Glenn Youngkin campaigns in Roanoke County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Back in April, about one month before the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Convention, Dr. Nancy Dye and her husband Kevin, both surgeons with a 40-year career in the medical field, hosted a meet and greet at their Roanoke home for Glenn Youngkin, one of seven Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to take on the then presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in the Nov. 2 election.

Pacing around an Italian pasta bar, the charismatic, 6-foot-7-inch tall political outsider and former CEO of the private-equity firm The Carlyle Group mingled with the roughly 100 guests, patiently laying out his vision for a new Virginia. “Some of our guests initially were unsure at first, but almost everyone left totally supporting him,” Nancy Dye, who in 2015 unsuccessfully challenged Democratic state Sen. John Edwards from Roanoke, said in a phone interview Wednesday. 

Dye said that she decided to back Youngkin before he announced his gubernatorial bid in January, when he was still considering running. “As I talked to him, and learned of his concern and approach, I knew that he was the right person to support,” she said, adding that she was most impressed with Youngkin when she learned about how during his stint on Rice University’s basketball team he was named the team’s most inspirational player. “That says a lot about a young man and his character. That driving force in his life led him to Harvard and led him to his job with Carlyle,” Dye said. 

Nancy Dye with Glenn Youngkin in Roanoke County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

After Youngkin clinched his party’s nomination in May, beating out six competitors, his campaign began rolling out ads introducing a mostly unknown candidate to Virginia’s electorate. Because he had never held public office, the 54-year-old Richmond native who resides in the northern end of Fairfax County, has maintained a clean political slate which has helped to distance himself from former President Donald Trump, who lost in Virginia in 2016 and 2020 by wide margins. 

“Youngkin didn’t have to take sides and make enemies within the GOP, and that’s a key factor that distinguishes him from the former president,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “And Democrats have benefited over the last several years from running against Donald Trump, but running against an ex-president does not energize voters as much as it did when he was president,” Farnsworth said. Trump formally endorsed Youngkin in July, calling him “a highly respected person” and “an incredible success,” but he has not yet campaigned with him in Virginia, although he plans to tele-rally for Youngkin early next week, according to a Bloomberg report from Thursday. 

While Youngkin enters the gubernatorial race as a political rookie, he is a seasoned businessman who oozes confidence and calm – traits that have helped him build a widespread audience in an increasingly polarized political arena. After graduating from Rice University in 1990, he went to work for the investment bank First Boston for two years before going back to school to get his MBA, followed by a short stint at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company – his last stop before joining The Carlyle Group in 1995, where he stayed until September 2020. 

Since launching his campaign, Younkin has unveiled a platform of issues resonating with most Republicans and some independent voters – from across-the-board tax cuts and rebates to funding education, cutting regulations, investing in schools and teacher salaries, increased funding of law enforcement and economic development, plus social issues such as banning Critical Race Theory, a curriculum unpopular on the political Right that acknowledges that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems, and policies. 

“It’s a bit of Trumpism without Trump,” said longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth, who moderated the first gubernatorial debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy in September. Unlike the more moderate Republican governors of mostly blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont, never-Trumpers who have distanced themselves from the former president by deemphasizing social issues and focusing on the economy, Youngkin is different, Holsworth said. “He has tried to retain the Trump base while at the same time attempting to obtain suburban defections. He walks what they call the Trump tightrope.”

Youngkin’s website offers few details beyond what he calls his Game Plan for Day One – his agenda for what he wants to get done on his first day in office. Earlier this week, Youngkin took this plan to voters on a 10-day, 50-stop “Win with Glenn” bus tour, a series of rallies and events statewide, including an extensive swing through Southwest and Southside Virginia. His stops this week included Buena Vista, Amherst, Roanoke, Farmville, Bedford, Appomattox and Augusta, among others. 

At a packed rally at the Community Market in Danville on Tuesday evening, a fired-up Youngkin called next week’s election “a defining moment” that could “change the trajectory of this great commonwealth of Virginia. Not just for those who live here, but for the entire United States of America. Everybody is watching us.”

Youngkin touted his Day One plan, from cutting the cost of living in Virginia, to “reducing everybody’s taxes, because it is too expensive to live here.” Youngkin promised to declare “the largest tax refund in the history of Virginia,” to eliminate Virginia’s 2.5% grocery tax, and to double taxpayers’ standard deductions, which he said would save the average Virginia family $1,500 in his first year in office. While he had previously pitched roughly $3.2 billion in cuts that would be paid for, in part, by Virginia’s $2.6 billion budget surplus, in Danville Youngkin didn’t offer many specifics before leaving the stage after 20 minutes to thunderous applause from the audience of about 300, with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tarrell’s Motown hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blaring in the background. 

“The Day One agenda, there is not that much there,” said Holsworth, the political analyst. “Youngkin says he is going to do this without any indication of how. He has a thematic campaign, but not a campaign of policy detail. It is broad themed without much depth, and that’s not that surprising given that he’s not very familiar with the policy debates in Virginia,” Holsworth said.

One example is school construction, which is critical to Southwest Virginia where school districts rely heavily on funding from the state, and which Youngkin has not addressed. “This is seen by the General Assembly as a local government issue, but there is no possible way that the most distressed communities in Virginia can handle the infrastructure demands of the 21st century,” Holsworth said. “All of these places need assistance from a state that has a larger revenue base than the local governments have, which means that the genuine school construction needs of rural areas are not gonna be met by localities alone.”

Farnsworth, the Mary Washington University political scientist, said that the fact that voters don’t do all the math sometimes helps politicians to win elections. “If you reduce taxes, you reduce what the government can do,” he said. “That’s an even bigger problem when you are saying that the government should be doing more at the same time you’re cutting revenue. The federal government has been doing that for years, but they can run deficits.” Virginia doesn’t have the ability to be as fiscally irresponsible and because of the state’s balanced budget law, Farnsworth said.

McAuliffe told Roanoke’s WDBJ7 in August that Youngkin’s tax plan would be “devastating to Virginia, devastating to our schools,” calling his opponent “clueless” about Virginia. “It just doesn’t make economic sense for the commonwealth,” McAuliffe said.

And Manuel Bonder, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in an email Wednesday that Youngkin’s economic plan would “decimate small business” and make it more difficult for Virginia families to get by. “Virginia can’t afford a governor whose top priorities would defund schools and decimate our economy,” Bonder said.

Youngkin has also been vague about his environmental policy vision. At the gubernatorial debate in September, Holsworth asked the Republican if he would have signed the Clean Economy Act as governor, which current Gov. Ralph Northam signed in April 2020. The law requires new measures to promote energy efficiency, sets a schedule for closing old fossil fuel power plants, and requires electricity to come from 100% renewable sources such as solar or wind, among other measures. Youngkin answered that he would have vetoed it. “I believe that, in fact, we can tackle bringing down emissions in Virginia without putting forth a plan that not even executives at the utilities believe is doable,” he said, without providing more detail to what Holsworth called “a softball question.”

Yet Youngkin’s message seems to resonate with a wide swath of Virginia voters. While he jump started his campaign with $5.5 million of his personal funds according to The New York Times, and has since poured an additional $14.5 million into his campaign coffers, Youngkin has managed to pull even with his Democratic opponent in his fundraising efforts, bringing in a total of $58.8 million, as opposed to McAuliffe, who raised $58.2 million since launching his campaign. (McAuliffe did not report any personal contributions to his campaign.) 

While McAuliffe started out ahead in public support, both candidates are now deadlocked in the polls. A new Christopher Newport University poll from Wednesday has McAuliffe with a razor-thin 49% to 48% lead over Youngkin. But the same survey shows that Republicans are significantly more enthusiastic about Tuesday’s election, by 80% to 65%. “McAuliffe is facing strong headwinds in a state that has historically selected governors from the party not in the White House and with a Democratic president whose approval rating is underwater,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, Wason Center Research director at CNU. “Republican voters also appear hungrier for a win and increasingly see a chance to take a statewide race for the first time since 2009,” she said.

The poll’s enthusiasm gap is reflected by Youngkin’s rallies that have been drawing large crowds across the commonwealth, even in Democratic-favored Northern Virginia. “We’re seeing very strong support for Glenn Youngkin’s candidacy and Terry McAuliffe is struggling to generate enthusiasm for a third consecutive term of failed policies,” state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said in an interview Wednesday.

 “I don’t meet many college students that are excited about returning to a governor who was in office when they were in middle school, and I don’t meet many working families that are enthusiastic about returning to a man who increased their electric bills and whose party has cheered on raising their grocery bills and gas taxes,” Suetterlein said. “The enthusiasm gap is so big that Terry McAuliffe’s largest corporate contributor has spent over a quarter million dollars on anonymous advertising trying to discourage enthusiasm for Glenn Youngkin among voters in Western Virginia,” Suetterlein added, referring to a recent controversy over McAuliffe’s relationship with Dominion Energy. 

The state’s most powerful utility faced renewed scrutiny a few weeks ago when it became known that it had donated more than $200,000 to the peculiar Accountability Virginia PAC in Washington, which is aligned with Democrats but has launched an ad campaign attacking Youngkin from the right on gun issues, making it look like conservatives aren’t supporting the Republican nominee. “Dominion was bankrolling a voter suppression effort in Southwest and Southside Virginia to discourage Republicans from voting,” Suetterlein said. 

(Dominion Energy is a major donor of Cardinal News; under our rules, donations have no influence on our news coverage.)

But Youngkin entered the homestretch of his campaign with a controversy of his own making. In a new television ad released this week, the Republican offered a platform to Laura Murphy, a conservative activist from Fairfax County who in 2013 led a campaign against the local school system for adding the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved by Toni Morrison to an A.P. class reading list for high school seniors, claiming that the book had traumatized her son. 

While Youngkin’s ad doesn’t mention the book’s name or author, the campaign has lured McAuliffe, who had vetoed legislation that would have required schools to notify parents of assignments that may involve sexually explicit material, into a broader culture wars issue. “What’s it like to have Terry McAuliffe block you from having a say in your child’s education?” Youngkin tweeted on Monday. 

At a campaign event with President Joe Biden in Arlington on Tuesday, McAuliffe seized on the issue and had staffers hand out copies of Beloved to journalists. Even Biden weighed in, alleging that Youngkin had gone from “banning a woman’s right to choose to banning books by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.”

Should Youngkin pull off a victory in Tuesday’s election, come Jan. 15 Virginia will have a new governor without a prior record in public service and governing. “What Youngkin would be like as governor is a great unknown,” Farnsworth said. “Will we see a Trump vision come forward with greater clarity once the election is over, or not? That’s the million dollar question.”

Holsworth said that much of Youngkin’s governing philosophy would be based on who will be his legislative partners in the General Assembly and whether there will be another House of Delegates election next year reflecting the new districts to be redrawn by the Virginia Supreme Court in the coming months. 

“There are a lot of uncertainties,” Holsworth said. “But you would certainly see cabinet appointments that would embrace a more pro-life position on abortion, and you would see a fairly significant turnover from the State Board of Education to implement the parents matter agenda.”

If Democrats, as currently expected, hold their majorities in the House of Delegates, a Governor Youngkin would be constrained in his governing by a hostile legislature. “We’d be back to where we were prior to 2017, when we had a divided government,” Holsworth said, “but I tend to think that people are likely going to be the kind of governor that they campaigned on.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.