Sunday, May 28

Opinion | Youngkin wades into national politics at his own peril

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Is Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) priority to build a national Republican following or to delve into the sometimes mundane and often unheralded tasks of governing the commonwealth?

It is a question that many observers are asking about the governor who won his office last year with a deft campaign that defied expectations. He thus quickly entered the national political spotlight, with some suggesting that he already is positioned to run for national office in 2024.

Youngkin recently established two political fundraising entities that will put him in play nationally supporting Republicans in this year’s midterm congressional races as well as state legislative candidates, actions that appear to position him for a 2024 presidential bid.

As The Post’s Laura Vozzella reported, Youngkin has formed a political action committee named Spirit of Virginia and a nonprofit “social welfare organization,” better known as a dark-money super PAC, America’s Spirit, that is not required to disclose its donors.

That’s a bold move for a governor still new to the job with the most pressing task of state government — finalizing the state’s two-year budget — already overdue and stalemated with little discernible executive branch involvement.

Not every GOP governor is so well positioned to be a player in the national scene. Indeed, most are hardly familiar or not familiar at all to voters outside their own states. But Youngkin last year ran a campaign that got him noticed by party leaders, activists and conservative-leaning media. In his first campaign for public office of any kind, he foiled persistent Democratic efforts to brand him as a stealthy proxy of former president Donald Trump. At the same time, Youngkin positioned conservative culture clash themes as a public education issue and leveraged it to significantly drive up the heavily GOP rural vote while weakening the Democrats’ dominance among moderate voters in Virginia’s suburbs and exurbs.

Thus, before Youngkin created his two political organizations, his tactics were already being adopted by nascent Republican campaigns across the country. He has advanced the narrative of himself and his politics as a way for the GOP to have its cake and eat it, too — repackaging Trump messages that resonated with the hardcore GOP base in a more mainstream, less threatening persona minus the personal revulsion Trump evokes among many independent voters.

Youngkin has busied himself in Virginia by burnishing his credentials with the party’s activist base literally since before the dinner hour on Inauguration Day when he issued a raft of executive orders and directives, including two that sought to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and end mandated face coverings for students.

This month, Youngkin exacerbated partisan enmity in Richmond by vetoing 25 bills by Democrats that passed with bipartisan support during the winter General Assembly session. Nine of the vetoes were to bills sponsored by state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and six were identical to House versions that Youngkin signed — a rare and seemingly spiteful maneuver at odds with the norm among governors to sign both bills in such situations, allowing both sponsors to share credit for the legislation.

It all plays to the conservative base and Fox News.

All the while, the most critical piece of legislation that directs how the state raises and appropriates billions of dollars remained in legislative limbo just two months before it must take effect by the July 1 start of a new Virginia fiscal year or force an operational shutdown of state government.

The temptation for one-term Virginia governors to look immediately to building a national political base is real, and Youngkin is not the first to be in the national spotlight early in his governorship.

But governors who take their eyes off leading and executing state policy do so at their own peril.

Then-Gov. Douglas L. Wilder (D) made a short-lived play for his party’s 1992 presidential nomination. Wilder entered office in 1990 with stratospheric polling numbers. His presidential run became a matter of derision in Virginia, with a popular bumper sticker, “Wilder for Resident,” that expressed how many felt about a one-term governor constantly traveling out of state to build a national campaign. In 1992, a poll by Virginia Commonwealth University found that only 29 percent of those surveyed rated his performance as good or excellent.

In 2000, then-Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) hit his high-water mark as a surrogate for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, registering a 70 percent approval mark in The Post’s August Virginia poll. He spent the subsequent year splitting time as Republican National Committee chairman locking horns in Washington with Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove, and feuding in Richmond with Republican state senators in a standoff over a budget shortfall and his car tax phaseout. Gilmore’s approval fell dramatically by the time his term expired. His several campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination have, to put it mildly, not gone well.

Only Virginia forbids sitting governors from seeking reelection. Virginians don’t think four years is too long for a governor to stay focused on governing.

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