Glenn Youngkin is just days away from being sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor, at which time we’ll start to learn more about the blankest of blank slates we have ever elevated to that office.
Youngkin came seemingly out of nowhere, at least politically, to win the Republican nomination for governor, besting, among others, a former speaker of the House, a sitting state senator, and a well-funded and well-connected candidate who had run once before. He did it without saying much of anything beyond standard conservative bromides. He didn’t even fill out the National Rifle Association questionnaire, something that had been considered a basic requirement. But he did have a ton of his own money and seemed to enough Republicans to be just the sort of candidate who might win back some of the suburban voters the party had lost during the Donald Trump years. At a time when many prominent Republicans – Trump foremost among them – come across as glowering, raging, perpetually angry about something, Youngkin was relentlessly easygoing and upbeat. There was a time when we’d have called that Reaganesque, although much of what Reagan stood for has fallen out of favor among certain Republicans.
For a candidate who had never run for office before, Youngkin proved to be an especially adroit campaigner during the fall campaign, keeping Trump at bay while keeping his supporters engaged. In some ways, he was the ultimate post-Trump candidate the party needed. He urged supporters to get vaccinated (although he opposed a vaccine mandate). He embraced early voting. He made a point of welcoming immigrants. He vowed to have the biggest education budget in state history. He also called for lower taxes – though never laid out exactly how he’d do that, because some of the taxes he wants cut have dedicated revenue streams – and, of course, vowed to ban an educational theory that’s not being taught anyway.
For some voters – a bare majority, as it turned out – this was enough. It had been 12 years since a Republican had won a statewide election in Virginia, and some despaired they’d never win again. Some Democrats, full of hubris, thought their side would never lose again. Instead, Youngkin led a Republican sweep.
Now comes the hard part – actually governing. We really don’t know much about Youngkin or what kind of governor he’ll be. We’ve had other governors for whom the governorship was an entry-level position – in modern times, Terry McAuliffe, Mark Warner, Linwood Holton – but they had all been involved in politics before in other ways so we had a sense of what their instincts were. Honestly, was anyone surprised by what kind of governor McAuliffe turned out to be? They shouldn’t have been. Youngkin, though, is the biggest unknown to occupy the seat of Patrick Henry since at least Westmoreland Davis in 1917.
Come Saturday, that will start to change.
We know a few things.
Youngkin takes office with a state treasury overflowing with cash, a happy event for any new governor. That will make it easier for him to do things at once that often seem contradictory – cutting taxes and raising spending (at least in certain areas).
He says Virginia’s economy is “in the ditch,” yet both CNBC and Business Facilities magazine have named Virginia as the best place to do business. It’s easy to argue over rankings but also easy for Youngkin to claim credit for any economic success whether it’s his doing or not.
Other challenges waiting for Youngkin will be more difficult and won’t be easily fixed with a glib quote or a simple executive order.
His strongest supporters were in rural Virginia, particularly Southwest Virginia. Many of the things they need, though, are hopelessly expensive. School construction and modernization is a statewide problem but weighs most heavily on rural counties, which have few ways to raise the money to pay for such things. Outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed $500 million in state spending on school construction, but the total needs are said to tally up to $25 billion. Virginia is flush but is it that flush? I notice that while Youngkin has talked lots about schools, he hasn’t said anything very specific about school construction. Northam has teed things up; will Youngkin follow through? If so, how?
Virginia also faces some deep demographic challenges. As a man of finance, and someone who is said to like metric, Youngkin ought to appreciate the numbers behind them, even if there is little he can do about them. Since 2013 – when we last had a Republican governor – more people have been moving out of the state than into it. Republicans like to blame taxes but demographers say this is a trend that has little to do with politics and lots to do with other things. The short version: The population is aging and retirees often turn into snowbirds, moving south. Meanwhile, housing costs in Northern Virginia are so astronomical that they price out a lot of young adults, who tend to be more mobile anyway. No governor can change demography – the line about demography being destiny is more than a truism – and the housing prices in Northern Virginia are a result of the region becoming economically successful, perhaps too economically successful. So can Youngkin change those trends?
Those are only the most superficial trends that will shape Virginia in the coming years, no matter who the governor is. At a conference at Longwood University this fall, demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service laid out the most worrisome ones: Virginia has a massive disparity between its most affluent communities and its least affluent ones. No other state has a gap that big, he said, with the charts and graphs to prove it. And while rural areas everywhere have trouble holding onto their young adults, Virginia has a particularly hard time. Youngkin is more politically indebted to rural Virginia than any governor since, perhaps, Warner two decades ago, but figuring out ways to reverse the exodus of young adults from rural Virginia is a steep challenge. If I had any advice for our new governor, it would be this: Invite Lombard down to Richmond and have him give the presentation he did at Longwood. I don’t know if Youngkin is a drinking man but if he is, he might need a shot of bourbon afterwards. Youngkin will be governor of Virginia but he will soon discover, if he hasn’t already, that there are two different Virginias and the one that backed him strongest has very different needs than the one where he lives.
Another thing that will vex Youngkin: the pandemic. As a regular part of his stump speech, Youngkin urged supporters to get vaccinated. He also said he’s against mask mandates in schools and virtual learning, and he won’t shut down the state. Yet now COVID-19 is spiking a the highest rates yet and one health leader in Southwest Virginia warns of an impending “medical disaster” once the omicron varient sweeps over less-vaccinated rural areas. What will Youngkin – and his yet-to-be-named health officials – do to curb the spread of the virus? (Update: Youngkin announced his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Resources on Monday morning, although not other top health officials). What extra efforts, if any, will he and his administration take to get people vaccinated, particularly in Southwest Virginia, where vaccination rates are lowest, infection rates and death rates are highest – and support for Youngkin was also highest? As with many things, we really don’t know. But we know this: Rightly or wrongly, if Youngkin seems unconcerned about the virus, he is going to get blamed for every outbreak, and, ultimately, every death. That’s a heavy burden. Irony: Youngkin says he’s against vaccine mandates yet takes over a state that requires 11 different vaccines before a child can enter school. Somehow, those opposed to vaccine mandates for COVID-19 never mention those. How are they different?
Youngkin is the former co-CEO of the world’s second-largest private equity firm, so we can assume a few things: He is probably a good administrator and he probably understands budgets, two things that will serve any governor well. We have also seen that he is a first-class politician. Campaigns and governance, though, are two different things. It’s one thing to keep a party out of power in line when they’re trying to get back into power. But once they’re in, things often change. Some Republicans will want things they can get through the Republican-controlled House of Delegates but can’t get through the Democratic-controlled state Senate. Some will care, and pick their battles accordingly. Others won’t, and those are the ones who will bedevil Youngkin. Just because Virginia voted Republican in November doesn’t mean it approves of everything Republicans may want to do, just as they clearly didn’t approve of everything Democrats wanted to do, or did do. Youngkin (and his fellow Republicans) would be wise not to read too much into their mandate lest they overplay their hand the way Democrats did. The last thing Youngkin needs is to needlessly embroil Virginia in some national controversy over some cultural issue. That would be bad for business, which is something he seems to care a great deal about. It would also be bad for Republican prospects in 2023, when the party hopes to retain the House and take back the state Senate. Youngkin may already have set one such controversy in motion, though. His pick of former Trump administration Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler (and a former coal lobbyist) as Secretary of Natural Resources has prompted Senate Democrats to talk about doing something unusual in Virginia — block the nomination of a Cabinet secretary. That hasn’t happened in 16 years, when Republicans nixed Tim Kaine’s desire to name labor leader Daniel LeBlanc to his cabinet. That may be an early test of how Virginia’s new divided governance will go.
While we don’t know much about where our new governor stands policy-wise, we do know this much: He’s a glad-hander, and I mean that in the best way possible. He skillfully enlisted Republican legislators to help him plan his transition, a good way to get them invested in his administration beyond mere party loyalty. At the Virginia-Virginia Tech football game, I’m told he spent much of the time chatting up legislators who were there – both Republicans and Democrats. I’m also told that some Democrats have found him much more approachable than McAuliffe ever was, and that he has sometimes sought them out. That’s a trait that will go a long way in Richmond. Youngkin may be new at this whole political thing but he seems to be a quick learner. That learning curve will get a lot steeper come Saturday, though.