Virginia Republicans have a nominee for governor with a much better chance of winning than many Democrats realize.
Nationally, Republicans are letting themselves get transformed into a cult of personality by a losing candidate who holds many views that run directly counter to the party’s long heritage.
Virginia Republicans did not let that happen, though. We live in an age of “narratives” but the narrative of Donald Trump taking over the Republican Party does not explain what just happened in the “unassembled” Republican convention where the party picked a statewide ticket using ranked-choice voting.
Yes, 2021 finds that Virginia Republicans have certainly shifted much further to the right than their political party once was.
We saw that in the attorney general’s race where the party came dangerously close to nominating the hard-right candidate Chuck Smith of Virginia Beach. (Historical trivia: Smith, like his party, has not always been so hard right. In 1987, he briefly sought the Republican nomination for state Senate in Roanoke. When he dropped out, he endorsed Democratic incumbent Granger Macfarlane and said he intended to join the Democratic Party.)
Instead, Republicans nominated Jason Miyares, a much more conventionally conservative state legislator from Virginia Beach — and, it should be noted, the son of a Cuban immigrant, a point that shall become relevant eventually.
And yes, Virginia Republicans could have nominated former House Speaker Kirk Cox, who in the current environment gets pegged as a moderate. In a previous era, with endorsements from former Govs. George Allen and Bob McDonnell, he would have been a shoo-in. Instead, Cox finished a disappointing fourth, with just 13.49% of the vote in the first round.
But neither did Republicans nominate Amanda “Trump In Heels” Chase. Nor did they nominate Pete Snyder, who did the best job running in the Trump lane, picking up endorsements from many former Trump officials, such as Ken Cuccinelli, and other hard-right figures such as Rep. Bob Good of the 5th Congressional District.
Indeed, between them, Chase and Snyder still didn’t command a majority. Instead, the party went with Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy political cipher who ran with lots of money and few endorsements (although accepting one from the execrable Confederate flag-loving Corey Stewart in the campaign’s waning days may come back to haunt him in the general election).
Never before have we had such a blank slate nominated for governor. We’ve had other candidates who had not previously held political office but they still had records of some sort — Terry McAuliffe in 2013 had been Democratic National Chairman, Mark Warner in 2001 had been on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Linwood Holton in 1969 had run for governor four years prior.
That means Youngkin, in the general election, can be whoever he wants to be. He will be hard for Democrats to depict as a Trump acolyte simply because there’s no reason to believe that he is one.
The bitter essence of Trumpism is defined by a public crudeness and a base appeal to the lowest emotions.
In Youngkin, we’ve seen no evidence of the former and it seems unlikely that he got to be CEO of The Carlyle Group, the world’s second biggest private equity firm, by ignoring facts.
Youngkin may still be wrong on the issues, of course — that’s a matter of ideological taste — but the reality is right now we have no idea where Youngkin stands on most issues. His website lists none at all.
Does he believe Virginia should repeal the Clean Economy Act or its legalization of marijuana?
Does he believe Virginia should pass a constitutional amendment to guarantee equal opportunities in schools?
Does he believe Virginia should pass a bond issue to pay for school construction?
What does he think Virginia should do to build a new economy in Southwest and Southside Virginia?
We have no clue.
The Virginia Mercury quotes conservative radio show host John Fredericks as calling Youngkin a “shiny new penny.”
In this case, a lot of pennies; his net worth is estimated as high as $367 million, which means he can self-fund a campaign like none Virginians have ever seen before. (Warner’s net worth is put at $215 million.)
And because he has no record, he comes with no baggage except large bags of money. That should give Democrats pause.
Virginia Democrats are on a roll. They’ve won every statewide election since 2009; they have taken over both houses of the General Assembly. They seem to think there’s no way they can lose the election. Maybe they won’t.
Maybe even a Republican unstained by Trump will still be punished for just having an “R” after his name.
But here’s what they should keep in mind: Massachusetts and Maryland are far more liberal than Virginia, and they’ve both elected Republican governors.
Vermont, the home of Bernie Sanders, has a Republican governor. If they can elect Republican governors, Virginia could, too — with the right candidate and the right circumstances.
We don’t know if Youngkin is the right candidate but he’s not obviously the wrong one the way some other choices would have been.
As for the right circumstances, here’s the danger for Democrats: With Trump out of office, Democrats don’t feel the same urgency.
If turnout falls to “normal” levels for an off-year election, that helps Republicans.
More left-leaning Democrats won’t feel as enthusiastic about a ticket led by an establishment figure like the pipeline-supporting McAuliffe; they might sit out.
The Democratic establishment is pushing an all-Northern Virginia ticket, which might not play well downstate.
Democrats might even be deprived of their diversity argument of fielding candidates “who look like Virginia.” In nominating Miyares, Republicans just nominated the first Latino for statewide office and might field the most diverse ticket ever in Virginia. Democrats seem unlikely right now to match that.
Another factor: How many voters are simply worn out by all the dizzying transformations that Virginia Democrats have wrought and simply want to hit the “pause” button for awhile?
Virginia elections are decided in the suburbs. It’s notable that in the Republican convention, Youngkin won those suburbs.
Now, there’s a big difference between winning over Republican convention delegates in the suburbs and winning suburban voters at large but Youngkin seems better primed to make a pitch for those voters who were alienated by Trump than some Republican who ran more aligned with Trump.