The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Republicans should learn from Glenn Youngkin

Glenn Youngkin, Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, speaks during a campaign event in Burke, Va., on Oct. 19. (Craig Hudson/Bloomberg)

Republicans are salivating over the chance that businessman Glenn Youngkin can win the Virginia’s governor race. They should also be salivating over the campaign platform and messaging that’s making his potential upset possible.

Virginia has become a Democratic-leaning state in the past decade. President Biden defeated Donald Trump there by 10 points in 2020, and no Republican has won any statewide office since 2009. Democrats took control of the state House and Senate in 2019, giving them complete control over state government for the first time in decades. When Democrats nominated former governor Terry McAuliffe, a historically prodigious fundraiser, most analysts figured the party would extend its newfound domination over Virginia politics.

Youngkin, a former executive with the Carlyle Group, has confounded those expectations by running an unexpected campaign. He hasn’t quite run away from the hard-line conservative positions favored by the Republican base, but he hasn’t embraced them either. Instead, he’s focused on a mix of new programs that sounds different from traditional Republican pablum.

His tax cut plan is the best example. Traditional GOP dogma prefers to cut tax rates first. Supply-side theory says this improves the marginal incentives to work and produce goods, thereby growing the economy for everyone. Virginia’s 2017 Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, offered a version of this doctrine, promising to cut tax rates by 10 percent.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

That may sound good to many conservatives, but it meant the biggest benefits flowed to the richest Virginians. A 10 percent cut meant that Virginia’s 5.75 percent rate, applicable to all taxable income more than $17,000, would drop to 5.175 percent. For a married couple with two children making $50,000 a year who took the standard $6,000 deduction, that would have translated to $213 back in their pockets. But for an identical couple making $250,000, it would be $1,381.

Youngkin’s tax cut plan throws supply-side dogma out the window. He proposes eliminating the state’s 2.5 percent sales tax on food and doubling the standard deduction. Everyone would get a tax cut under Youngkin’s plan, but the relative benefits flow to the poor and working class since they tend to spend a larger share of their budgets on staples such as groceries. He’s even run a television ad touting his plan, allowing him to tap into the rising anxiety over inflation.

He has also addressed concerns about crime. Polls show that Virginians are worried about rising crime rates, and Youngkin has responded by touting proposals to fully fund police and keep qualified immunity for officers. Ads addressing this were among the first he aired, giving him an issue that both Republicans and independents could agree on.

Youngkin’s surge has been fueled by a focus on education. McAuliffe made a huge mistake in a Sept. 28 debate when he said that he didn’t believe parents “should be telling schools what they teach.” Youngkin’s campaign immediately shifted focus to this issue, airing ads reminding Virginians about this statement and placing the Republican candidate on the side of parents. On Tuesday, Youngkin delivered remarks that clearly showed where he stood, arguing that parents should be involved in curriculum decisions and proposing to install resource officers in every school to prevent violent crimes. He has surged in the polls since that debate, closing a five-point gap to a little less than two as the race comes to a close.

Tenor matters too, and Youngkin has never veered into the angry tone and language too common in today’s right. He doesn’t shy away from divisive issues; he’s called for banning critical race theory in public schools and supports further election integrity measures, for example. But he doesn’t raise his voice or say McAuliffe is an un-American socialist. Younkgin’s attacks are standard, negative campaign fare rather than the overheated and overwrought accusations that typify the rhetoric from people such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). That means he can be persuasive to the swing voters who backed Biden but aren’t on board with the Democratic Party’s left wing.

Youngkin’s combined approach is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s. Conservatives like to tout Reagan’s opposition to big government, typified by lines such as “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” They tend to forget Reagan’s statements that resonated with Democrats, such as those from his first inaugural address that extolled the nation’s compassion for the weak and the poor. Reagan also focused on issues that united Republicans with swing voters in his first campaign for governor of California, avoiding the trap that had long plagued conservatives. Youngkin is not a second coming of the Great Communicator, but his style and uniting focus is reminiscent of the Gipper’s.

Virginia may be too blue for any genuine Republican to prevail. But if Youngkin even makes it close, his race will be a lodestar by which other campaigns can set their course.