Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the General Assembly. At left is Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin hasn’t been in office a full week yet but we’re already starting to see the outlines of the next two years.

The governor will be able use his executive authority to issue whatever conservative executive orders he pleases. However, Youngkin is already finding out the limits of just what he can do. He vowed to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through executive action but now has acknowledged he can’t really do that.

Many of the laws that Democrats passed during the two years when they had unbridled control of state government won’t be repealed. That’s because Republicans won’t be able to get those bills through a state Senate that remains in Democratic hands, however narrowly (21-19). We saw that this week with two bills by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. One would have frozen the state’s scheduled increase in the minimum wage. The other would have restored the photo ID requirement for voting. Both were killed in Senate committees.

On the other hand, don’t expect many, if any, new Democratic measures to get passed because they won’t be able to get through a House of Delegates that’s now under Republican control, or past a Republican governor’s veto pen. Democrats were excited this week when a Senate committee passed a bill that would eliminate all but one of the mandatory minimums required for sentencing in criminal cases (state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, was one of the authors). They’ll be further excited if that bill passes the state Senate. They won’t be so excited when it meets its likely fate in the House, where Republicans are more skeptical of such things. Likewise, the House of Delegates may pass a lot of Republican bills with great fanfare but that may be the last applause they ever hear; they will be quickly put to death in Senate committees.

There are plenty of bills out there that have bipartisan support and might get through. Some are even important, such as the bill to eliminate the state’s tax on groceries. That measure, once championed by liberal populist Henry Howell back in the ’70s, is now sponsored by a conservative Republican – Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County. But bills of a more partisan nature will fail in a General Assembly in which Republicans control one chamber and Democrats the other.

Some will call this gridlock. Others will point out that this might be exactly what our founders intended when they set up a bicameral legislature; they were always wary of one faction having too much power. Partisans on both sides, though, won’t be so philosophical. Republicans will be frustrated that, having won all three statewide offices and the House of Delegates, they still can’t have their way on many things. Democrats will be furious because they will see Republicans trying to undo the things they have just done.

All of this will test the good humor of our new basketball-loving governor as he watches half his term tick down on the clock without many conservative bills to sign. It will also set up the 2023 midterms, when the entire House of Delegates and the entire state Senate will be on the ballot.

Republicans will surely run against what they will call Democratic obstructionism. (Democrats will call this defending the progress they’ve made). Democrats will surely run against what they will call Republican extremism. (Republicans will call this restoring common sense). Whether these things are obstructionism or defending progress, or extremism or common sense, of course, ultimately depend on your political tastes, but that’s going to be the tone of the campagin to come.

The potential for Republicans in 2023: They retain the House and win the Senate, and then have two years of total control in Richmond to do pretty much whatever they want. This, of course, is exactly what Democrats will warn against.

The potential for Democrats in 2023: They win the House and retain the Senate, and then serve as an absolute block against anything Youngkin wants to do legislatively in his final two years. This is what Republicans will warn against.

Or we could wind up right where we are now: With one party in charge of the House and another in charge of the Senate.

All this suggests to me that the next two years will provoke a great deal of partisanship. In theory, it could produce a great deal of bipartisanship, too, but here in the real world, it will probably provoke a great deal of partisanship.

The challenge for Republicans: The new redistricting maps mean those next elections will be fought on terrain that slightly favors Democrats. That’s simply a reflection of the new demographics of Virginia, the most recent election notwithstanding. That means Republicans must view issues in terms of how they’ll play with swing voters in Fredericksburg and Fauquier County, not the true believers in Floyd County. This will be very frustrating for the party’s more conservative members who feel, by golly, their side won, now it’s time to ram through every right-wing idea they’ve had.

The challenge for Democrats: Those new redistricting maps don’t guarantee a Democratic majority; it’s quite possible that Republicans could win both chambers with the right candidates, the right campaigns, the right political climate. Furthermore, the route to a Democratic majority runs through some communities that don’t naturally fit the party’s profile. Specifically, Democrats need to worry less about Northern Virginia and more about, say, the New River and Roanoke valleys, where there’s a newly created swing district that runs from Blacksburg to Bent Mountain. There was precious little in former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s Democratic response to Youngkin’s address to the General Assembly that speaks to those voters, so it’s unclear whether Democrats have learned any lessons from their defeats.

What we don’t know yet is how much Youngkin really wants to get things done and how much he just wants to make a point. You’d think that, as a former business executive, he’d be more inclined toward the former but some of his actions so far suggest the latter.

Virginia governors typically use their first executive order for something symbolic. Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam all used theirs to declare the state to be an equal opportunity employer. Bob McDonnell, who took office during a recession, used his first executive order to establish a “chief job creation officer” and a commission on job creation. George Allen appears to have used his first executive order to create a task force on efficiency in state government. All those were both symbolic and also practical – as in being real. Youngkin’s first executive order was also practical – but not real. With a flourish, he pretended to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Virginia schools. I say this wasn’t real because critical race theory isn’t being taught in Virginia schools and the governor’s not in charge of curriculum anyway. Youngkin may as well have signed an executive order banning the Loch Ness monster from swimming up the Chesapeake Bay. I understand that banning critical race theory thrills conservatives, but this just feels like empty calories. On the other hand, replacing the Parole Board is real.

Youngkin’s attempt to do away with mask mandates in schools is also real, although whether he can really do that remains in question – school systems in communities inclined against mask mandates certainly think the governor’s order gives them a reason to lift their mandates; schools in communities where feelings run the other way are basically ignoring the governor and say they’re following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All of us have to pick our own battles; we’ll see if this is one Youngkin really wants to fight, and how.

We’ve certainly seen enough of Youngkin to know that he’s not above symbolic gestures, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more of them. What we don’t know yet – because it’s been less than a week, after all – is whether he wants to be a practical-minded dealmaker, as well. Here’s a hint: If he really wants to get something done legislatively in his first two years he’s going to have to be a good one. He could just forgo all that, of course, and spend two years railing against the Democrats in the state Senate and gamble that voters in 2023 give Republicans a clean sweep. Some ideologues certainly would. I’m inclined to think that, because of his business background and his professed love of metrics, Youngkin will want to be a practical governor and not just a showman. (That may also be the triumph of hope over experience, I’ll admit.) One way we’ll find out is whether he gets involved in fashioning a robust package of state funding for school construction, especially in the rural areas that voted most heavily for him, or whether he passively sits by to see what the legislature does.

In her Democratic response to Youngkin’s address to the General Assembly (and a subsequent tweet), former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn objected to Youngkin’s early actions and said that “This is not the type of Governor he promised to be.” Actually, this is exactly the type of governor he promised to be. He ran on doing away with mask mandates. He ran on creating charter schools. He ran on cutting government regulations. Whether that’s good policy or bad policy we’ll find out (especially when we see how virus counts go), but no one should be surprised by Youngkin’s actions so far. This is what he campaigned on, and what a bare majority of voters voted for. Filler-Corn comes across sounding tone deaf to the moment. 

Youngkin has done two things that are a surprise.

The first is his enthusiasm for vaccines. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us since, during the debates last fall, he talked more about vaccines than Democrat Terry McAuliffe did. I wrote at the time that “you could cut a health department public service announcement from all the times Youngkin endorsed vaccinations.” Now, we should always be skeptical of what candidates say during a campaign — maybe Youngkin was just trying to reassure some voters that he wasn’t some anti-vaxxer. I understand why much of the attention on Youngkin as governor is him lifting the vaccine mandate for state employees, yet there was Youngkin in Roanoke on Thursday, talking up vaccines — and announcing plans to “to re-prioritize resources toward vaccine education and outreach, including expanded efforts in disproportionately unvaccinated communities” (many of which, I should put out, are in Southwest Virginia and rural Virginia generally). Youngkin also pledged to “host and attend COVID-19 vaccine events.” If Youngkin can use his bully pulpit as governor to pump up vaccination rates — especially in low-vaccination rural counties that voted overwhelmingly for him – that would be a good thing.

His second surprise is genuinely a surprise and not such a good thing for rural Virginia, at least not yet.

Youngkin used his first address to the General Assembly to make the case that the state’s dormant baseball authority should be expanded to include football, which is considered a necessary precursor to any deal to persuade the Washington Football Team to build its new stadium in Northern Virginia. Frankly, I’m not surprised, I’m stunned. First, Youngkin never said anything like that during the campaign. McAuliffe talked openly about the state helping build the infrastructure around a stadium complex; Youngkin said only that we “must put Virginia taxpayers’ best interests first.” That made sense because, second, you’d expect a conservative like Youngkin to be more skeptical about any potential use of tax dollars to finance a stadium. (Granted, he never said Monday he favored using tax dollars but it’s hard to see the point of a football stadium authority if it’s not going to somehow get the state involved in financing the thing. Otherwise, team owner Daniel Snyder could do what any other business owner does when he or she wants to expand: take out a loan and apply for a building permit.) Third, state involvement in a football stadium in Northern Virginia seems likely to raise the hackles of people in the most distant (and poorest) part of the state, a part of the state that gave Youngkin his biggest margins. Maybe Youngkin thinks this gives him political capital he can spend, but it would better in Southwest and Southside Virginia if he spent that capital on something that helped this part of the state (such as, say, school construction), not a billionaire football owner in a part of the state that we feel estranged from anyway. Youngkin’s interest in the football authority seems more like something I’d have expected from Terry McAuliffe who, I’m sure, would love to hobnob up in the owner’s luxury suite. There is potentially a way to make a state role in a football stadium more palatable to Southwest and Southside — by dedicating a big share (say, 100%?) of the revenues to this part of the state. Even then, I’d want to see some serious math about whether that’s a decent return on the investment.

All that’s a long way of saying that while the outlines of the next two years are taking shape, there are still plenty of opportunities for surprises along the way. What will the next one be?

Dwayne Yancey

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