Commentary

Youngkin may have White House dreams. But it’s been a while since a Va. governor made the leap.

February 28, 2022 12:02 am

Surrounded by children on the steps of the Capitol, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation earlier this month ending school mask mandates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It’s a familiar script. Virginia elects a new governor who, in our off-off-year cycles, briefly captures half the nation’s imagination and becomes the hottest new thing since clip-on neckties.

But it takes on even greater breathlessness when the new governor bursts onto the scene seemingly from nowhere to upset a towering politico with national stature and the demonstrated ability to raise more money than Croesus. Toss in the fact that the loser was an immediate past-governor and … well, the story writes itself.

That’s where Glenn Youngkin found himself on the morning of Nov. 3, 2021 — figuratively astride the prostrate political career of the vanquished Terry McAuliffe, his crown toppled to one side. Add in the motto Sic semper Democratae and you have a tableau Republicans might deem worthy of a revised Great Seal of Virginia (especially since Youngkin’s red, zip-up, campaign-logo fleece vest would tastefully conceal both nipples).

The win sent gigawatts coursing through the GOP grid nationally. Here was a campaign that proved a new post-Trump concept for victory in a state where Republicans had gone winless statewide for a full dozen years and where Democrats had, during that time, overtaken every statewide office and institution of government at both the state and federal level. The last time the GOP was so thoroughly out of power in Virginia was the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and, even more stunning, the Mets won the World Series.

Calling it audacious is like calling Elon Musk well-to-do. Youngkin and his team devised a gravity-defying strategy in which the campaign never embraced Donald Trump but didn’t reject him, either. Equivalent to a hole-in-one, it was the only hope the political rookie had of energizing a massive turnout of Trump-loving Republicans while also eroding the Democrats’ advantage among suburban moderates who loathe the former president.

Before the sun rose the morning after Election Day, Republicans were already circulating memos memorializing the Youngkin gameplan – particularly his strategy of weaponizing local school conflicts in the unsettled aftermath of the pandemic and the 2020 George Floyd summer of unrest to capture the imagination of Democrat-friendly suburbanites.

You could hardly blame him for thinking he’s game for a 2024 presidential run.

From that perspective, it made sense that Youngkin issued 11 executive decrees before supper his first day in office for an audience of hardcore GOP loyalists at the expense of winning friends he would need in the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass his legislative agenda. Though of limited authority – as executive orders and directives are – and perhaps legally dubious, as plaintiffs allege his unilateral dictate to school boards end mask mandates was, those executive actions could make compelling brochures and talking points at GOP gatherings in New Hampshire and Iowa a couple of years hence.

I am not the first to opine on Youngkin’s supposed ambitions. Some mighty knowledgeable folks – including an esteemed former press corps colleague and a respected political science professor – beat me to the punch. So, I put the question to the governor himself, or at least his spokesfolks. I asked: Will the governor run for president while he’s still governor? Youngkin’s press secretary, Macaulay Porter, helpfully referred me to a noncommittal response Youngkin gave to a similar question during a Fox News interview (around the 7:40 mark) earlier this month.

Virginia governors get sized up as presidential timber whether they want to or not.

Maybe it’s because we’re right on D.C.’s doorstep. Maybe it’s the fact that Virginia is the birthplace of eight presidents: in reverse chronological order, Woodrow Wilson, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, James Monroe, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Only three governors – Jefferson, Tyler and Monroe – held both offices.

(Jefferson counted neither office among his top three accomplishments: His tombstone epitaph at Monticello lists him as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and the father of the University of Virginia.)

The only Virginia native to inhabit the White House since the Civil War, the Staunton-born Wilson held the office from 1913 to 1921 and lived here in his childhood but became president after serving as governor of New Jersey and president of Princeton University.

The record has not been kind to Virginians since then.

Gov. Chuck Robb was the son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson and at one time seemed to many destined for the Oval Office.

Gov. Doug Wilder tested the waters in New Hampshire and Iowa in the winter of 1991-92. A grandson of enslaved people and the nation’s first elected Black governor, Wilder sought to parlay his historical renown and his strong early popularity into a fast start in the Democratic primaries. He never gained traction and his polling numbers tanked back home.

The next three governors also made forays into early nomination battlegrounds, but only after their terms ended.

George Allen, who left office in 1998 and won a U.S. Senate term two years later, was distracted by his GOP presidential prospects in 2006 and undertook an uninspired re-election campaign that never recovered from serious late-campaign gaffes. He narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Webb.

Jim Gilmore offered himself as a Republican hopeful in 2008 and again in 2016. Both campaigns fizzled on the launch pad, and he regrouped for an unsuccessful senatorial bid in 2008.

Gilmore’s successor, Democrat Mark Warner, formed a presidential exploratory committee shortly after leaving office in 2006 and abruptly abandoned it several months later. He defeated Gilmore in 2008 for the Senate seat he still holds.

Even when sitting governors don’t actively flirt with a national run, sometimes pundits and an adrenaline-addicted press corps do it for him. That happened in August of 2008 when it looked as though Gov. Tim Kaine would be Barack Obama’s running mate.

A phalanx of network television cameras and their toothy, well-coiffed correspondents bivouacked for several days outside the Executive Mansion. It reached its cartoonish crescendo one afternoon when Kaine, First Lady Anne Holton and the eldest of their three kids, Nat, gave everyone the slip by using Capitol Square’s little-known tunnel system to enter the Capitol and exit undetected from its newly finished subterranean extension to a waiting black SUV and his security detail parked steps away on Bank Street.

They were driven to George Washington University to move Nat into the dorm for his freshman year without turning it into a media carnival. By the time the press learned that Kaine was on the campus, he was already on his way back into Virginia where he boarded a private jet bound westward — toward Denver and the Democratic National Convention. Armed with the plane’s tail number, The Associated Press frantically tracked Kaine’s path as competitive pressure mounted to proclaim him the VP nominee. The tension broke late in the night after the plane landed well short of Colorado and the Secret Service took up positions outside the Wilmington, Delaware, home of Sen. Joe Biden.

Eight years later, as a U.S. senator, Kaine came closer than any sitting Virginia officeholder since the 19th century when he made it onto Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful ticket.

Bob McDonnell received VP buzz almost from the time he was elected in 2009. Similar to the Kaine veepwatch, AP and other news organizations stayed up late one night in 2012 trying to learn whether McDonnell would be announced the next morning as Mitt Romney’s running mate in a grand event alongside the U.S.S. Wisconsin, a storied World War II battleship permanently moored as a floating museum in Norfolk. When the big reveal came, it was Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, not the governor of Virginia, who bounded down the gangplank and onto the ticket.

McAuliffe, always relevant as Clinton confidante, never seemed far from speculation about some national run whether he was governor or not, perhaps because he never discouraged it.

Gov. Ralph Northam was the exception. Any negligible talk about a ticket spot for him vanished in 2019 with the discovery of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.

Who knows? Maybe Youngkin has the secret sauce generations of Virginia governors lacked. Maybe he can upstage Trump without alienating the MAGA movement he needs to secure a GOP nomination. Maybe he can balance the dual demands of keeping Virginians happy while doing his song-and-dance in Manchester and Des Moines.

But before he starts hiring field staff in other states, he would do well to give Governor Wilder a call.

Correction: This column has been updated to correct the university Nat Kaine attended. It is George Washington. 

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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