Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Roanoke County before the election. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

For the record, Glenn Youngkin has never hugged me. So last week’s CNN report headlined “Youngkin is ‘hugging everyone’ as he tries to build a brand as the GOP’s great unifier” is technically wrong.

Metaphorically, though, it does seem to be true.

The CNN report focused on how Youngkin is “is crisscrossing the country this fall to stump for the whole gamut of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls – from ardent pro-Trumpers like Kari Lake of Arizona and Tudor Dixon of Michigan to establishmentarians like Jim Pillen of Nebraska.”

CNN quoted “a person close to the governor” as saying Youngkin is “hugging everyone.” Well, everyone on the Republican side, at least.

This report is a shift from a previous Axios story which, after studying travel records, suggested that Youngkin and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were pursuing different paths, with DeSantis stumping mostly for what might be considered Trump-inspired candidates and Youngkin campaigning for more conventional candidates.

This shift came most noticeably with Youngkin’s decision to campaign for Lake, who not only disputes the 2020 election, but disputed her own primary election even before it happened: “If we don’t win, there’s some cheating going on.” Really? Democracy rests entirely on losers being willing to accept the results of elections they don’t like. If we now have one faction of one party that says anything they don’t win is a fraud, then we eventually wind up in a very dark – and potentially bloody – place. Whatever happened to good sportsmanship?

Youngkin’s decision to campaign for Lake didn’t sit well with Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, who is now hellbent on stopping Trump and election deniers everywhere, even if it means campaigning for Democrats. “We cannot see an accommodation like that,” she said at an event in Texas over the weekend (a three-day policy and politics conference sponsored by the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit online news site just like us, just one with a lot more money). “This is a much bigger issue for us than the ’22 cycle and the ’24 cycle,” she said. “It’s about whether we’re going to demand of our elected officials that they fulfill their oaths of office and whether we’re going to recognize that partisanship has to have a limit.”

Youngkin spoke at the same event and had a different take on things: “What I firmly believe is that all states deserve a Republican governor,” he said.

With that, we have two clear differences on how Republicans should deal with the election deniers in their midst. Cheney is full of fire and brimstone and righteous fury. “In this election, you have to vote for the person who actually believes in democracy,” she said in Texas. “And that is just crucial, because if we elect election deniers, if we elect people who said that they’re not going to certify results or who are going to try to steal elections, then we really are putting the republic at risk.”

She believes election deniers should be confronted – and, ideally, defeated. Youngkin believes – well, it’s hard to tell what he actually believes on the subject, but his actions seem to suggest that maybe we can just move on and this fever will break.

Confront the crisis or ignore it and hope it goes away? Who’s right? We don’t know yet, and won’t know until we get past the 2024 election – which could either descend into worse chaos than we saw after 2020, perhaps endangering the very foundations of our republic, or could pass off peacefully. That, in turn, may depend a lot on who the Republican nominee in 2024 is. If it’s Donald Trump, the odds of the former seem quite high. If it’s Youngkin (or someone like him), the odds of the latter seem fairly good. Or maybe Republicans need both – the “bad cop” of Cheney to call out election deniers as a threat to democracy, the “good cop” of Youngkin to unify the party and try to move it past Trump.

That’s why I’ve suggested before that perhaps it’s in our best interest if Virginians cut Youngkin a break and let him run for president. Virginians weren’t so forgiving when Douglas Wilder tried to run in 1991-92; his approval ratings cratered. Virginians expected a full-time governor. Here we have a different situation. If Cheney is right and our democracy is at stake, then it’s essential that Republicans nominate a more normal nominee in 2024 – and if Youngkin is the best opportunity for a post-Trump nominee, then perhaps Virginians should give him a pass on his political extracurriculars. (I’m not saying Youngkin would be a better president than Biden; that’s for others to decide. I am saying pretty strongly, though, that the nation would be better off with a Youngkin vs. Biden campaign than it would be with another Trump vs. Biden campaign.)

There is some disquiet among certain Virginia Republicans that Youngkin isn’t focusing on the job he was elected to do. The sharp-tongued Senate minority leader, Tommy Norment, R-James City County, is just the only one to say such things publicly. “I am hopeful he will intensify his focus on the commonwealth’s issues,” Norment told reporters in August. Will voters lose patience with Youngkin’s nascent campaign? They haven’t yet; the most recent Roanoke College poll showed his approval rating going up, not down. Will Republican legislators lose patience? They have the most to lose; they need Youngkin to stay popular enough to help the party retain the House of Delegates and win the state Senate next year. Norment would sure like to change his title to Senate majority leader. What, though, if Youngkin could do what Wilder couldn’t – campaign nationally and still retain popularity at home?

Last week, Cardinal’s Grace Mamon – our reporter in Danville – covered Youngkin’s visit to Halifax County where he announced that a Charlotte, North Carolina-based company will open an operation to recycle titanium. Here’s part of what she wrote, and part of what I noticed most: “[CEO Taso] Arima said Youngkin was the first to call him during the company’s national site selection survey, which included sites in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.”

That seems like a pretty telling line to me. It tells me that someone’s on the ball in Richmond to get the governor queued up to make the call before Ray Cooper, Henry McMaster and Jim Justice could. It also tells me the governor was available to make that call, so there’s certainly no evidence here of Youngkin shirking his duties. Until there is, I’m betting Virginians tune out any other criticism as just background political chatter.

I may be reading too much into this but I’m also thinking that the Halifax jobs announcement gives Youngkin a nice talking point for his national purposes. This is the first titanium recycling plant in the country; this helps “re-shore” a supply chain of what we now call “critical minerals.” The Biden administration is already pushing to re-shore a lot of those supply chains – that was a big part of the recently enacted CHIPS-Plus Act to help build up a better domestic supply chain for microchips – see my previous column on that – but I’m sure whoever the Republican candidate is will say he or she could do a better job. Here’s an issue where there’s really no one on the other side (well, maybe the Chinese), so it’s a case of who can come across as the strongest. In Halifax, Youngkin will have a real-life example to point to. Titanium recycling won’t move as many Republican voters as his policies on trans kids will but it might still be useful someday.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before Youngkin can say more about that on a national debate stage. We can tell, though, what Youngkin’s route to get to that debate stage – be it in the Republican primary or the general election – will be.

Cheney and Youngkin clearly have different views of how to deal with election deniers, but Youngkin and DeSantis also have two very different views of how to appeal to Republican voters. “Trump and DeSantis employ a combative approach to winning the hearts of GOP voters, Youngkin tries to strike an ecumenical tone in order to appeal to all stripes of Republican,” CNN reports. That’s why I think Youngkin would be a stronger Republican candidate in a general election than either Trump or DeSantis would be. Voters in 2020 elected Joe Biden not so much because they supported his policies but because they were simply tired of Trump. Maybe they are so disenchanted with Biden’s policies that they’re willing to go back to the abrasive personality of Trump – or a Trump substitute such as DeSantis. Or maybe they’re still turned off by that. We don’t know yet. But Youngkin’s more affable nature would sure seem a much easier sell to a lot of voters. (Democrats may contend his policies aren’t affable, but that’s not the question here.) Youngkin is simply a safer bet than Trump or DeSantis or any other Republican on the national scene because he’s done what they haven’t: He’s flipped a Biden state into the Republican column.

In presenting himself as a party unifier, Youngkin reminds me of a previous Republican governor of Virginia, George Allen. The Republican Party of the late ’80s and early ’90s was riven by factionalism. All parties are riven by factionalism, so that’s nothing new, but Allen managed to unite all the different factions in a way that Republican candidates in three previous elections hadn’t been able to. Conservatives liked him, but he wasn’t seen as too far right to turn off more moderate elements (of which the party had more then than it does now). The result: The party went into the election both unified and hungry for a win, which it got. Many things have changed since then – Republicans have red-shifted to the right. But the point remains the same: A candidate who can unite all the factions of a party is usually stronger than a candidate who can’t.

We’ll see if Republicans in 2024 agree.

Dwayne Yancey

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