OK, that’s a provocative headline, but it’s not based on my opinion, it’s based on numbers, so let’s walk through the numbers.
The Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University released a poll last week that showed – well, let’s just say the early reviews on Youngkin were mixed. I’ve already had Republicans privately give mixed reviews on his administration so far, so maybe that’s not a surprise.
The big surprise is that by a wide margin – 57% to 35% – those surveyed said they opposed banning critical race theory from being taught. My reaction to this? You had your chance, buddy!
I don’t doubt the numbers, even if they surprise me: The Wason Center is a reputable polling outfit. But these numbers underscore the truth of the time-honored adage: The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. If a big majority of voters are really gung-ho for critical race theory, they shouldn’t have let a different majority elect a candidate who said the first thing he’d do would be to ban this academic menace. That’s the problem with polls – or elections, depending on your point of view. It’s easy to tell a pollster what you think; it’s harder to actually show up to vote. I’m not talking about ballot access restrictions or anything like that; I’m talking about the general laziness of many voters. Or, perhaps I should say, non-voters. In November’s election, we saw that many Youngkin voters were quite motivated – turnout in many rural areas went up by unheard of numbers (for a gubernatorial election), while turnout in many Democratic strongholds stayed flat from four years ago.
Now maybe those non-voters felt strongly about teaching critical race theory but didn’t feel so strongly about Terry McAuliffe. Sorry, bub. That’s not how things work. It’s either this guy or the other guy. You got the other guy. Now you’ve got to live with the consequences. More likely, though, the voters who say they’re in favor of critical race theory simply aren’t as enthusiastic about it as those on the other side are enthusiastic against it. This poll doesn’t attempt to gauge how big a priority critical race theory is for voters. I doubt Youngkin will lose any sleep over that finding in the poll, nor should he.
He – and especially other Republicans – ought to be more concerned, though, about those mixed reviews Youngkin is getting. The poll found that 41% approved of the job he’s doing, while 43% disapproved. It’s unusual to find any new chief executive to be in a political deficit so early in his or her term; usually there’s the so-called honeymoon period. A similar Wason Center poll four years ago didn’t ask the question quite the same way but found that 63% were optimistic about what incoming Gov. Ralph Northam would do, with only 27% pessimistic. Perhaps we’re simply more politically polarized now but we were pretty darned polarized then, too, one year into the Donald Trump presidency, so I don’t think that’s the explanation.
Some Republicans might shrug off those numbers and say “tough, we won, get used to it.” It’s true, they did. But that’s not a good long-term strategy. Republicans will want to stay in power. They’ll want to retain their majority in the House next year and win a majority in the state Senate. For that, they need Youngkin to be popular – otherwise every Democrat in the state will run not against their Republican challenger but against Youngkin. Democrats may do that anyway but the point is, Republicans don’t need Youngkin to be a burden for them. An approval rating of 41% – and a disapproval rating slightly higher – starts to make him a burden.
Here’s what Youngkin needs to remember: Virginia may have elected a Republican governor (and a Republican House) but it’s not a Republican state. It’s not a Democratic state, either – that was one of the many mistakes Democrats made. Republicans might like Virginia to be a Republican state but having an unpopular – or at least polarizing – Republican governor won’t help them get there. The danger is that Youngkin inadvertently makes Virginia less Republican, and more Democratic.
Some may think it’s impossible for a Republican governor to be popular in a state as divided as Virginia. That’s the “tough, we won” approach and it’s wrong. Last November, the Morning Consult – a “data intelligence” company that does polling – published the approval ratings for every governor in the country.
The three most popular governors were all Republicans – and what’s significant is that they are all governors in strongly Democratic states.
Larry Hogan in Maryland – 70% approval rating.
Charlie Baker in Massachusetts – 72% approval rating.
Phil Scott in Vermont – 79% approval rating.
Those are almost unheard of numbers, yet there they are.
At the time, the least popular governor in the country was Kate Brown of Oregon – a Democrat in a Democratic state, which makes her unpopularity even more striking. She weighed in with just 43% approval. If you plug Youngkin’s numbers into that list, then he’d become – yikes – the least popular governor in the country.
I’m not saying he ought to be unpopular. I’m just saying these are the numbers. The 41% approval / 43% disapproval rating looks bad enough on its own. It looks even worse when you plug it into a national context. Now these polls were all conducted at different times, so maybe at the moment there’s some unlucky governor somewhere who is even more unpopular than they were in that round-up. Still, the point is, Youngkin’s approval rating isn’t where Republicans should want it to be now, whether it’s at the exact bottom nationally or not.
Republicans in the General Assembly – especially those who want to stay in the General Assembly past next year – ought to stage a modest intervention. Right now, Youngkin is not helping their cause. He doesn’t need to be as popular as Phil Scott is in Vermont but he can’t continue to stay as unpopular as he apparently is – not unless Republicans want to return to being the minority party.
We’re barely a month into his term so things aren’t hopeless. Youngkin may have already made the worst mistakes he’s going to make – the bumbling attempt to use an executive order on mask mandates, the teacher hotline, mixing up two Black legislators, his political team going after a teenager who criticized him on Twitter. Youngkin seems a likable guy personally so there seems opportunity here for him to turn things around. A winning personality goes a long way in politics (that’s one reason Ronald Reagan got re-elected and Trump did not). Youngkin’s also got voters on his side on some issues – 47% say they want to repeal the tax on groceries, only 24% want to keep paying it. A whopping 70% want to see a police officer in every school. It’s not as if Virginians accidentally elected Genghis Khan, but they did elect someone who has never served in government before. I’m inclined to be generous and factor in a learning curve, but Youngkin still needs to be cognizant that he’s at a different place on the political spectrum than most of his constituents. He got elected, so he’s entitled to try to carry out his program, but his fellow Republicans need to keep their eye on their long-term goals, not the ratings on Sean Hannity.
Youngkin also needs to focus more on serious governance and less on silliness designed to made headlines. We saw a good example of that over the weekend. While some other governors were ordering Russian-made vodka off their shelves, Youngkin directed all of state government to review its procurement to see if it buys any Russian products. That’s serious governance; divesting from any Russian investments will cause the Putin-supporting oligarchs more concern than pouring out some vodka. But then Youngkin called on the mayors of Norfolk and Roanoke to break off their Sister City ties to Russian cities, apparently oblivious to the fact that these Sister City relationships aren’t municipal functions, they’re non-profit “people to people” exchanges. That’s just silliness and is unbecoming of a Virginia governor. (It’s also bad policy for reasons I explained in an earlier column, but that’s a different matter).
I’ll also point out, in the spirit of Cato the Elder, who ended every speech by declaring “Carthage must be destroyed,” that Youngkin has missed a golden opportunity for some serious governance: He could have endorsed school construction funding. He didn’t, even though the localities who will be most helped by state funding of school modernization are the very ones that voted for him. The good news for Youngkin is that this opportunity will come around again: Will he seize it? (Youngkin might also want to read the “10 things Youngkin could do to help rural Virginia,” none of which conflict with a conservative agenda.)
An important caveat here: The statewide numbers are important but we need to remember that legislative elections take place in defined districts and, as I’ve pointed out many times before, the Democratic vote is too clustered for their own good. Those big margins in Northern Virginia might help them in a statewide race (just not last year’s statewide race), but those margins are essentially wasted in legislative races when what matters is the ability to win swing districts elsewhere in the state. The redistricting maps created an open seat – and a swing seat – that runs from Bent Mountain in Roanoke County to Blacksburg in Montgomery County. Democrats can’t sit back and content themselves with speaking just to Great Falls; if they want to win back a majority in the House, they need to speak to voters in Glenvar. I haven’t seen much evidence that they’re trying. The Democratic response that two Northern Virginia legislators – former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County and state Sen. John Bell of Loudoun County – delivered to Youngkin’s initial address to the legislature sure didn’t. (They could have endorsed school construction funding, too, but did not.) So ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Youngkin is popular in Northern Virginia; it matters how he’s playing in districts like that one. My guess is that in those districts right now, he’s not the least popular governor in the country. Youngkin’s numbers are surely depressed by especially negative ratings in Democratic strongholds; those aren’t places he needs to worry about. Still, Republicans with an eye on 2023 ought to be asking: If the election were held right now, would Youngkin be a liability or an asset in swing districts? If the former, then it’s time for a course correction.
And that brings us to a political battle that’s starting to take shape west of the Blue Ridge. Our once-every-decade game of musical chairs following redistricting is starting to play out and a state Senate district from Roanoke County to Augusta County is already one of the most interesting in the state. The drama starts farther north, in a newly created Senate district that runs from Bath County to Page County. It’s home to three incumbents – Democrat Creigh Deeds of Bath, Republican Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham. It’s also a district rated 67% Republican. That’s why Deeds has already announced he’s moving to Charlottesville – and a district that’s 62% Democratic. Deeds’ current district – the one he was elected in – already included Charlottesville so he can claim that he’s simply moving to stay with the majority of his current constituents.
That left the question of what Hanger and Obenshain would do. Hold that thought. Farther south, the House redistricting plan put two Botetourt County Republicans – Terry Austin and Chris Head – in the same district. But the state Senate district created from Roanoke County to Augusta County has no incumbent. Thus it made perfectly good sense when Head announced he’d run for that seat.
Not so fast. Hanger says he’s also interested in moving into that district, which would leave Obenshain alone in what started out as a three-senator district (it’s also a district that mostly covers Obenshain has represented in the past) Meanwhile, Hanger pointed out that in years past he represented parts of the district as far south as Rockbridge County, so it’s not exactly foreign territory for him. If Hanger goes through with his plan, that would set up a nomination battle between two sitting legislators, one with a base in the northern part of the district, one with a base in the southern part. I’ve heard rumblings that there might be a third candidate interested – I haven’t heard a name yet but that would make sense. This is a district that’s rated 65.7% Republican – win the Republican nomination and you’re in. And nomination contests – especially if they’re settled in a convention and not a primary – are quite different than a general election contest. (Former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman over in the 5th District can testify to this.)
Here’s the thing, though: Hanger told Cardinal News that “I do not plan to retire, but on the other hand do not feel pressure to make a decision until maybe this time next year.” That’s a rather languid pace. While Hanger will be taking a year to make up his mind, Head will be taking a year to run.
For what it’s worth, 34.4% of that district’s population is in Roanoke County and Botetourt County, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Those may not be the parts of those two counties that Head currently represents but close enough. It means he begins with a base in one-third of the district. Add in nearby Craig County and 36.7%. By contrast, 36.2% of the district is in Augusta, Staunton and Waynesboro – Hanger’s ground. If you count Rockbridge, which he’s represented in the past, that’s 46.9% in what might be Hanger-friendly territory. Now, we all know that geography doesn’t matter as much as it used to. There might be Republicans in the northern part of the district who prefer Head, who is probably seen as more conservative than Hanger. There might be Republicans in the southern part who prefer Hanger for the same reason. All I know is that for those of us who like to follow politics, this will be fun – and whoever eventually represents this district will have an “R” after their name. Here’s a district where it won’t matter what Youngkin’s approval rating is.