Virginians knew little about Republican Glenn Youngkin when he first threw his hat in the ring to run for governor.
Unlike other recent governors, the former private equity executive ran as a political newcomer with a clean slate, leaving uncertainty about where he fell on the political spectrum.
On the campaign trail, some painted him as a moderate and noted his friendly demeanor sharply contrasted with the combative rhetoric of far-right politicians such as Donald Trump. But since taking office, critics say the governor has consistently shown himself to be cut from the same cloth, citing his support of anti-abortion legislation, his controversial political appointees and his focus on culture war issues.
Youngkin supporters, however, describe him as a “commonsense” Republican. So, the question remains: A year-and-a-half into his term, what kind of a Republican is Glenn Youngkin?
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The governor, who has fueled speculation over a possible presidential run, might still be figuring that out himself, said Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“To me, it’s like he is just a business person who has a lot of money and one day woke up and decided he wanted to run for governor,” he said. “Does he really think too deeply about these issues? He seems detached.”
Recalling how Youngkin unexpectedly vetoed 26 bipartisan bills last year, Keena said he considers him “kind of a mystery.”
“I certainly see him as someone who is hard to read,” he said. “The only thing I’m sure he really cares about is corporate tax cuts.”
Youngkin, who made lowering taxes a cornerstone of his campaign, successfully pushed for roughly $4 billion in tax cuts last year. He hopes to keep that momentum going this year by pushing to cut the corporate income tax rate from 6% to 5%, increase the standard income tax deductions for individuals and joint filers, and expand tax exemptions on veterans’ pensions by eliminating age requirements.
Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at University of Mary Washington, said much of Youngkin’s agenda — tax cuts, calls for abortion restrictions, and putting pressure on public schools — falls in line with mainstream Republicanism.
But he added it’s somewhat challenging to define what’s mainstream because the Republican Party itself is undergoing an identity crisis.
“The Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of 2015,” he said. “One of the decisions that the party will have to make going forward is whether the adjustment to Trump’s vision is retained or discarded.”
Robert Roberts, a professor of political science at James Madison University, said the divided legislature helps Youngkin maintain some mystery. The House of Delegates is controlled by Republicans, while Democrats hold a majority in the Senate.
“He hasn’t had the opportunity to really pursue a legislative agenda because he doesn’t have control of the legislature,” Roberts said. “So, if he had control over the legislature, what would he do? That remains to be seen.”
Roberts said Youngkin’s future political ambitions would likely be a factor. He would cater to a different group if he’s hoping to one day win the presidency or vice presidency than if he decided pursue a U.S. Senate seat.
Youngkin quickly generated presidential buzz soon after he unexpectedly won his 2021 race against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. His record of stumping for other Republicans out of state — including Arizona far-right conspiracy theorist Kari Lake, who lost her gubernatorial election in November but refuses to concede — further boosted the rumors. Youngkin, however, plays coy and never gives a straight answer to the media about his political ambitions.
Roberts said another reason Youngkin is hard to label or pin down is because he appears to be employing a political strategy called demobilization, the objective of which is to prevent voters from the other side of the aisle from fearing you.
This makes it difficult for the other party to rally up its base, said Roberts, adding former President George W. Bush successfully used this tactic as a gubernatorial candidate in Texas.
“(Youngkin) is very good at demobilization,” said Roberts, explaining it requires an understated approach. “He presents this image where he lets people see what they want to see ... Democrats are having trouble demonizing him.”
Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said it’s important to pay close attention to his remarks.
“He is a very measured speaker, but listen to what he is really saying,” she said.
She pointed to Youngkin’s statements on abortion. Initially he called for a 15-week ban that allowed for exceptions, but later he stated he would sign any bill that came to his desk to protect life.
Some Republicans put forth bills during the legislative session stating life begins at conception, said Swecker, meaning the governor was essentially saying he would support a complete ban without stating those exact words.
“I think he presented himself as a basketball-bouncing, vest wearing friendly guy and there are some folks who got sucked into it,” she said. “(But) he is an extreme right-wing governor and he caters to the MAGA base.”
Youngkin declined to speak with The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press.
When asked by email where he believes his views stand on the political spectrum, spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the governor focuses on delivering for all Virginians.
In a statement, the Republican Party of Virginia said Youngkin didn’t pit Republicans and Democrats against one another and pushed a “commonsense” agenda focused on tax cuts, public safety and empowering parents. The organization pointed to a recent poll from Roanoke College that found 57% of voters approve his performance.
Meanwhile, Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University, argues it was clear from the start that Youngkin embraces Trump’s Make America Great Again ideals and policies.
His first day in office he signed an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools, Alexander recalled. Critical race theory teaches about structural and systemic racism. School officials in Virginia have repeatedly explained that it is not taught in K-12 schools.
But many Republicans nationwide have purported that CRT is taught in schools and that it teaches white students they should feel guilty about racism. The issue has become a rallying cry among Republicans and part of a larger push to supposedly empower parents by giving them more control over what books and curriculum can be used in schools.
Shortly after his executive order, Youngkin launched a now-defunct email tip line so parents could report educators for teaching CRT or other “divisive” concepts. He later urged the Virginia Board of Education to reexamine how history is taught in the commonwealth.
All these efforts together were essentially a push to “remove as much Black history from schools as possible,” Alexander said.
The professor said there are numerous other examples that Youngkin leans to the far right, including his recent effort to roll back the restoration of voting rights and his selections to lead state agencies and boards.
“I think that the appointees are selected based on a political philosophy that they are willing to espouse,” she said.
Many of Youngkin’s appointees have come under fire for inflammatory remarks, including Martin Brown, the state’s chief diversity officer.
Brown slammed the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion during a speech last month at Virginia Military Institute, leading former Gov. Douglas Wilder to call for his firing.
Ann McLean, appointed to the Historic Resources Board, resigned last summer after making remarks defending Confederate statues and criticizing President Abraham Lincoln for calling up troops against the Confederacy.
Casey Flores, appointed to serve on the state’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, also resigned last summer after facing scrutiny for obscene tweets, including one with sexually explicit remarks about Vice President Kamala Harris.
Colin Greene, appointed to lead the Virginia Department of Health, came under fire for downplaying the role racism plays in health disparities and calling gun violence a “Democratic talking point.” Senate Democrats removed Greene this year, but Youngkin this month announced he will serve as a special advisor for Virginia’s opioid response.
If Republicans gain control of the Senate in November, Alexander said she has no doubt that Youngkin would push a MAGA-friendly agenda.
“He would be right there with all the other red states that are trying to ban just about everything and limit people’s rights,” she said. “Anybody who says he’s not pandering to the MAGA group is not paying attention.”
Katie King, email@example.com