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Virginias Governor A Rising Republican Star Walks A Fine Line

Virginia’s Governor, a Rising Republican Star, Walks a Fine Line

Virginias Governor A Rising Republican Star Walks A Fine Line

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is trying to maintain a broad appeal at home while growing his national brand with a Republican base that likes its politicians openly pugnacious.

SUFFOLK, Va. — Among the politicians, local news reporters and members of the Nansemond River High School marching band who had gathered in front of the colossal new Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center, no one was more upbeat than Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Oh my gosh, how much fun is this!” he exclaimed, enthusing over “the coolest robots you have ever seen,” extolling the lifelong rewards of music to the band members and tossing out a “Hi there, Glenn Youngkin!” to nearly every Amazon employee he passed.

After a few minutes of touring the center, the governor stepped away. Minutes later, he was live on Fox News, lamenting that voters were suffering under Democratic governance. “They’re tired of the chaos,” Mr. Youngkin said, blaming Democrats for rampant inflation, poorly performing schools and urban crime.

Then he was back in the Amazon lobby, as sunny as ever.

Such is the choreography that Mr. Youngkin has been performing in his first year as the ambitious Republican governor of a state that Joe Biden won handily in 2020. Talking of “kitchen-table concerns” and “common sense,” he boasts of teacher and police raises, funding for school construction, business recruitment and $4 billion in tax cuts.

But the Youngkin portfolio to date also includes banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” in schools, proposing policies requiring transgender students to have formal parental permission to identify as such, aiming to withdraw from a multistate greenhouse gas reduction compact and engaging in what some veterans of state politics describe as unusually harsh partisan combat with the Democrat-held State Senate.

So far, the dance has been working. Mr. Youngkin’s approval ratings sit somewhat above 50 percent, in the range of recent Virginia governors at this point in their tenure. But it gets only harder from here, particularly given Mr. Youngkin’s efforts to grow his upbeat brand with a national Republican electorate that likes its politicians openly pugnacious.

“If Republicans somehow blow this amazingly good environment and it’s still a Democratically controlled Senate, then Gov. Youngkin has a great opportunity to say, ‘See, it doesn’t have to be like this,’” said Tucker Martin, a Republican consultant in Richmond. If the most unabashedly far-right candidates win, however, “common sense” could become a somewhat less compelling pitch.

Mr. Youngkin, 55, has campaigned relentlessly for Republican candidates leading up to the midterm elections, including some of the party’s most extreme figures. He came under fire himself on Friday, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband was badly injured in what appeared to be a politically motivated assault in San Francisco. Mr. Youngkin appeared to make light of the situation at a campaign rally for a House candidate, saying that “there’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.”

A spokeswoman for the governor noted afterward that Mr. Youngkin “clearly said” the assault was wrong, adding that he “is keeping the Pelosi family in his prayers.”

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In September Mr. Youngkin headlined a fund-raiser for Paul LePage, who is trying to recapture the governor’s office in Maine after drawing national attention for a litany of inflammatory comments about race and other matters, and this month he rallied with Kari Lake, the candidate for Arizona governor who has been a steadfast denier of the 2020 election results.

Kristin Davison, Mr. Youngkin’s political adviser, said that his core message remains the same no matter the audience, and that Republicans across the country are following Mr. Youngkin’s lead in emphasizing inflation, safety and other everyday issues. Even the governor’s more polarizing initiatives — like the ban on teaching “critical race theory” and the proposed rules for transgender students — she described as “quintessential kitchen-table issues” involving parents and schools.

For his part, Mr. Youngkin denounced some of Mr. LePage’s comments, but he has defended his appearances on behalf of Mr. LePage and Ms. Lake by saying he simply thinks Republicans make better governors, even if they differ on certain points.

“What I found in Virginia was that we could bring together ‘Forever Trumpers’ and ‘Never Trumpers,’ and libertarians and Tea Party members, and, oh, by the way, lots of independents and lots of Democrats,” he said in a recent interview on CNN.

There are differing interpretations of just how wide-ranging Mr. Youngkin’s support in his 2021 election really was. When he joined the Virginia governor’s race last year as a little-known former private equity executive, he focused intently on schools, fertile ground for practical problem-solving and fiery culture-warring alike. He rallied parents in school districts boiling over with debates about merit and equity; he called for the end of Covid mitigation policies like mandatory masking and virtual learning, and decried the teaching of “critical race theory” — in other words, discussions of systemic racism.

On some incendiary topics, he was more subtle. He kept Mr. Trump at arm’s length without disavowing him and put little emphasis on his own staunch opposition to abortion, as he acknowledged in a recording made public last year, so as not to scare off independent voters.

With his victory last November, the first big election since Mr. Biden won the presidency, a national star was born: “somebody who is basically quite conservative but doesn’t quite have the personal edge,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Virginia.

With the earnest pep of a youth pastor, Mr. Youngkin has touted his win as proof of his appeal to a broad electorate, including moderate swing voters in the vote-rich suburbs of Washington and Richmond. But Mr. Holsworth and others challenge that narrative. Suburban voters who traditionally support Republicans turned away from the party during the Trump years, several analysts said, then returned to their old voting habits with Mr. Youngkin on the ballot. But the suburbs remained Democratic turf — more so, in many areas, than they were before the Trump years.

Mr. Youngkin lost Loudoun County by double digits, even though it had become a ground zero for parental outrage over the school district’s antiracism efforts. He made up for it by racking up huge margins in Virginia’s small towns and rural areas, in some places exceeding even Mr. Trump’s showing.

“There’s always been a Republican base here,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist in the state. Mr. Youngkin had not converted swing voters, Mr. Tribbett argued, as much as he had just shown that Virginia was still more Republican than many had recognized.

To many Youngkin supporters, nothing about his tenure so far is surprising. “Gov. Youngkin ran as a pro-life, pro-parent, pro-business governor and he is governing accordingly,” said Victoria Cobb, the president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative Christian lobbying group.

But others are less sure. Brie’ Henderson, 58, a marketing manager in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, voted for Mr. Youngkin because of his focus on schools. But she never considered her support an endorsement of cracking down on diversity curriculum or stifling transgender students. “The meal we’re being served wasn’t what was on the menu,” she said.

Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

Chesterfield was one of the few counties that Mr. Youngkin flipped after his Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, won it in 2017, and interviews with a dozen voters here did not suggest that the county was turning against him. Few had strong feelings about Mr. Youngkin’s tenure at all.

“Not really disappointed,” said Kathy Pringle, 59, who did not vote for Mr. Youngkin but was reserving judgment until he acted on an issue that she had strong opinions about, like abortion.

“Hell of a lot better than a Democrat,” said Lee Hite, 72. He approved of Mr. Youngkin’s efforts to stop schools from requiring masks and teaching “critical race theory,” as Mr. Hite put it. But he said Mr. Youngkin was still too new in office to make any definitive conclusions about his performance.

Though Mr. Youngkin has played coy, there is plenty of talk in political circles that he could be a contender in the 2024 presidential race. The conjecture has been fueled by his meetings with deep-pocketed Republican donors, by people like Paul Ryan, the former House speaker, mentioning him as a strong presidential prospect and by Mr. Youngkin’s busy schedule on the midterm campaign trail.

Running for higher office would be risky for any sitting governor, but particularly for one who has spent only a year on the job and has three left in his term. There has already been grumbling from Virginia Republicans about Mr. Youngkin’s out-of-state travel schedule, though he seems likely to keep Republicans here mostly happy, due in large part to his multimillion dollar super PAC, which could bankroll plans to win control of the State Senate next year.

In the meantime, Mr. Youngkin is staying busy. On the week of his visit to the Amazon fulfillment center, he spent part of Monday afternoon in Portsmouth at a street renaming in honor of Missy Elliott, the hip-hop star. On Wednesday, he was standing in a warehouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., rallying voters to turn out for Ms. Lake as she decried an “invasion at the border,” the “woke indoctrination” of schoolchildren and the false claim that the federal government “was going to force” children to take “experimental” Covid vaccines.

On Friday, Mr. Youngkin was back in Richmond, speaking at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit.

“We need an achievable and dynamic plan,” he told the breakfast crowd, summing up his vision for Virginia’s energy approach. “It’s an ‘all of the above’ plan. And it rejects this myth that we have to have an ‘either-or’ moment. We can commit ourselves to an ‘and’ moment.”

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy contributed reporting from Scottsdale, Ariz.

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