Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

Is Gov. Glenn Youngkin running for president?

Former President Donald Trump sure thinks so. Trump used his Truth Social account last week to post the result of the recent Roanoke College poll that showed Trump would beat Youngkin in a hypothetical matchup in Virginia. “Helped him get elected-Big time,” Trump said. “Press refused to acknowledge, but that’s OK – the people know!”

Before we go further, let’s dispatch this canard the way we would a copperhead: with a swift chop from a hoe. Trump is not responsible for Youngkin getting elected, at least not in any way that Trump would want to acknowledge. Trump did not endorse Youngkin for the Republican nomination. He didn’t endorse anyone, but other candidates were more identified with the Trump movement than Youngkin was, and they didn’t win. Trump did endorse Youngkin afterwards but didn’t campaign for him or do anything else overt. In one indirect way, Trump did help Youngkin win – by staying away and keeping his mouth shut. That allowed Youngkin to restore the Republican vote in Virginia’s suburbs to pre-Trumpian levels. Without the Republican vote coming back in Northern Virginia, Youngkin wouldn’t have won. He also wouldn’t have won if there hadn’t been such a big turnout – and such big margins – in rural Virginia, too. However, that seemed to have nothing to do with Trump and much more to do with voter dissatisfaction with Democrats who seem more and more culturally out of touch with rural Virginia. If Trump had any role in that rural turnout, it came indirectly from Democrats. I’ve had Democrats suggest that Terry McAuliffe spent so much of the campaign trying to link Youngkin to Trump that he actually boosted the Republican vote in rural Virginia. Under that theory, some rural voters who were skeptical of whether Youngkin was conservative enough were persuaded by McAuliffe’s own rhetoric. I looked more closely at those numbers in an earlier column, but I suspect Trump will keep repeating this absurdity anyway.

Trump has also used his Truth Social account to go after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who seems a more formidable potential rival.

The website Axios recently had an interesting take on all this. It called Youngkin and DeSantis “two of the biggest names in Republican politics” and posted a map of where both have been campaigning for other Republican candidates. From that, Axios concluded that “they’re taking markedly different approaches toward campaigning in the midterms – and perhaps to 2024.”

Axios says that “Youngkin is bypassing MAGA-oriented gubernatorial candidates in favor of pragmatists running tough races in blue states. DeSantis has leaned into some of the party’s most controversial nominees.”

That conclusion may surprise some in Virginia. After all, one of Youngkin’s recent trips was to Maine, to campaign for former Gov. Paul LePage, who is trying to make a comeback. LePage has a history of inflammatory comments, many of them racially tinged. One example, from a list compiled by the Portland Press-Herald: “Let me tell you something: Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers. You ought to look into that! You make me so sick!” That prompted Youngkin to condemn LePage’s remarks – after he returned from Maine – but Youngkin still insisted that LePage is running a “unifying campaign.” Virginia’s House Minority Leader, Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, was having none of it: “There’s no other way around it, Governor Youngkin is defending an unabashed racist,” Scott said. 

While LePage’s first two terms as governor, beginning in 2011, pre-date Trump, he seems stylistically a lot more like Trump than, say, George H.W. Bush. Nonetheless, Axios counts up this math, and math is a more certain guide than impressions are: “Youngkin has helped out, or is planning to help out, 10 GOP gubernatorial candidates. Just three of them have Trump’s backing, and eight of the 10 are running in states that President Biden carried in 2020.” One of them – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp – was opposed by Trump in his party primary. By contrast, DeSantis is campaigning for candidates much more identified with Trump. Six of the seven candidates he’s campaigned for have been endorsed by Trump. So far, their campaign itineraries overlap only once: in New Mexico, where both have campaigned or will campaign for a Republican candidate for governor who hasn’t been endorsed by Trump.

The different schedules lead Axios to this conclusion: “If Youngkin helps elect Republican governors in blue states like New Mexico and Oregon, while Trump and DeSantis’ candidates in redder states fall to defeat, it would send a powerful message that Youngkin’s mainstream conservative message is a winning one for the party.”

This seems both insightful and important. I’ve heard from quite a few liberal readers who contend that Youngkin isn’t mainstream at all, that he’s simply Trump in a more polite form. I disagree; I think they’ve been so blinded by Trump that they’ve forgotten what a normal Republican looks like (and I always remind those left-of-center readers that they never much cared for those Republicans, either). In any case, Youngkin is certainly tonally different from Trump – or DeSantis, for that matter – and I’m one who thinks that tone does matter.

This, and their different campaign maps, raise some curious questions.

  1. Who will have the better scorecard? Since they’re campaigning for (mostly) different Republicans, that means come the night of Nov. 8, we’ll be able to compare their win-loss records. What if one has a distinctly better record than the other? What will that tell us about the relative standing of Youngkin and DeSantis within the Republican Party? What will it tell us about the Republican Party overall?

    Youngkin, in many ways, is choosing the harder road – campaigning for Republican candidates in a lot of Democratic-leaning states. It’s also a lower risk but higher reward road. If his candidates lose, maybe that’s no surprise. (And, at the moment, many of them are trailing their Democratic rivals in the latest polls. LePage, for instance, is down 46% to 41%.) On the other hand, if only a few of his candidates win, that’s a big talking point. You can bet then that Youngkin will claim as much credit for their victories as Trump has for Youngkin’s – except that Youngkin will have marginally more plausibility. What would that do for Youngkin’s national standing then?

You can bet that after the election, there will be a scorecard for how Trump’s chosen candidates did. Since many of Trump’s candidates are also DeSantis’ candidates, then we wind up with a scorecard with what might be called the MAGA candidates here and the more conventional Republican candidates there. We may not have a clear answer, of course, although I’m sure politicians on all sides will rush to try to claim the results give us a clear answer. My point: The November elections could wind up giving a boost to Trump/DeSantis candidates – or they could wind up giving a boost to Youngkin candidates. Or maybe they give a boost to neither camp, but I’m thinking that within the confines of the Republican Party, somebody’s going to emerge with the better record, no matter what the overall win-loss record is. What if it’s Youngkin? Will we see some clamor that Republicans should turn the page from the Trump era? Or will Republicans double down on Trump and Trumpism no matter what? That brings me to this question:

  1. How should Virginians feel about Youngkin’s national forays? We know how Democrats feel: They’ve made much sport over Youngkin’s travel schedule. We know how Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, feels. “I am hopeful that maybe he will intensify his focus on the Commonwealth’s issues,” Norment said last month. Norment’s surely looking ahead to Virginia’s 2023 legislative elections: For Republicans to regain the state Senate (and hold the House of Delegates), they might need a governor more focused on Fairfax, Virginia, than Fairfax, Iowa. We know how Republicans feel: The Roanoke College Poll found only 28% of Virginia Republicans would back Youngkin in a presidential primary. We also know how voters have felt the only other time that a sitting governor ran for president – Douglas Wilder back in 1991-92. They didn’t like it at all. Wilder’s approval ratings cratered, then rebounded – some – once he dropped out. How much of that was specific to Wilder, though? We don’t know. We do know that Youngkin’s approval ratings in the state have gone up – courtesy of that same Roanoke College poll that Trump shared. Youngkin doesn’t seem to have suffered in Virginia – at least not yet.

Now it comes to the point where I must offer what likely will be an unpopular opinion with both sides. We only give a Virginia governor four years, and I’d prefer our governor devote 100% of his or her time to the job. Here at Cardinal we’re in the process of expanding, which means I’m interviewing job candidates, and I sure wouldn’t like it if someone took a job and then immediately started applying for another one. However (here it comes): We are in a perilous state nationally. We have a portion of one of the nation’s great parties that is under the thrall of a man who potentially threatens American democracy. It seems imperative to me that the Republican Party rid itself of this man and restore itself as a normal conservative party. If Youngkin is emerging nationally, not as an anti-Trump candidate but at least as one who can move his party beyond Trump, should Virginians be willing to encourage that? In effect, for the sake of American democracy, would it be good if Virginians effectively donated part of our governor’s time to this effort?

Virginia Democrats won’t like that, of course. And Trump followers won’t like my contention that Trump imperils democracy. But years from now, will future historians look back and say we’d have been better off as a country if the choice in 2024 was Biden vs. Youngkin rather than a replay of Biden vs. Trump? If the answer is “yes,” then even Virginia Democrats might want to silently be glad Youngkin is mentioned as a 2024 candidate.

Dwayne Yancey

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