Youngkin’s image suffers blow after Virginia losses

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is facing questions about the viability of his political brand after a disappointing election in his home state.

Youngkin threw himself on the line for down-ballot Virginia Republicans ahead of Tuesday to achieve a GOP trifecta in the state’s government.

Now, the party’s election losses in the commonwealth could be a major stain on the record of someone considered a potential future White House contender.

“I think it has done in any immediate thought of any national aspirations,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Virginia political analyst. “There will be a firesale on red vests for that,” he quipped, referring to Youngkin’s signature clothing staple.

Youngkin was catapulted to political stardom following his defeat of former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in 2021 in the purple state. The Republican governor almost immediately became the subject of 2024 presidential chatter and this year fueled speculation from some that he could even challenge former President Trump.

But as the dust settled around the election results Wednesday morning, Youngkin became the subject of finger-pointing from Democrats and his fellow Republicans.

“What an epic failure by Gov. Youngkin,” lamented Fox News personality Brian Kilmeade on his morning show on Wednesday. “This is a huge loss for him, who everyone looked at — if not in ’24, which I thought was a long shot — definitely ’28.”

McAuliffe, who narrowly lost to Youngkin two years ago, also took an opportunity to rub salt in his one-time rival’s wounds.

“It’s the first time in more than 50 years that a sitting governor in Virginia has lost a chamber. More than 50 years,” McAuliffe told MSNBC. “So it was a historic night last night.”

Tuesday night signaled what is likely to be the start of two years of gridlock in Richmond, with Youngkin and Democrats far apart on several key issues. Implementing a 15-week ban on abortion with limits was a major priority for the governor going into 2024, but with Democrats at the helm of both legislative bodies, that initiative can be considered dead on arrival.

“He looks weakened,” Holsworth said. “His capacity to put forward and implement a conservative agenda is gone.”

“He’s going to be so constrained by the Democrats that his accomplishments will not be the kind of accomplishments that move people on a national stage any longer,” he added.

Youngkin struck a much more positive tone in a press conference Wednesday, while acknowledging Tuesday’s results were “disappointing.”

“Abortion is potentially one of the most difficult topics in Virginia and the nation,” the governor told reporters. “I do believe there is a place we can come together, common ground. This is difficult. I’m hopeful that the dialogue we’ve started can continue.”

In a memo released Wednesday, Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC pointed to the Democrats’ money advantage going into the race. Additionally, his team pointed out some silver linings for the governor’s efforts this off-year cycle, including that Republicans won 13 districts Tuesday that were won by President Biden in 2020, along with seven districts that congressional Democratic candidates won last year.

The governor’s political team also touted Youngkin’s Secure Your Vote Virginia Program, which it said had a positive effect on turnout.

“The upshot is the outcome, and the resulting media narrative today was decided by one-tenth of one percent of roughly 2.3 million votes cast this year,” wrote Dave Rexrode, the chair of Youngkin’s PAC. “In a state President Biden carried by 10 points, Republicans came within just a few thousand votes of winning majorities in both legislative chambers.”

And Virginia was by no means the only state where Republicans had a rough night. In Ohio, a red state, a majority of voters cast their ballots to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution. Meanwhile, in Kentucky, another red state, Trump-backed Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron was unable to unseat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear (D).

“Younkin was declared the Second Coming for months. Then when election results, in which [Republicans] were outspent, don’t go their way — a, ‘See, he can’t walk on water after all,’ narrative gets built,” said Doug Heye, a national Republican strategist.

“Especially given results in other states. Unless Youngkin is somehow responsible for that, too,” he added.

Youngkin supporters also correctly point out he was not officially on the ballot Tuesday and he is still popular in the state. A Roanoke College poll released in August showed Youngkin’s approval rating among Virginians at 51 percent.

“People make snap judgments after elections and forget that in the case of a governor, they are judged by the entirety of their term and he’s not even halfway through it,” said Tucker Martin, a former aide to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

“He’s 1-0 in elections where his name was on the ballot and yes, he did put a lot of time and a lot of energy into the off-year elections,” he continued.  “But it wasn’t a statewide referendum on him. These were specific elections about specific candidates in smaller districts.”

Martin acknowledged Youngkin’s job will likely be more difficult than it would have been with a Republican-controlled Legislature, but he argued he will still have room for opportunities.

“I think they’ll look to find some bipartisan legislation that he can support,” Martin said. “He will also be a stop on what is certain to be some unpopular measures that emerge in the General Assembly.”

“That tends to happen, when one party controls the legislature there’s going to be some bills that come out that are not popular and he’s going to be the person that gets to veto them, which voters tend to like,” he said.

But whether that will be enough to maintain his presence on the national stage is unclear.

“He would have to find a way to redefine what he can accomplish,” Holsworth said when asked about the scenario of Youngkin running for president in 2028. “His appeal was that he had turned a blue state at least partially red.”

“That luster is tarnished by what happened,” he said.

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