Virginia Beach, Virginia
“Please run. We need you to save our country. Please.”
A man pleads with Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, referring to speculation that Youngkin may jump into the 2024 GOP presidential primary — and that Republican donors are encouraging him to do so.
Youngkin responds, with a laugh: “I’m busy.”
The governor is, indeed, quite busy.
It is late August and he has just finished up one of his “Parents Matter” listening sessions, this one in Virginia Beach. Youngkin has been traveling the Commonwealth and hearing directly from parents to fulfill one of his biggest 2021 campaign promises: protecting the rights of parents from government overreach in matters concerning their children.
Parents groups mobilized during that election to great effect. Covid-related school closures and the intrusion of divisive gender and racial politics into the classroom made parents a crucial and energized part of the coalition that elected Youngkin.
Since then, the Republican governor has introduced new statewide policies that require parents to be notified when their children request social gender transitions in school, when their children are exposed to sexually explicit material and, within twenty-four hours, when their kids are subjected to bullying. Students are also required to use facilities and join sports teams consistent with their biological sex. He has dedicated $30 million in state funds to address pandemic learning loss.
Beyond education, Youngkin signed a bill forcing pornography websites to verify the age of their users; rather than implement systems for doing so, the porn sites opted to no longer operate in Virginia.
The “Parents Matter” events are more than just rallies for the governor. As Youngkin listens to attendees share their experiences with their children and the public education system, he has his head down as he takes vigorous notes. These chats will help inform his priorities for the next Virginia legislative session.
“They’ve been very consistent across the state where parents have been concerned about learning loss, and we heard today that there are some parents who feel very, very prepared to deal with learning loss and others who don’t,” Youngkin tells me after the event. “And so this is a place that we’re going to work very constructively across the aisle in order to address quickly the need to provide extra resources for students. I also see consistently this concern about the role of social media and behavioral health with regards to their children.”
The social media issue is one that Youngkin asserts is “not political” and one that he is “hugely frustrated” he has been unable to work productively on with Virginia Democrats.
“Our bill last year that was going to require parental permission to open a social media account for minors was blocked by Senate Democrats,” he said. “I think they should pass that. I do not believe that social media companies should be harvesting the data of our minors.”
That’s where Youngkin’s other big objective comes in: doing everything he can to help remove the roadblock to parts of his agenda created by the Democratic majority in the State Senate. The governor is working to keep control of the Virginia House of Delegates and take back the Senate in state elections this November. Republicans currently have a four-seat majority in the House of Delegates and are at a four-seat deficit in the Senate. If Youngkin is successful, it would be the first time in ten years that Republicans had the “trifecta” and could push through their legislative priorities unencumbered by partisan spats.
“I do believe that given the way that I think we’ve been performing as a state, we’ll have a real chance of winning these elections,” Youngkin said. “But I’ll still work across the aisle with folks, even if we have control of both the House and the Senate.”
Youngkin and his political action committee, Spirit of Virginia, have been more hands-on in the state election cycle than most governors typically would be. A cynic might point to his involvement as proof that he’s building a résumé for president. The less skeptical would argue that he just cares about his home state.
The governor and his PAC also seem clear-eyed about the fact that it will be an uphill struggle to deliver an entirely GOP-controlled state government in what has become a solidly blue state. An official for Spirit of Virginia surmised that it wouldn’t even be possible to think of it without Youngkin, a former private equity executive who turned to politics recently.
The official explained that the PAC’s strategy for success is based on five key pillars: the governor himself; redistricting; good candidates; fundraising, and the Secure Your Vote initiative.
The first is obvious. Youngkin enjoys an approval rating in the high fifties, has already accomplished a fair bit of his agenda, and some of the major issues he ran on in 2021 — education, the economy and crime — remain hot-button topics in the Commonwealth. Virginians should know, Spirit of Virginia believes, that a vote for the GOP this fall is like a second vote for Youngkin and his agenda.
“Virginians are worried,” state delegate Chris Head argues. “They are worried about their children’s education. They are worried about historic inflation. They are worried about the weaponizing of justice against political adversaries. In 2021, Republicans swept Virginia because voters across our Commonwealth wanted a fresh start. They were, and continue to be, motivated by our positive message of prosperity and encouraged by our vision for a government that works for, of, and by the people.”
Jimmy Keady, the founder of JLK Political Strategies, a consulting firm that is working with many Virginia candidates, says that “by focusing on the economy, education and public safety, our candidates are addressing the issues that matter most to Virginia voters, and it should pay dividends come November. We know this because of our work in previous election cycles where Republicans won tough races in Democrat-leaning districts on kitchen-table issues.”
Redistricting took place in 2021, creating what the online news organization Virginia Mercury described as “dramatically different electoral maps.” Voters approved the new districts, and Spirit of Virginia believes they will help Republicans be more competitive.
In June, Youngkin’s team celebrated the fact that all ten of the GOP candidates he endorsed in contested primaries won their races. This not only proved the governor’s cachet, but showed that the party has a stable of high-quality candidates who can compete in toss-up districts.
One such candidate is Tara Durant, a mom, former teacher and Marine wife who emerged victorious in her primary in Virginia’s 27th Senate district, which includes southern Stafford County, Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburg; it leans only slightly Democratic. Durant rose to prominence after she and her child were surrounded by George Floyd rioters while driving through Fredericksburg in the summer of 2020. A 911 operator informed Durant that police wouldn’t be able to help her because city leaders had advised them to stand down.
Another promising candidate in a key Senate race is Lt. Cdr. (Ret.) Kevin Adams, a Navy veteran and small business owner who is married with nine children. Adams is running to represent the 22nd Senate district, which includes Virginia Beach and Norfolk. He previously lost a special election for a Senate seat prior to redistricting, and is eager for a rematch against his opponent, former NFL player Aaron Rouse.
“I’ve been preparing for this the whole time. And in essence, you know, I never stopped running after January,” Adams told me after the Parents Matter event. “I think that [the issues voters have raised] have escalated because — even since the special election — the price of groceries, the price of gasoline, the problems with crime in the communities, all of those things are continuing,” he added. Spirit of Virginia managed to haul in $5.75 million in the first quarter of 2023, which they claim is more than any Virginia governor from either party has raised in a single year. That doesn’t include the first sixty days of the year, during which there was a blackout on fundraising due to the Virginia legislative session. Altogether, Virginia Republican committees, candidates and caucuses pulled in nearly $13 million last quarter, while Democrats raised about $11 million. A Spirit of Virginia official guessed that Democrats will still ultimately outspend Republicans, particularly because they are now bringing in mega-donors from outside the Commonwealth, but described it as “pretty wild” that Youngkin was able to help close that gap.
Virginia Republicans are also pushing their “Secure Your Vote” program, which is a model for early and absentee voting, designed to rival the Democrats’ historic ability to get their voters out to the polls well before election day. Kevin Adams knows how helpful it might prove: he seemed to be cruising to office in January’s special election, but ended up losing by about 700 votes once the mail-in ballots were counted.
Will Ritter, the CEO of Poolhouse, a creative agency that handles media for the governor, described the GOP’s early voting push as “magical.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much effort, and honestly resources, being put into a serious effort to get early voting on the Republican side happening,” Ritter explained. “Youngkin is doing a lot of earned media around this and a lot of paid media around this, and I think it’ll be a blueprint. It really does, at the end of the day, produce more votes. I think we’re going to take the Democrats by surprise in that regard.”
Virginia GOP officials have definitely noticed that Democrats seem to be sleepwalking their way through the current election cycle. They don’t seem to know how to handle the fact that Youngkin won, is still popular and that voters still have many of the same priorities they did two years ago.
“They’re doing everything they can to pretend like [Youngkin’s election] was a perfect storm and it just accidentally happened,” Ritter observed.
Instead of deploying a new strategy or softening on the issues, the Democrats have doubled down. Senators Tim Kaine (who is up for election next year) and Mark Warner are seeking outside funding from the Biden political shop. In the primary season, Democrats kicked out some of their more moderate members, such as Fairfax-based Senator Chap Petersen, who sided with Youngkin on getting rid of the public-school mask mandate, in favor of progressives. Democrats are also trying to nationalize the election by swapping local issues for a focus on abortion and attacking the Republicans as extreme.
Call it the Terry McAuliffe playbook. Some state legislators even borrowed from the former governor and failed 2021 gubernatorial candidate’s infamous debate reveal where he declared that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Democratic Virginia state senator Monty Mason and state delegate Shelly Simonds were caught on a hot mic in April ripping the parental rights movement. Mason referred to parental concerns over easily accessible online pornography as “garbage” and mused, “I mean, it’s just all a part of this parental crap that they’re selling.” Simonds offered, “This is why we have to keep the Senate… because the House is in the hands of the Republicans, and they can push through all kinds of stupid things. We rely on the Senate to kill it all.”
Christie New Craig, a Republican running for Senate in the nineteenth district, chided the Democrats for ignoring what the voters want.
“Hampton Roads is a diverse community with varying levels of education and socioeconomic status,” New Craig said of her district. “Despite these differences, voters across the district are concerned about the same issues: the state of our economy, pub- lic safety and education. What sets our campaign apart from others across Virginia is its focus on the issues. Voters aren’t foolish; they know a show horse when they see one and want leaders to be held accountable and get the job done.”
The Virginia GOP has also wisely been quite outspoken on abortion as opposed to letting the Democrats set the terms of debate, which didn’t end well for the party in the 2022 midterms after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. Youngkin vocally supports a fifteen-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, a position supported by the majority of Americans. For Delegate Karen Greenhalgh, who is running for re-election in Virginia Beach and led the “Parents Matter” listening session with the governor, the issue is personal.
Greenhalgh confided in me, the first time that she has shared her story publicly, that she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager; she described how that traumatic experience led her to volunteer with crisis pregnancy centers and help guide and advise women in difficult situations.
“I was a victim of rape when I was fifteen. And I know what it’s like to be scared. I know what it’s like to be afraid and not be able to tell anybody. I know exactly what that feels like,” Greenhalgh said. “To me, it’s very important that women have all of the information so that they can make an informed decision. And in Virginia, that’s not the position of everyone,” she continued, referring to the 2020 legislation that eliminated several requirements for patient education prior to abortion, as well as codes that would have required abortion clinics to meet hospital safety standards.
“I support 100 percent the governor’s bill,” she added. “It’s a consensus with everyone in the state: fifteen weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. It’s a good compromise.”
Ritter similarly concluded, “Even these suburban voters, when the choice is framed between abortion up until the ninth month or Youngkin’s more reasonable proposal, we win that debate.”
Republicans acknowledged that this fall’s election really comes down to a few toss-up seats in both the House and the Senate and that it’s not going to be easy. But everyone seems consistent in their assessment that it’s Youngkin’s leadership that gives them a fair shot.
Adams remarked, “The governor is really trying to take the issues that they have and actually do something about it.”
When asked how the governor is supporting the party’s candidates, Adams said, “If I reach out to him, he will get back with me with answers. Or he’ll give me an opportunity to be able to share what’s going on. So I think he’s the right captain of this team.”
There’s no question that if Youngkin is successful it will increase the calls for him to run for president. More importantly, though, the Virginia strategy could prove to be a helpful election blueprint for the Republican Party across the nation.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2023 World edition.