The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia Republicans can’t get out of their own way

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Alexandria on Feb. 3. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)

Sophia A. Nelson, a scholar in residence at Christopher Newport University and former House Republican Congressional Committee counsel, is the author of “ePluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.”

With his January inauguration, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin broke a nearly decade-long drought of Republicans in statewide office. He presented himself to Virginia voters as a successful Generation X businessman who is devoted to his family and his faith as a Christian and who is moderate in his politics.

That resonated with Virginians, obviously. Now, he needs to summon his party back to its better angels, as he displayed recently when he graciously fellowshipped with a group of Virginia Muslim leaders in Henrico.

Yet echoes of the non-Youngkin wing of the Republican Party still exist. A Republican member of the electoral board in Hampton called Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and others racist names in a Facebook post. The official, David Dietrich, brazenly said: “We are being forced into a corner by these enemies of the People.” He continued: “If it is civil war they want, they will get it in spades. Perhaps the best way to pull us back from the brink is a good public lynching.”

If that weren’t horrible enough, Loudoun County Republican chairman Scott Pio chimed in. After a celebration at the White House for Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson, he attacked the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, one of the nation’s oldest Greek-lettered organizations for Black women.

The rants by these two local Republican leaders, both White men, tell a story of a party that has lost its way, with party members who see the world through one lens and who shun the input and stories of others who don’t look like they do or experience the world as they do. It’s everywhere: from censorship to voting suppression and attacks on critical race theory.

Virginia Republicans have fallen a long way since the days of Gov. George Allen in the 1990s. Allen made a sincere effort to recruit Black voters and speak to their unique issues in the commonwealth. He was a huge supporter of historically Black colleges and universities. In 2005, when he was a U.S. senator, he co-sponsored with then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) a resolution apologizing for the history of lynching.

Allen was elected to Virginia’s governor’s mansion in 1993 with 17 percent of the Black vote. That record has not been matched since by any Republican candidate for governor. I was a young Black Republican in those days. I know the recent conduct by local Republican leaders and chairmen was not common back then, nor was it acceptable. The questions I keep asking myself are: What has happened to the Republican Party. Where are Republican statesmen in the mold of John Warner and John Hager?

Youngkin and other Virginia Republicans swiftly condemned Dietrich’s racist rant and called on him to step down, which he did. Youngkin tweeted, “As governor, I serve all Virginians. I won’t accept racism in our Commonwealth or our party. The abhorrent words of a Hampton Roads official are beyond unacceptable and have no place in Virginia.”

The governor got it right. Now, he should remind people that the Republican Party of Virginia is a party of ideas, not division.

The challenge for him is how to feed the Republican base, which is very far right and pro-Trump, and yet walk the talk of his actual core, the moderate from his campaign. The moderate Youngkin has to show up if his party is to come back to the center and restructure itself to focus on civic engagement and strong economic growth. The party should not push people of color away in fear, but instead embrace that we are living at a unique time in our history when we must engage in discussions around true diversity, equality and opportunity for all Virginians. And by “all” I mean not just so-called marginalized groups but also Christians and other people of faith. They face discrimination and unfair treatment, too. That should be unacceptable to us all.

This is not an easy task in our current political climate. Sadly, it seems that some modern Republicans are interested in offering only what these two sorely misguided and mean-spirited party leaders posted: misinformation, disinformation and division.

Consider the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) were just angry. Ranting. Unserious in their questioning of the supremely qualified Jackson. It’s as if they are always looking for something to be mad about. I say this with sincerity and regret. I once called myself a Republican, and my heart hurt watching the hearings. I never thought I would live to see the party of Lincoln as it is now: lacking in diversity and disconnected from the issues important to the descendants of the enslaved who got equal protection and voting rights from the Grand Old Party.

As governor, Youngkin passed his first 100 days in office with more than 700 bills signed into law (many of them bipartisan). Yes, he got off to a bit of a rocky start with lawsuits over school mask mandates and fights over critical race theory, education hotlines and parental rights, but the waters have calmed and he has settled into his role as leader of the commonwealth. He’s cheering on our basketball teams, visiting with business leaders and working on the safety of and funding for our historically Black colleges and universities.

If he chooses to do so, Youngkin could lead the Republican Party of Virginia permanently out of its self-imposed wilderness. The question remains whether he will and whether the local leaders will follow him or continue down the scurrilous path we recently witnessed.