity, risk for potential 2024 bid

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks during a rally in Virginia Beach in November 2022. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a potential 2024 presidential candidate sorely in need of a breakout moment, will headline a CNN town hall on education during prime time Thursday night.

The program, which begins at 9 p.m. and is expected to last about an hour, offers national exposure to a Republican who, despite 16 months of persistent White House buzz, barely registers in GOP primary polls.

“It’s too early to rule out someone like Youngkin as a presidential contender even if he’s lagging in the polls, but he’s got to break into the national conversation at some point,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. “The town hall gives Youngkin an opportunity, but he’s got to make news. And just because you’re on CNN doesn’t mean you’re making news. It depends on what he says or what happens.”

The opportunity is not without risk. The freewheeling format will let parents, teachers and students in the D.C. studio audience pose questions directly to Youngkin, who generally sticks to scripted events.

And the moderator, CNN anchor Jake Tapper, will likely press Youngkin harder than the Fox News hosts who routinely land interviews with the governor. In an October appearance on “State of the Union,” Tapper challenged Youngkin over his willingness to campaign for election deniers and suggested that aspects of his school transgender policy undermine parental rights.

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The subject of the town hall — public education — was a centerpiece of Youngkin’s gubernatorial campaign, and he trumpeted some school successes in the days leading up to the event. On Tuesday, he announced the state had approved 13 grants to develop “lab schools,” which would partner colleges and universities with K-12 schools. On Wednesday came a plan to use $30 million in federal pandemic funds for vouchers parents can use for private tutoring.

“The governor is looking forward to discussing education and hearing directly from Virginia’s parents, teachers, and students,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “The governor has continually led on education and has developed an education roadmap on empowering parents, funding the largest K-12 education budget in Virginia’s history, demanding transparency from school administrations, and creating multiple pathways for Virginia’s students to succeed.”

But Youngkin’s education record has had some notable flops, including a “tip line” for reporting on teachers who discuss “divisive” topics; the administration quietly pulled the plug on it in a matter of months. Youngkin’s push to limit classroom discussions on race have led to complaints that he is trying to “whitewash” history. His order that transgender students use the bathroom that aligns with their sex at birth runs counter to a federal appeals court ruling.

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Just about a week ago, Youngkin’s superintendent of public instruction, Jillian Balow, abruptly departed after a series of blunders by the administration, ranging from a $202 million school budgeting glitch to an update to the state’s history curriculum that omitted references to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth.

Even the way CNN bills the town hall — “The War Over Education with Governor Glenn Youngkin” — could work against Youngkin’s efforts to soften his K-12 culture-war agenda with a sunny, suburban-dad vibe. Stylistically, Youngkin has cultivated an image more akin to Mister Rogers than Ron DeSantis, even if his policy goals line up more closely with those of the combative Florida governor who, along with former president Donald Trump, is dominating GOP presidential primary polls.

Youngkin has kept an unusually low profile in the days leading up to the CNN appearance, with no events listed on his public calendar Monday and Tuesday and just one — a private meeting with his finance secretary — on Wednesday. The governor’s office did not respond to questions about his whereabouts early in the week.

Youngkin political adviser Kristin Davison, who works for Axiom Strategies, said the town hall is not a matter of Youngkin seeking the national limelight; it’s the other way around.

“The governor isn’t inserting himself on the national scene — he’s focused on Virginia and the work he’s doing gets national attention,” she said.

A former Carlyle Group executive who poured $20 million of his own fortune into his gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin vaulted from political newcomer to oft-mentioned 2024 contender the moment he flipped seemingly blue Virginia red in November 2021. While claiming to be focused solely on Virginia, Youngkin stoked the White House rumors all last year with cross-country travel, heavy spending on national consultants and attention to issues — such as restrictions on abortion — that excite the GOP base but have little prospect of advancing in a divided state Capitol.

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He invited megadonors to ponder his political future at a two-day retreat in September, nine months into his first elective office. He’s sidestepped questions about whether he’ll complete his four-year term.

But the buzz has yet to bear fruit. While Youngkin still makes those top 10 candidate lists, his own political consultant seemed to discount the governor’s prospects while discussing a Fox poll last month. Just 1 percent of Republican primary voters favor Youngkin as their party’s nominee next year, according to the poll, which Trump and DeSantis dominated.

Youngkin consultant Jeff Roe, of Axiom Strategies, called the nomination a “two-person race between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis,” while discussing the poll on Fox. A day later, Roe took it back, calling Youngkin “a unicorn in American politics” who “will make a lane for himself,” should he decide to run.

Even among Virginia Republicans, only 6 percent favor Youngkin for president, compared with 39 percent for Trump and 28 percent for DeSantis, according to a recent Roanoke College poll.

Another low-polling Republican from just across the Potomac, former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, announced Sunday that he will not seek his party’s 2024 nomination.

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But political strategists have always seen Hogan as a tougher sell to GOP primary voters as a relative social moderate and unabashed Trump critic.

They’ve seen Youngkin’s prospects as brighter than his poll numbers might suggest given his ability to appeal to Trump fans without alienating suburban moderates.

Analysts also have noted that Youngkin is a multimillionaire (worth about $470 million, Forbes estimates) capable of investing heavily in his own bid; a former business titan who appeals to the donor class; and an evangelical — he started a church in his basement and regularly prays in public — who inspires the religious right.