The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin risks his political future by boosting Lake

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Sept. 1 in Stafford, Va. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

A couple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote that polling data indicated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) appeared to have a growing and politically valuable reservoir of public support.

But popular support can be a fickle thing. Missteps, gaffes and scandals can turn a popular governor into a liability — just ask former governors Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Ralph Northam (D) how precipitous such a fall can be.

Let’s add one more item to that list of popularity killers: national ambition. Youngkin has the higher-office bug. He denies it, saying he’s focused on Virginia and its problems, but the signs are obvious: the repeated national media hits, the campaign appearances for GOP gubernatorial candidates, the open talk about a possible 2024 presidential run.

All that buzz and all the national demands for Youngkin to share a bit of the magic that helped him thwart Virginia Democrats in 2021 has led him to make some questionable campaign appearances this year.

This summer, it was a swing through Nebraska and Colorado, where a little bit of advance work would have tipped him off about the troubles brewing in those state’s GOP circles.

Let’s be generous and put that campaign swing down as a rookie mistake. There was no such excuse for Youngkin’s recent foray to Maine on behalf of the execrable former governor Paul LePage (R). Youngkin played dumb about Lepage’s past remarks and was eventually forced to distance himself from them.

Kind of. As The Post’s Laura Vozzella reported:

“I condemn those comments and don’t agree with them,” Youngkin said when asked if he understood why Virginia Democrats had been upset with his decision to boost LePage. “He, in fact, apologized. And the reality is … he misspoke.”

That’s an unforced error/gaffe/own-goal all wrapped in one.

But Youngkin’s next act, making a campaign appearance for Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, makes the LePage episode look positively benign.

It’s hard to know where to start with a candidate like Lake, the ex-TV news reader turned Trumpish politician. Politico distilled Lake as “the highest-profile, most MAGA-aligned candidate Youngkin has campaigned for to date” and one who has “embraced Trump’s false claim the 2020 election was stolen, railed against Covid vaccine mandates and turned the media into a punching bag.”

In other words, the increasingly toxic but also run-of-the-mill MAGA fare Youngkin has winked at since his days as a candidate for the Virginia GOP gubernatorial nomination.

But in sharing the limelight with Lake, Youngkin is doing more than winking at former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen 2020 presidential election. He’s sharing the stage and risking his political capital with a candidate who would give Virginia’s own “Trump in heels,” state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), a run for her MAGA-money. As S.V. Date wrote at the HuffPost:

More recently, during a campaign visit at a church, she repeated his 2015 claim that immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border are criminals.
“They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They are rapists, and that’s who’s coming across our border,” she said.
In that same appearance, she said she didn’t mind if President Joe Biden criticized her and Trump followers who support the mob that assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6 because Jesus Christ was also criticized.
“You can call us extremists. You can call us domestic terrorists. You know who else was called a lot of names his whole life? Jesus,” she said.

That’s what Youngkin is lending his popular support to these days. The calculus is that none of it will matter to Virginians. And if it does, they’ll forget it by the time the make-or-break 2023 political season kicks off.

Or so Youngkin hopes. But the governor should understand that the political capital he’s spending on candidates such as Lake risks undermining his ability to advance his policy and political aims at home — and the ambitions he harbors for 2024 and beyond.