Youngkin scores some legislative wins as he eyes White House

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who quickly shot from political newcomer to potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, kicked off his state’s legislative session in January by telling lawmakers that he wanted "to get more done and to get it done faster.”

As the dust settles on his second session working with Virginia’s politically divided General Assembly, the former private equity executive has earned a series of wins, including measures taking a tougher stance against China, that his allies say could help him in a possible White House race.

But many of his legislative priorities, such as a push for more tax cuts, are tied up in budget negotiations. Others, including proposals to restrict abortion access or tighten penalties for criminals, were stymied by Democrats controlling the state Senate.

Youngkin is among the Republican governors eyeing the White House who have hoped to gain political momentum after presiding over productive legislative sessions this year. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis plans to use a session that began last week to advance conservative priorities. But the task has been harder for Youngkin because of Virginia's divided legislature.

“He got a lot of solid singles up the middle, a couple doubles off the wall. Big home runs? Not yet,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican member of the House of Delegates who runs a nonpartisan organization focused on the intersection of Virginia business and politics.

Youngkin is still working to advance his priorities at home over the coming weeks — he can propose amendments to bills that will be taken up in April. But he also has made a point to keep a national profile, as seen in his appearance in a prime-time town hall Thursday night on CNN. He has returned to traveling outside the state and has done nothing to shut down chatter about a possible 2024 run, giving indirect answers about his plans while saying his top priority is his current job.

Virginia law prevents him from seeking a second consecutive term as governor. His four-year term began in January 2022.

“That’s where my focus is right now. And I believe there was an enormous amount of work yet to do in Virginia,” Youngkin said at the end of the education-focused town hall.

The national media appearances and continued travel, including a trip to New York for donor meetings, have led to criticism from an occasional Republican and from Virginia Democrats that he is focused on higher office at the state's expense.

The Democrats who control the state Senate spent the session priding themselves for being a “brick wall” able to thwart many of the priorities of Youngkin and House Republicans, including efforts to enact a 15-week abortion ban.

On some issues, however, they found common ground.

The first piece of legislation the governor has promoted with a formal bill-signing is one that aims to make it easier for licensed or experienced workers such as barbers and cosmetologists to move to Virginia and get straight to work.

Youngkin told reporters that the bill, along with a union and business-backed measure streamlining now-scattered workforce development programs under one agency, were among the measures he most pleased to see pass.

His administration has won praise from consumer advocates for the role it played in a compromise measure that would restore some oversight to regulators who set the rates and profitability of Dominion Energy, the politically powerful company that runs the state’s biggest monopoly electric utility.

The governor is expected to sign a bill that would adopt a new definition of antisemitism in state code that supporters say will help the Virginia track and combat hate toward the Jewish community. He also celebrated the passage of several bills that aim to address the threat from China, including a measure that would prohibit foreign adversaries from purchasing or otherwise acquiring agricultural land.

Early in the session, Youngkin disclosed that he scuttled an effort by the state to land a large electric vehicle battery plant, an initiative between Ford Motor Co. and a Chinese company that is setting up in Michigan instead. The governor’s administration labeled the project a “front” for the Chinese Communist Party that would raise national security concerns.

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who thinks Youngkin is well-positioned to make a presidential run, said the Ford plant could help him in a campaign. As Republicans, especially presidential contenders, have taken an increasingly hard line against China in recent months, the move “kind of immunizes” Youngkin from potential political attacks over his time as co-CEO at The Carlyle Group when the private equity firm did business with Chinese companies, Davis said.

Youngkin’s call for an additional $1 billion in corporate and personal income tax cuts beyond the approximately $4 billion he signed into law last year is tied up in budget negotiations that could drag on for months. So is his proposal for a major boost in mental health spending and an expansion of childhood literacy and school innovation initiatives.

Youngkin’s proposed abortion bill went nowhere, though Virginia drew national attention, including from the White House, after his administration testified against a bill that would have prohibited police from issuing search warrants for digitized data about women’s menstrual cycles. Youngkin’s office said the bill, which had passed the Senate with bipartisan support, would hinder law enforcement. The measure did not make it to the governor.

Speaking to reporters on the session’s last day, Youngkin cast Democrats as intransigent on “commonsense” issues, including a bill he sought that would have allowed prosecutors to bring murder charges against drug dealers if a user dies of an overdose. Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, through her advocacy work, have made combating the threat of fentanyl a vocal priority. The issue is one that has become a key focus of Republican politicians and presidential contenders.

Recent polling has shown Youngkin, the first Republican to lead Virginia in over a decade, with relatively strong approval ratings in a state Biden won by 10 percentage points. But Democrats say Youngkin's policy priorities are out of line with voters and will help them flip the state House and keep the Senate in November, when all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.

“Glenn Youngkin has given us a great gift. He has given us issues to run on and defined the difference between electing Democrats and electing right-wing Republicans,” Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said recently.

Davis sees the political divide another way. He said having Senate Democrats throw cold water on some of Youngkin’s priorities would probably only help him if he becomes a presidential candidate, becoming a “perfect foil” for his conservative policies.

“They aren’t fights that hurt the governor on the national basis,” Davis said. “I think they’ve probably advanced his stature on a national scale for the Republican nomination.”

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Price reported from New York.

Sarah Rankin And Michelle L. Price, The Associated Press