Clad in his signature red vest, 6’7” Glenn Youngkin cuts an inoffensive figure. I’ve heard the college-basketball-player-turned-Virginia-governor described as “a stretched-out Brett Kavanaugh”; both men have prep-school roots and friendly-jock demeanours. It’s an aesthetic that shouldn’t be underestimated in explaining the success of these two leading Republican figures. The future of the GOP depends on candidates who appear to be, above all, a safe pair of hands.
Youngkin took up residence in the Virginia statehouse in 2021, unexpectedly defeating (51% to 49%) the incumbent, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, in a state that is increasingly Left-leaning. The election was decided by independents, who split for Youngkin 54% to 45%. There is a lesson here: the back-and-forth tendencies of the unaffiliated — usually driven by the desire to punish incumbents for failures in the run-up to the election — decide most American elections, which often come down to little more than a coin flip. Youngkin’s election therefore offers a blueprint for a Republican Party free from Donald Trump and trying to win over a nation that’s only getting more liberal.
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Youngkin focused his campaign on education. He leaned heavily on the issue of removing “critical race theory” from classrooms and giving parents and local elected officials more control over public school curricula. Meanwhile, private-school graduate (and parent) McAuliffe handed him some excellent fodder for attack ads. The Democrat, who wanted to veto legislation that would have required schools to inform parents about sexual content in educational materials, told his opponent: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and take books out and make their own decision… I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This blunder did not go down well with voters.
Since his victory, the liberal media has cloaked Youngkin’s success with a narrative: his privilege appealed to Virginia’s conservative elite. But this is a fiction. Youngkin may be rich (the former private equity executive is worth hundreds of millions), but he actually didn’t over-perform in the state’s wealthy northern counties — Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate who opposed Terry McAuliffe in 2013, fared considerably better in suburban Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun, three of Virginia’s five wealthiest counties. Youngkin’s campaign did, however, dramatically increase turnout in the southern and western corners of the state. For instance, he won 80% of the vote in southwestern Dickenson County, the poorest county in Virginia. Winning these areas by massive margins, partly by significantly increasing turnout relative to the 2018 midterm elections enabled Youngkin to more than offset his losses in the suburbs.
This is the Republican Party’s most viable plan for long-term success: swaying independents, or at least not driving them away, while also increasing turnout in poor rural areas. (The prosperous suburbs are likely lost forever, at least in terms of winning majorities and congressional seats.) Key to achieving it in 2021 was the delicate balance that Youngkin maintained vis-a-vis Trump’s legacy. Initially, he benefited from an event staged by Steve Bannon, at which Trump himself appeared via video. Youngkin thanked them for their endorsements, but later criticised the fact that attendees had pledged allegiance to a flag that had flown at the January 6 rally. Youngkin also found ways to dodge issues related to the propriety of the 2020 elections and whether he would certify its results.
Youngkin walked a fine line when it came to the classically Trumpist issues as well. After securing the nomination, he quickly pivoted from stressing his opposition to abortion (he supports banning the procedure after 15 weeks) and expanded handgun purchase limitations, as he had done during the primary. Instead, he emphasised education, even declining to fill out the candidate survey necessary to secure the formal endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
Crucially, though, he refrained from making these strategic moves in an obvious way. His team did not scrub abortion-related language from his website after he won the primary, as losing Arizona senate candidate Blake Masters’s did. He issued no ringing denunciations of Trump in the style of Wyoming Congressperson Liz Cheney or Utah Senator Mitt Romney. He merely segued from one set of advertisements that were intended to win over the base, to another set of advertisements that would appeal to independents (though he did, once safely atop the party’s ticket, acknowledge Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election).
Youngkin understands something that is overlooked by both good-government, establishment Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, and potential head-to-head Trump competitors, such as Ron DeSantis: you cannot drive up turnout from the base if you veer too far from their red-meat social issues and support for Trump, but you cannot win the general election if you fail to appeal to independents. Youngkin, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, is sitting around 0% in the 2024 presidential polling; but he is playing a much longer game than either Trump or DeSantis — he is, as one might expect of someone with a background in finance, engaged in succession planning.
There is precedent for this, particularly within the Republican Party, and particularly after the departure of a conservative whose rhetorical style set the tone for an entire decade. When then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was preparing to run for president in 1988, he had to fill the shoes of Ronald Reagan, a man who defined the priorities of an increasingly conservative, family values-oriented GOP.
Bush’s similarities to Youngkin are striking but unsurprising — tall, soft-spoken former college athletes with elite pedigrees tend to have political instincts that incline them to moderation. And the course Bush took to victory in his first presidential election mirrored Youngkin’s approach to winning Virginia last year. During the primary, Bush tacked to the Right, noting that he had repudiated his Seventies-era support for Keynesian economics and now backed the idea of a Human Life Amendment that would have effectively overturned Roe v. Wade. Lacking Reagan’s endorsement, Bush finished third in the Iowa caucus, behind centre-Right Senator Bob Dole and far-Right televangelist Pat Robertson. It forced him to curry favour with moderate New Hampshire governor John Sununu, whom he would reward with an appointment as chief of staff following his victory in the general election, while running even harder to the Right to peel the base away from Robertson, who had shocked the political establishment with his strong Iowa performance. Thus was an initial polling deficit in the New Hampshire primary turned into a resounding victory for Bush, the momentum from which carried him to the nomination.
During the general election, Bush faced Michael Dukakis — Massachusetts’s longest-serving governor and the ostensible architect of the “Massachusetts Miracle”, one of the fastest service-driven economic turnarounds in the history of the rapidly deindustrialising United States. Bush quite astutely ran towards the centre during the general election, hammering home a pledge to oppose tax increases — popular with independent voters, as this was the part of the Reagan legacy that resonated most strongly with them. He paired this with extremely effective attack ads tied to Willie Horton, a convicted felon from Massachusetts who raped a woman while on furlough during Dukakis’s administration, to paint the centre-Left Dukakis as dangerously soft on crime.
He also seized on Dukakis’s opposition, while governor of Massachusetts, to a law that would have required all students to recite the US Pledge of Allegiance — another issue that polled well at the time with independents and painted Dukakis as an extremist and Bush as the patriotic centrist. In one of his most famous campaign speeches, Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation” in dealing with discrimination, illiteracy and even the environment (a speech derided by Trump in 1990, a mere two years after Bush gave it). The result was a resounding victory in the electoral college, where Bush won the popular vote in 40 of 50 states.
Bush offers Youngkin, and any aspiring Republican leader, a useful model. He took the popular language of activists and ideologues and finessed it, in order to move the party back towards the centre sufficiently to win over independent voters. The base will always be there, as long as they’re not infuriated by your criticism of their supposed backwardness. But you can increase their turnout if you focus your attack ads on subjects that relate to the nature of governance, but demand minimal expense or executive follow-through to deliver on once elected. Attempting to rewrite the public school history curriculum, which members of both parties have been doing since the early 20th century, is relatively cheap, for instance, compared to issuing pronatalist family subsidies such as those those championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But thunderously condemning that curriculum can pay dividends at the ballot box.
Youngkin is going to have to maintain this balance until he can run neither alongside nor against Trump. At the moment, he is having less success than many had hoped during this year’s midterms. In perhaps his worst gaffe of the campaign cycle, he told the audience at a congressional campaign rally for former Latino police officer Yesli Vega that her election could help “send Nancy Pelosi back” to be with her husband Paul, who had been attacked inside their house in California. This kind of tough talk might elicit laughter were it coming from Donald Trump, but from Youngkin — whose relaxed Southern prep-school bonhomie can lapse into something akin to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s sad exhortation to “please clap” — it came across as odd and off-putting.
In a closely-watched congressional election, incumbent Virginia Congressperson and centre-Left “Blue Dog Democrat” Abigail Spanberger withstood a fierce challenge from Yesli Vega. This defeat was cited as a failure of the Youngkin model, but not only was Spanberger — a former CIA officer — arguably the most moderate Democrat in the running, she actually underperformed relative to Terry McAuliffe in her own district, suggesting the tide is still swinging in Youngkin’s direction.
If Youngkin is experiencing growing pains, no matter: he is a youthful 55-year-old amid the gerontocracies controlling both parties. Like Bush in 1988, he has a long road ahead of him, but issues he has championed, such as school choice, have major support behind them. On the subject of Covid vaccines, lockdowns and employment mandates — towering issues over the past three years — his middle-of-the-road positions, coupled with recent data suggesting that school lockdowns had a negative impact on educational attainment, suggest he’s comfortably on the winning side of the current national consensus. And so far he’s resisted spitting the excessive venom that could cost him votes from independents.
If Youngkin is to challenge the likes of DeSantis for the party’s throne, his admittedly thankless job will be to carefully guide the Republican Party back to the centre. As he does so, he needs to pick his culture wars wisely, focusing on issues that offer the greatest return on investment from a marketing cost and the least post-election investment in their fulfilment.
This might seem cynical, but politics is a game played by cynics, or at least by practical operatives — and if Republican leaders generally fail to think like this, the party is in danger of splitting in two. Imagine a nationalist wing for Trump and DeSantis and another, smaller, pro-business wing for Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney. That sort of shock therapy might be what many diehards sorely want, but it isn’t what they — or the party — actually need, at least if they’re planning to win elections over the next decade or so. It is certainly not in the best interest of the independent voters splitting their tickets and budgeting their inflation-ravaged paychecks, for whom a flourishing, bipartisan civil society is preferable to civil war.