The 2024 presidential primary season kicks off in . . . well, no one is quite sure.
Republicans are holding to a traditional schedule – the Iowa caucuses first, probably in January, then the New Hampshire primary, maybe later in January.
Democrats are upending the whole process, trying to emphasize more diverse states by putting South Carolina first on Feb. 3, then Nevada and New Hampshire on Feb. 6, followed by Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27.
Whether that really happens is anybody’s guess. Primaries are run by states, not parties, and not all those states want to move their primaries to match what Democrats want. Georgia, in particular, is run by Republicans who have no interest in holding party primaries on two separate dates, one for each party, and New Hampshire is always adamant about going first anyway.
So right now we really don’t know.
What if I told you, though, the primary season really begins in Virginia this November 7?
Hear me out: We’ve all been watching Gov. Glenn Youngkin, trying to figure out his national intentions. Sometimes it looks like he’s in: He spent much of last year stumping for Republican candidates, forgoing the traditional first-year overseas trade mission. Sometimes it looks like he’s out: The New York Times recently reported that Youngkin was pulling back from presidential explorations to concentrate on Virginia’s legislative elections this fall. Then sometimes it looks as if he’s in, after all: A former backer of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently dumped $1 million in Youngkin’s political action committee. Is he really that interested in who wins the open House of Delegates seat that covers Bent Mountain, Glenvar, Shawsville and Blacksburg?
Ned Oliver of Axios has a good run-down of who’s saying what about Youngkin’s presidential prospects.
Here’s my somewhat longer analysis.
Tara Palmeri of Puck reports that “the former co-C.E.O. of Carlyle wants to preserve his optionality, as they say in finance, and he believes his best strategy is a late entry into the race, after either: 1) DeSantis fizzles, or 2) [former President Donald] Trump and DeSantis effectively mutilate one another so thoroughly that they create a lane for a third option.”
The New York Times, in reporting that Youngkin is “putting the presidential hoopla on ice,” says much the same.
Most late entries into presidential campaigns don’t go anywhere (I’m old enough to remember Jerry Brown as the stop-Carter candidate in 1976 and the stop-Clinton candidate in 1992) but there is some reason to think that Youngkin’s late entry scenario is plausible. DeSantis, who seemed to be Trump’s most serious challenger, is going through a rough patch right now, which may or may not signal a permanent decline. And it’s possible that Trump’s legal problems will get worse. Whether Republican voters care about those is a different matter – they don’t seem to be so far – but if they do decide they don’t want to nominate someone under indictment (or potentially appealing a conviction), where do they go?
Under this scenario – which, admittedly, is a long shot – the most important date isn’t the squishy dates for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, or the harder date of Trump’s next court hearing on Dec. 4, but the Virginia General Assembly elections on Nov. 7.
Right now Republicans control the House 52-48 while Democrats control the Senate 22-18. If Democrats hold the Senate and take back the House, it’s hard to see how that helps Youngkin nationally. On the contrary, it’s a potentially fatal blow – how can he present himself as the party’s hope nationally if he can’t even persuade his home state to vote for Republicans? (He could, but it would be much more difficult.) However, imagine if Republicans hold the House and win back the Senate – and then hold a red trifecta in a purple state? That seems a pretty powerful argument for Youngkin to take nationally. By that logic, it makes sense that former DeSantis supporter Thomas Peterffy has given Youngkin $1 million. If you’re a Republican donor who likes the cut of Youngkin’s jib, the best thing you can do is make sure he’s got plenty of money to spend on behalf of Republican candidates in Virginia this fall.
Political analysts talk about “lanes” as if presidential aspirants were runners, jockeying for position, which, of course, they are. By that measure, Youngkin right now is in a lane all by himself, one that really does run through that House District 41 in Roanoke County and Montgomery County – and lots of other places.
The stakes for Youngkin have always been high in this November’s election, but now they’re higher. If he has to deal with a Democratic General Assembly, or even a divided one as there is now, his final two years in office will be as frustrating as the first part of his term has often been. (Exhibit A: His hopes for big tax cuts.) However, if Youngkin has a Republican General Assembly, then in theory he could get everything he’s ever hoped for – tax cuts, restrictions on abortion, you name it. And, perhaps, a promotion.
All this makes me wonder how much Youngkin will insert himself into the Republican nomination contests now underway in many districts.
He’s already endorsed three incumbents in contested races – backing Del. Jason Ballard of Giles County and state Sen. Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania County, both of whom face challengers. More surprisingly, he endorsed Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County, who is in a four-way race to move up to the state Senate in a district that sprawls from Appomattox County to Hanover County. I say surprisingly only because it makes sense for Youngkin to back an incumbent he’s happy with (i.e., Ballard and Reeves) wheras McGuire may be an incumbent but he’s seeking a different office. Nonetheless, Youngkin wants him in the Senate.
These endorsements may or may not matter in nominating contests (although a loss for any of these candidates would now be read, rightly or wrongly, as a rebuke to the governor) but none of these districts will matter in November. All three are safely and strongly Republican no matter who the GOP candidate is. The same is true of some other districts where Youngkin has yet to make an endorsement – mostly notably in Southside where Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg County, faces a challenge from John Marsden of Farmville or in Southwest where Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County and Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, have famously been paired together. March has complained that fellow Republican legislators are out to “humiliate” her so we’re all waiting to see how many of them openly endorse Williams. Or whether Youngkin will indicate a preference. There’s no real political reason for him to do so, though, given the steeply Republican lay of that land.
The real question is whether Youngkin will try to tip the balance in nominating contests in districts whose November outcome could make the difference between a Republican majority and a Republican minority.
In Southwest Virginia, that would mean that aforementioned House District 41, which covers parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County. The two Republican candidates are Chris Obenshain, a Montgomery County assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney who is more identified with the traditional Republican Party, and Lowell Bowman, a Montgomery County contractor who is more identified with the more rightward elements of the party. Whoever wins will face Lily Franklin, a well-funded Democrat in a district that’s potentially competitive. In the 2017 attorney general’s race (one of two races used by the two mapmakers appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court), this district voted 50.6% Democratic. In the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race (the other one used), this district voted 51.2% Republican. That was a Democratic year. In the 2021 governor’s race, which was very much a Republican year, the district voted 55.46% Republican. So which will it be this year? And which candidate would Republicans be better served by in the general election, Obenshain who is more of a brand name by virtue of his surname or Bowman who is more of an insurgent candidate? Or are Republicans so confident of victory in this district that it doesn’t matter who wins the nomination except to the candidates and their supporters? (I suspect Democrats would much prefer to face Bowman on the theory that he is far enough to the right that he might open up some room in the political center for them.)
For Youngkin, there’s another factor: Does he even dare get involved with something as unpredictable as a party mass meeting? This is one of those nominating contests where procedure could make the difference – or a blown tire on an 18-wheeler. The registration starts at 4 p.m. on a Thursday – May 4 – at a church in Christiansburg with the event itself starting at 5:30 p.m. One-quarter of the district’s voters live in Roanoke County, which means any of those who want to participate will need to leave work early – and hope there’s not an accident on Interstate 81 backing up traffic. Those familiar with this part of Virginia know that’s an all-too-real possibility. About a year ago we at Cardinal had a reporter from Roanoke going to an event in Blacksburg; he never got there because an accident had shut down the interstate and there was no way to get off to find a side road. Here’s a situation where control of the General Assembly conceivably could hang on some tourist’s ability to merge lanes in front of a tractor trailer. (One late-breaking development in this race: On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears endorsed Obenshain, calling him “a proven conservative leader.”)
Another race where the identity of the Republican nominee could make a difference is on the eastern edge of Southside, where Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia are competing in a June 20 primary. We’ve already had a court case over whether this should be a primary or a convention – a local Republican official sued, alleging that the state had first signed off on a primary, then undid that approval, at the behest of the governor’s chief of staff. The allegation then was the the governor favored Brewer and felt she’d do best in a convention. A court eventually ruled for a primary and the governor has yet to indicate an official preference. Will he?
This is a district that could go either way in November. In the 2017 attorney general’s race, it voted 53.2% Democratic. In the 2017 lieutenant governor’s race, it went 52.3% Democratic. In the 2021 governor’s race, 52.3% Republican. Who would be stronger in the general election – Brewer, a known quantity with a legislative track record, or Sadler, a celebrity with a different sort of track record?
Just as the majority for either party in the House could run through Dixie Caverns, the majority for either party in the Senate could run through Dromgoole – and so could Youngkin’s presidential prospects.