Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin speaks at a "thank you" rally in Salem on Nov. 19. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

We’re starting to learn some things about how Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin might govern, and both parties might be surprised.

The first indication came when Youngkin told Richmond television station WRIC that he wouldn’t interfere with localities that want to impose their own mask or vaccine mandates. “Localities are going to have to make decisions [about] the way the law works and that is going to be up to individual decisions but, again, from the governor’s office, you won’t see mandates from me,” Youngkin told the station.

This is quite different from the Republican governors in Florida and Texas who have tried to use state power to block localities that impose such public safety rules – an interesting departure from what used to be the classic Republican viewpoint that the governments closest to the people know best.

More recently Youngkin has appeared to back off on his campaign pledge to supporters to go “on offense” against Virginia’s abortion laws. Now, The Washington Post reports, he merely says he will “entertain” certain anti-abortion legislation. And when the Post asked what bills he might propose to loosen the gun laws that Democrats have tightened, his office responded with a statement about his priorities – that made no mention of guns.

Oh, and it turns out that Youngkin has an LGBT staffer.

All this has set off alarm bells in some conservative quarters. Former Newsmax host John Cardillo laments that “Youngkin will turn out to be another establishment disappointment.” And radio host John Fredericks has warned: “Two weeks, post his election, here we go: Once again with another RINO alert.” Now, historically speaking, those who complain most about some Republicans being “Republicans in name only” are themselves the ones who are at odds with the Republican Party’s heritage. But let’s save that historical argument for another day.

For now, let’s just get to the point: Did these conservative complainers really expect otherwise? I caught grief from some Democrats when I said during the campaign that nothing in Youngkin’s background suggested he was a Trumpster – that, given his previous job as co-CEO of the world’s second-largest private equity firm, he sure seemed more like a Bush-era Republican. That’s George H.W. Bush, by the way. There were plenty of Republicans during the nomination fight who made a point of identifying themselves with Donald Trump or touting endorsements from former Trump appointees. Youngkin was not one of those. Somehow he even won the nomination without even filling out the National Rifle Association questionnaire, which others considered obligatory. During the general election, Youngkin seemed politically savvy enough to keep the Trumpsters engaged during the campaign but otherwise ran as a pretty normal pre-Trump Republican. If you’re not a fan of Republicans, that seemed sufficient reason to vote against him – but also seemed an important marker for those voters who had backed Republicans in the past but recoiled from Donald Trump.

Democrats fret that Youngkin’s victory means a resurgence of Trumpism. It actually means exactly the opposite: Youngkin showed how Republicans can win without embracing Trump. As for Youngkin’s apparent post-election lack of interest in pushing abortion restrictions and gun rights, that seems easy: The man knows how to count. You don’t get to be co-CEO of The Carlyle Group without having at least some rudimentary math skills.

The math that matters here: Come January, Republicans will barely have a majority in the House and won’t have one in the state Senate at all. If Youngkin wants anything done, he’s got to get it through a Democratic state Senate. Some have focused on what might be two “wobbly” Democrats in that 21-19 Senate lineup, but that ignores the committee structure, where Democratic chairs can deep-six things they don’t like and they’ll never even get to the floor. Some Republican ideologues won’t like it, but the best thing for Youngkin to do is to avoid controversy, particularly on social issues, and concentrate on economic ones. Politically, the party’s goal needs to be to a) keep that House majority when the chamber is up for reelection in 2023 under entirely new district lines that will be drawn by the Virginia Supreme Court and b) win a Senate majority in 2023, again, under lines that won’t look like the lines we have now. Embroiling Virginia in some national controversy – or even embroiling his administration in some in-state controversy – is not conducive to either of those goals.

Some Republican firebrands may not like a cautiously conservative approach, but Democrats may not like this: Youngkin stands a good chance of being a very popular governor, at least in his first two years. Why? First, Virginians generally like their governors. Even Ralph Northam retains an approval rating that outweighs his disapproval rating, despite all he’s been through – 55% to 40% in the Roanoke College poll in September. Second, Youngkin has the backdrop of a president who is currently somewhat unpopular, so that makes for a good contrast. Third, the obstacle of a Democratic Senate will prevent Republicans from doing too much that will be controversial. (The danger for Youngkin will come if Republicans do win the state Senate in 2023 and Republicans try to push through whatever comes to mind.) Fourthly, Youngkin enters office in an enviable position – he’ll have plenty of money to spend. Remember how Youngkin ran for office saying Virginia’s economy was “in the ditch”? He’s backing off that now. The Washington Post recently obtained his private remarks to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates. He told that group “the near-term outlook feels to me to be pretty solid.” So apparently we’re not in the ditch, after all.

In any case, Youngkin will take office when Virginia will have a record $3.5 billion surplus. That will make it easier for Youngkin to make the case that Virginia can and should cut taxes and do it in ways that cause no pain for those who like the services that taxes pay for. Youngkin campaigned on eliminating the state’s grocery tax – an issue that used to be the calling card of the late liberal populist Henry Howell. How Democrats let that slip away and become a Republican issue is a historical irony. Now, eliminating that tax won’t be quite as easy as it seems. Those revenues are dedicated to specific purposes. Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Jeff Schapiro has done the best job of explaining this: “Localities collect 1%, with dollars going almost entirely to classrooms and cops. The state harvests 1%, steering that cash to K-12 education. The remaining half-percent helps pay for highways, rail, harbors and airports. Repeal could cost schools twice, denying them dollars collected locally and those dispensed by the state.”

Youngkin will need to figure out how to eliminate the tax but keep localities whole. He did, after all, promise the biggest education budget in history. There are surely ways to do this, but it will require some clever legislating lest this turn into what Schapiro has called “Son of Car Tax” – the Jim Gilmore initiative that led to the state subsidizing localities. And that’s where we come to another thing we’ve learned about Youngkin: He seems to be a man who knows what he doesn’t know, which is often a hard lesson for many of us.

Take a look at his transition team. The Washington Post has faulted him for going too slowly, and maybe he is – but the proof isn’t whether he’s ready today but whether he’s ready on Jan. 15. I’m particularly impressed by the transition “landing teams” that he announced last week. Every incoming governor has had something similar to this, but what I notice is that a) he’s enlisted sitting legislators to chair each team and b) he’s also enlisted some other heavyweights.

Youngkin is not our first governor to have no previous experience in state government – neither did Linwood Holton (1969), Mark Warner (2001) and Terry McAuliffe (2013), just to count the ones in the modern era. By putting sitting state legislators in charge of each “landing team,” Youngkin is skillfully making use of their institutional knowledge and getting them invested in his administration. This is both a management lesson and a political lesson, all at once. The setup here seems very corporate – again, what we’d expect of a former CEO. We have every reason to expect Youngkin to be a competent executive who shouldn’t have a learning curve in how to manage the state bureaucracy. (Critics might note that transition officials have been asked to sign nondisclosure agreements, which also seems very corporate but also somewhat antithetical to the notion of government as the people’s business.)

I notice several other things about these transition landing teams.

First, Youngkin appears aware of his debt to rural Virginia: Three of the 14 teams will be led by legislators from Southwest or Southside Virginia. A fourth will be led by one from the Shenandoah Valley, and a fifth by one from the Northern Neck. Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, leads the finance landing team. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, leads the education landing team. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, leads the labor landing team. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, leads the public safety and homeland security landing team. Del. Margaret Ransome, R-Westmoreland County, leads the agriculture and forestry landing team. If you’re counting, five of the 14 teams are led by women

Second, Youngkin seems to value expertise. Some have focused on how former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett is on the education team (and not all that focus has been positive, given how some feel about Bennett). I notice something else: John “Dubby” Wynne is on the commerce and trade team. He’s the former president and CEO of Landmark Communications, which once upon a time owned the daily newspapers in Norfolk and Roanoke (where I once worked), back before they got gutted by subsequent owners. More recently, he’s been involved in the creation of the GO Virginia economic development initiative and a member of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. Dubby Wynne is a serious-minded man. I remember once he came to speak at The Roanoke Times and said we all needed to know the paper’s mission statement because if he ever was on an elevator with us, he’d make us recite it. I never got stuck in an elevator with him but the point was clear: He was focused on the big picture. I don’t know what advice he might give Youngkin but whatever it is, Youngkin would be wise to heed it. Let’s put it this way: If Youngkin only wanted to hear things he wanted to hear, he wouldn’t have put Dubby Wynne on his transition team.

Also of note: The health transition team includes Bill Hazel, who ran that secretariat under both a Republican (Bob McDonnell) and a Democrat (McAuliffe), and under the latter was involved in advocating for a program (Medicaid expansion) that Youngkin says he doesn’t think much of. Again, it’s important for an executive to hear things that might contradict his world view.

Finally, I’m told that Youngkin is spending an unusual amount of time chatting up Democratic legislators, some of whom have found him much more personable than McAuliffe ever was. They’ll still disagree on policy, of course, but a personal relationship can go a long way toward smoothing over some modest differences.

To me, all this adds up to indications that Youngkin will be a serious chief executive who may be more concerned about the state of Virginia’s economic health than waging some culture war. After, that is, he gets through “abolishing” critical race theory on day one. Every good politician knows some showmanship is required.

Updated 12:03 p.m. to correct name of Medicaid program.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.