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Opinion Youngkin’s ambition points to the Senate, not the White House

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

The buzz surrounding Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political future has gotten a little louder in recent days, especially given his non-answer to a question on whether he would serve out his gubernatorial term and a recent meeting with a collection of high-dollar GOP donors.

Combine this with his campaign stops on behalf of several Republican gubernatorial candidates, and it sure seems like Youngkin is at least exploring the 2024 presidential waters.

All that buzz aside, the hard reality for Youngkin, or any other Republican presidential wannabe, is ex-president Donald Trump has the right of first refusal on the 2024 nomination. And even if Trump decides not to run — or his legal problems prevent it — the Republican Party and its fundraising mechanisms remain firmly in Trump’s sway.

In other words, Youngkin can hand out red vests and talk up parental rights to every Republican he meets and still not have the muscle or money — never mind generate a fraction of the emotional response — Trump can muster with a single social media post.

Worse for Youngkin, he has failed to seize repeated opportunities to get out from under Trump’s malign shadow. The most recent: his refusal to call out Trump’s screed against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and McConnell’s wife, former Trump administration Transportation secretary Elaine Chao.

Fox News host Bret Baier pressed Youngkin to say something — anything — about Trump’s outburst. Youngkin said, “Well, you know, I’m not a name-caller. And in fact, what I focused on and continue to focus on is bringing people together around common-sense solutions to these most difficult and oh, by the way, it [is] most difficult issues that are facing people around their kitchen tables every night. And we have great answers for these….”

As terrible as that nonresponse was, Youngkin found a way to make it even worse: “I’ve just found that calling people names is not the way to, not the way to put forth a good idea….”

It’s a rare day when a politician curls into such a defensive crouch on live TV, but Youngkin did exactly that. And in the process, he showed the Fox audience (Youngkin’s most prized constituency) that he’s both unwilling and incapable of pushing back on Trump — even when the reason for doing so is upholding simple human decency.

Forget, then, all the buzz, chatter and “Red Vest Retreats” Youngkin might stage between now and the opening of the 2024 presidential season. He will fold before Trump like the GOP field did in 2016, and most of the rest of the party did once Trump descended on the White House.

That doesn’t mean Youngkin can’t audition for the role of vice-presidential nominee. He might be an effective understudy to Trump. Youngkin has the servility Trump requires from his underlings almost down pat.

But let’s not forget that Mr. Youngkin’s ambition could still find an outlet in a Senate run — in 2024, perhaps, against Sen. Tim Kaine (D).

I wrote back in July that challenging Kaine would make far more sense for Youngkin than a presidential run.

And recent polling from Mary Washington University’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies shows a Kaine-Youngkin race “would likely be the closest Senate race in the Commonwealth in a decade.”

The UMW poll shows Kaine leading Youngkin 41 percent to 39 percent — well within the 3.1 percentage point margin of error. And while all the usual caveats apply to such hypothetical matchups, the numbers can’t be entirely discounted. We already know Youngkin is a formidable statewide candidate who can raise as much money as he needs to run for Senate.

We also know that Kaine, who’s undefeated in statewide contests going back to 2001, has made a habit of dispatching formidable Republicans (Jerry Kilgore in 2005 and George Allen in 2012) and Trumpish populists (Corey Stewart in 2018).

There very well may be a 2024 race with national implications in Glenn Youngkin’s future. It’s likely against Tim Kaine.

And it could be a barnburner.