The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin is stumping out of state while stumbling at home

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) at the Nebraska GOP state convention July 9 in Kearney, Neb., with Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.). (Gregory Schneider/The Washington Post)
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Is seven months as governor enough time to begin to test the presidential political waters?

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is upping the pace of his not publicly acknowledged but undisguised ambitions to be a player in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes. He may be doing himself more harm than good by seeming disengaged at home while he tests the elasticity of truth and credulity campaigning elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Youngkin — far from mastering the task of being governor early in the freshman year of the nonrenewable term Virginia allows him — was addressing a gathering of Nebraska Republicans. He spoke about beating a Democratic titan. It’s a good enough story on its own merits, but Youngkin wasn’t above rank embellishment.

Betraying a basic understanding of either Virginia’s political environment or his own sense of the truth, he told the Cornhusker crowd that he had won in “dark blue” Virginia.

That’s rhetoric that even Democrats shied from after the 2019 election when they consolidated — briefly — their hold on elective power over state government, taking majorities in the House and Senate to complement a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam.

The truth is — and long has been — that Virginia is purple. Its centrist electorate, much of it suburban and highly attuned to the political rhythms of neighboring Washington, often meanders back and forth across the political median to favor one party during one period and then the other.

After the Democrats had won all three statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general — in the three 1980s elections, and then after Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory, Virginia became fatigued with the party’s progressive lurch and surged right, fueling a GOP renaissance led by George Allen and Jim Gilmore. It swayed center-left again in the early 2000s and handed the governor’s office to Democrats Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, back-to-back, as George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq on phony pretexts grated on the nation. Then, after the market crash of 2008 and the presidential election of Barack Obama, Republicans regained control with Robert F. McDonnell’s election as governor and solid GOP legislative majorities.

In the second decade of the 21st century, however, two factors pushed Virginia leftward. The first was a scandal that ensnared McDonnell’s administration and an unpalatable hard-right Republican nominee who looked to succeed him. That contributed mightily to legendary Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe’s election as governor in 2013.

Second, just as Virginia Republicans began to pull out of their tailspin in 2015, Donald Trump announced his presidential bid, won the nomination and then the presidency. For five full years, his odious brand poisoned Virginia Republicans across the board until, in 2019, they were pushed utterly out of power in Virginia, losing House and Senate majorities, both U.S. Senate seats, a once-dominant majority of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats and the governor’s office.

The deep blue that Youngkin imagined was a blue mirage, an anti-MAGA loathing in moderate Virginia that dissipated after the 2020 election forced Trump’s grudging exile to Mar a Lago.

With Joe Biden in the White House and razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress, Democrats appeared ineffectual and indecisive, unable to enact their new president’s grand agenda, because they failed to win a commanding congressional majority and the mandate it carries. Biden’s red carpet was badly frayed by the time Youngkin faced off against McAuliffe in November. In its bellwether statewide election, it was clear that, at least to Virginians, it was time for new solutions for a republic struggling to emerge from the pandemic.

Rather than talking up their accomplishments from two previous years and forward-looking answers to voters’ concerns, Democrats chose to fight the previous years’ battle, trying to make Youngkin and his party a proxy for Trump.

Youngkin gladly leveraged the Democrats’ real-time failings and years of pent-up restiveness against a whiplash-fast leftward lurch to win the argument with moderate suburban voters that a course correction was needed. He shaved off enough suburban support from Democrats that a resounding turnout in heavily Republican rural areas carried the election.

Meanwhile, the rookie governor has struggled mastering state policy, sometimes seeming tone-deaf, disengaged or flat-out mistaken.

Sunday before last, on the CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Youngkin tried to dodge a question about whether he would keep same-sex marriages legal in Virginia if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses its 2015 ruling establishing it as a right nationally. In the interview, he said same-sex marriage is protected by law in Virginia. It isn’t: An amendment in the state Constitution, ratified by voters in 2006, outlawed same-sex unions until it was rendered unenforceable by the court’s Obergefell decision. If the court reverses Obergefell, much the way it recently reversed the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, same-sex marriages would instantly become illegal in Virginia.

Since the controversial abortion ruling, Youngkin has staked out differing positions on restrictions he would like to see in Virginia. The day the ruling was announced, he proffered a ban after 15 or 20 weeks of gestation, but The Post days later reported him saying in an online forum with the antiabortion Family Foundation of Virginia that he believes life begins at conception and that his publicly stated position was merely a placeholder and that he would seek more stringent laws if the GOP can hold its House of Delegates majority and take the state Senate in next year’s legislative elections.

Youngkin isn’t the first sitting Virginia governor to indulge national ambitions on the job.

If Youngkin is looking for what not to do, he might call the most recent predecessor to attempt the feat while still in office: former governor L. Douglas Wilder.

His 1992 presidential bid crashed and burned, taking his poll numbers back home with it.