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Opinion Glenn Youngkin’s hidden advantage: Virginia’s Democrats

Newly sworn-in Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks during the inaugural ceremony on the front steps of the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 15 in Richmond. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Glenn Youngkin, who was inaugurated as Virginia’s 74th governor here on Saturday, is well positioned to become an effective and popular leader, so long as he doesn’t get bitten by the presidential bug.

Democrats are unwitting allies in two ways: Virginia’s coffers are flush because the federal government pumped out so much coronavirus relief in recent years. A projected $16 billion surplus means Youngkin can cut taxes while increasing salaries for cops and teachers in the biennial budget. Few politicians start with such a good hand.

But just as helpful: Youngkin also stands to benefit from divided government. The new Republican majority in the House of Delegates, 52 to 48, is itching to advance bills around divisive issues, such as abortion, guns, transgender athletes, the teaching of race and ballot access. Virginia’s Senate, controlled 21 to 19 by Democrats, is a firebreak to prevent MAGA wing nuts from putting anything too crazy on the new governor’s desk.

As a result, multiple Democratic and Republican strategists privately predict that Youngkin’s approval rating will be in the 60s next year if he pursues center-right policies while keeping former president Donald Trump at arm’s length, which he managed to do as a first-time candidate.

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One year after Joe Biden carried Virginia by 10 points, Youngkin assembled a coalition that spanned from Forever Trumpers to Never Trumpers. He benefited from high rural turnout and independents breaking his way. College-educated suburban and exurban parents viewed him as empathetic about what their kids have been going through during the pandemic. Youngkin won about 1 in 10 Biden voters who cast a ballot in the off-year election.

In his 27-minute inaugural address, Youngkin lamented that too many politicians have focused more on sound bites than problem solving. “Our politics have become too toxic,” he said. “We must bind the wounds of division.” At the end of the ceremony outside the State Capitol, he led the crowd in a prayer that asked God to open everyone’s hearts so we can again see the good in one another.

Looking ahead, it likely helps his prospects that Virginia has one of the strongest governorships in America, and Youngkin’s team has been studying his executive powers while reviewing actions taken by the past two Democratic governors to find those that he might easily reverse.

Henry Olsen: Youngkin is a Republican star. He’ll need to be bold to remain one.

All governors face a steep learning curve during their first legislative session, a fast-paced whirlwind during the opening six weeks of their term, and Youngkin has never held elected office. Despite what business executives like to think, being governor stretches different muscles than being co-CEO of a private billion-dollar enterprise.

Youngkin is compensating for his lack of political experience by surrounding himself with seasoned insiders who can protect him from rookie mistakes. Anyone who knows Richmond knows the lobbying firm McGuireWoods has long been considered Virginia’s shadow government. Youngkin hired Richard Cullen, the firm’s former chairman, as a top adviser.

To please movement conservatives, Youngkin nominated former Trump Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler to be secretary of natural resources, knowing the Democratic Senate will probably block the appointment. He also named Kay Coles James, former president of the Heritage Foundation, to be commonwealth secretary. One challenge: Youngkin doesn’t know many of his picks well, and they don’t know each other. Wisely, Youngkin has been meeting as many legislators as possible from both parties, often in small groups, asking them about their priorities.

Hugh Hewitt: The first thing Youngkin should do

Democrats have occupied the executive mansion for eight years and, with unified government for the past two years, passed a flurry of liberal priorities. But a handful of moderate Democratic senators have quietly signaled they are amenable to dealmaking with the right care and feeding.

Perhaps the biggest risk for Youngkin right now is the buzz swirling around him as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. Right-wing pundits started floating him as presidential timber on election night in November. People who have been in his position say it’s intoxicating when your friends, donors and consultants are constantly in your ear saying you have a path to the nomination.

A worrying sign that Youngkin’s ambitions might get the best of him came when he gave his first post-election interview to Tucker Carlson. It’s easy to get booked on Fox News if you troll the libs as reliably as Govs. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) or Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), but the smarter play in a purple state with a purple government is to focus on local issues. Youngkin should focus more on impressing people in Fauquier, Fairfax and Frederick counties than Fox News greenrooms.

If Youngkin starts visiting Iowa or New Hampshire on weekends, Democrats will become less inclined to work with him — and Trump will start taking shots at him. Despite a net worth around $300 million, Youngkin has cultivated an image as a reasonable-sounding suburban dad who prefers shooting hoops to hunting wild game. If he burnishes that brand over the next four years and picks his spots, Youngkin could run — and win — against Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2026.