By all appearances, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is preparing to launch a campaign for president.
In April, he announced his own super PAC, Spirit of Virginia, and a nonprofit group, America’s Spirit, which will allow him to accept donations of unlimited size. The governor is also hitting the campaign trail to stump for out-of-state GOP candidates, a strategy commonly employed by potential presidential candidates to raise their national profile. He has made campaign stops beginning this summer for candidates in Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, and Wyoming and also has plans to travel to Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas. In June, the Washington Post reported that Youngkin had traveled to Manhattan to meet with Republican megadonors. It noted that the governor had recently shifted from speaking about “Virginians” toward speaking about “Americans.”
When asked whether he is considering running for president, Youngkin says that he is focused on helping the GOP succeed in the midterms, but doesn’t deny that he is considering it. In a Fox News interview earlier this summer, host Brian Kilmeade noted there’s “a buzz about you running for president,” to which Youngkin responded, “We’ll see what comes next.”
After Youngkin defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in 2021, turning red, or at least purple, what had been seen as a solidly blue state, his campaign was declared a template for how Republican candidates could successfully navigate a party that remained loyal to Trump and a broader electorate that was at best skeptical of and at worst opposed to the former president.
The answer for GOP candidates in the post-Trump era, it seemed at the time, was to win over loyal Trump voters while keeping distance from the man himself. During the Virginia gubernatorial race, Trump stayed mostly out of the way. He endorsed Youngkin but never appeared in public with him; he didn’t ask Youngkin to repeat his claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent; and he allowed Youngkin to campaign on more local issues, including education policy and eliminating Virginia’s grocery tax, rather than conventional Trumpian politics.
But with the way the 2022 GOP primaries have gone — with Trump the veritable kingmaker — Youngkin’s path no longer seems so straightforward.
In crowded midterm fields, candidate after candidate who courted Trump by expressing personal loyalty to him, including agreement with his claim that the 2020 election was stolen, won his endorsement, won the loyal Trump vote, and won the primary. According to FiveThirtyEight, 95 percent of candidates Trump endorsed in Senate, House, and gubernatorial primaries won the GOP nomination.
For now, Trump’s influence in the primaries has given him a stronger grip on the Republican Party than he’s had at any other point post-presidency. Moreover, the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago has given him renewed attention and support, as the former president has used the investigation to present himself as a victim of a Deep State that is set on excluding conservatives from power.
With the GOP in such a Trumpian mood, it seems that only Trump himself or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who models himself on Trump, could win the Republican primary for president. Youngkin, who is positioning himself as a candidate altogether distinct from Trump, is banking on the possibility that the mood will dissipate.
Last week, Youngkin announced a long-planned initiative that will set himself apart in the event that the Trumpian mood does lift. He appeared at the public library in Petersburg, Virginia, a majority-black city south of Richmond, and announced a “partnership” between his administration and the struggling city’s leaders aimed at improving the city’s quality of life.
“Let me be clear,” Youngkin told a crowd in Petersburg. “I do not believe that government should fix everything. But I hold firmly to the responsibility of a public servant to be a catalyst, a full partner to empower, to uplift, to provide alternative solutions.”
Youngkin said the initiative will be a public-private partnership that functions through local residents as well as the government. The Post reported that the initiative will focus on “education, public safety, health care, transportation, economic development, and relations between the community and faith leaders.”
Some of the measures include the YMCA’s commitment to provide programs in schools to help children who need additional support, Virginia State University’s pledge to train people to serve as tutors in the public school system, and State Attorney General Jason S. Miyares’ decision to assign federal prosecutors in the region to focus more on violent crime in Petersburg.
Local Democratic officials lavished praise on Youngkin for the initiative.
Mayor Samuel Parham told reporters at the event, “Governor Youngkin is the first to step down here and say that he is going to put all of his resources in a city to move the dial to create prosperity here in the city of Petersburg.”
“Democrats and Republicans working together,” Parham said, “that’s what makes Virginia special.”
Democratic state Sen. Joseph Morrissey, whose district includes Petersburg, said at the event, “I look forward, governor, to working with you. You told me eight months ago that you were going to make Petersburg a focal point of your administration. You done it — thanks very much.” The crowd, much of which was made up of local residents, cheered.
The initiative in Petersburg positions Youngkin as a bipartisan consensus builder — a decidedly different lane from Trump, DeSantis, and President Joe Biden. The appetite, however, for such bipartisanship is currently minimal on the right — especially with the Left’s refusal to engage in it.
Youngkin’s efforts to improve minority communities by partnering with them also push back against the Democratic narrative that the Republican Party is racist because of its opposition to critical race theory. Youngkin himself has actively advocated against CRT, arguing that it is racist and divides children. His first executive order banned critical race theory from public schools, which his order defined as concepts that portray one race as inherently superior or teach that a person is inherently racist because of his or her skin color. That definition was relatively limited compared to the broader definitions used by other red states to ban the ideology from public schools.
Youngkin has continued his efforts to keep woke activism out of public schools. Last week, he spoke out against proposed changes to Virginia’s history curriculum that would strike references to George Washington as “the father of our country” and James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.” He pledged “to make sure that we have the best history curriculum in the nation.” The State Board of Education has announced that it will give additional time to review the proposed changes. (READ MORE: Youngkin’s Stand Against Woke Iconoclasts)
While on the campaign trail in Michigan last week for GOP gubernatorial long shot Tudor Dixon, Youngkin also denounced Fairfax County Public Schools’ policy on children who believe they are transgender. The policy says that students can use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the opposite biological sex, compete on sports teams of the opposite biological sex, and use pronouns that do not reflect their biological sex — all without parental consent.
“In most cases, transitioning is a very private matter,” the policy says. “Students may choose to have their parents participate in this process; however, parental participation is not required.”
Youngkin said the policy violates federal and state law and that he plans to “bring the full authority of the governor’s office to make sure parents are protected.”
The Virginia governor’s emphasis on education policy extends beyond ensuring that the fads of progressive ideologists are not inflicted on children. Youngkin has invested $100 million in lab schools, which are tuition-free schools with specific focuses that can offer alternative structures and instruction. A lab school, for instance, could focus specifically on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) or at-risk students. The initiative furthers school choice by using state resources, especially partnerships with colleges and universities, to offer parents alternatives to conventional public schools. At the same time, the program has drawn the support of Democratic county governments who want to implement the schools in their communities. It is another example of Youngkin working across the aisle to implement conservative priorities.
Youngkin is leaning into education policy much more than Trump has ever done, but it taps into a growing desire among conservatives for parents’ rights, school choice, and keeping pernicious ideologies out of the classroom. He’s not alone in this focus among potential GOP presidential contenders, as DeSantis has also sought to distinguish himself from Trump through his education initiatives, such as the Stop WOKE Act, which has since been blocked by a judge who ruled that it is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. The law aims to ban critical race theory in K-12 public schools and business trainings.
Youngkin’s approach to tackling education issues has been milder than that of DeSantis. While DeSantis bragged that the Stop WOKE Act would be “the strongest legislation of its kind,” Youngkin’s anti–critical race theory executive order had a limited definition of critical race theory (defining it as teachings that propagate the idea that one race is superior to others or that someone can be inherently racist because of their skin color).
DeSantis’ more forceful policy matches with his more aggressive style, as when last week the Florida governor called Dr. Anthony Fauci a “little elf” who should be thrown “across the Potomac.” Youngkin, meanwhile, has fought Fauci in policy rather than name-calling. His second executive order ended the masking requirement in Virginia schools.
Youngkin’s decision to make his political persona about unity, optimism, and making practical policy changes that appeal across the political spectrum may not ingratiate himself with some parts of the Republican Party that are more focused on attacking leftist extremism and standing with Trump.
But he seems to have made the bet that something will change — whether declining support for Trump, Trump being disqualified from office by one of the efforts to criminally charge him, a different GOP perspective on the electability of Trumpian candidates, or simply a change in mood — that will put himself in a better position to win the Republican vote.