Virginia Democrats are worried the national party isn’t doing enough to stop Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, raising alarm bells that he could try to use wins on the state level to pull Virginia to the right and, potentially, mount a presidential bid.
Chief among their worries is this fall's legislative elections. Every single seat in the commonwealth’s General Assembly, which is currently split between the two parties, is up for re-election in November. Republicans now hold a five-seat edge in the House of Delegates with three vacancies, while Democrats control the Senate by the same margin. Youngkin's statewide operation is aiming at a GOP sweep, which would open the door to a conservative governing package Democrats have largely been able to stymie during his first two years in office.
“So much is at stake in terms of controlling the legislature and I just don’t see that same national energy, candidly, from the White House, on how important Virginia could be not just this year, but next as well,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said.
Democrats fear that if he's successful this fall, Youngkin will continue to enhance his national profile, make the state even more competitive on the presidential level and perhaps even jump into the race for the White House himself in 2024. Republicans counter that Youngkin is solely focused on winning the General Assembly in November and correcting the state’s policy trajectory after years of Democratic rule.
“I don’t think he ever stopped running for higher office,” said Democratic state Sen. Mamie Locke, who is running for re-election in her Hampton-based district. “He certainly does not have Virginia as his priority. He has a spotlight on something much higher.”
Youngkin and his team have strategically avoided the topic of his political future without ruling out the possibility that he could jump into the race for president at a late stage.
“His sole focus and sole priority is on these state House and state Senate races,” said David Rexrode, the executive director of Youngkin's state PAC, Spirit of Virginia. “He’s doing town halls in Fredericksburg and Prince William, Loudoun and Roanoke, not in Des Moines, Manchester and Charleston.”
Spirit of Virginia has become a financial engine the likes of which Republicans have not seen since 2011, when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, then seen as a rising GOP star, became chair of the Republican Governors Association. Youngkin has raised $9.5 million since the beginning of the year from donors across the U.S., including recent fundraisers on Nantucket in Massachusetts and in the Hamptons in New York, a source familiar with the PAC's finances confirmed. That money is now aimed at arming Virginia’s GOP candidates with the resources they need to win in November. And Youngkin is building ties with prominent and connected leaders across the country along the way.
It is an out-of-state money and political machine that Virginia Democrats say they haven't matched. The commonwealth’s two Democratic senators are now getting involved, with a specific focus on pushing the national party to pay attention to what is at stake this fall.
“I don’t think there’s the same national donor focus on Virginia as Gov. Youngkin is pushing on the Republican side,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a former governor himself.
Kaine argues that if Youngkin’s political machine is successful this fall, it puts Virginia in play on many levels in 2024.
“We may be battleground leaning blue, but we’re not a blue state,” Kaine said. “And that means electoral votes have to be fought for every year.”
Kaine will be on the ballot in 2024 after announcing his intention to seek re-election.
Warner points to the effort by Democrats and progressive groups to raise tens of millions of dollars to elect a liberal judge to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. He believes a similar effort should be duplicated in Virginia.
Republicans, meanwhile, are taking full advantage of the Youngkin machine. GOP Rep. Jen Kiggans, a freshman member of Congress from the Virginia Beach area, is a former member of the Virginia Senate who was elected to the General Assembly in 2019 before Youngkin took office. She credits his win in 2021 with giving her a huge lift in her race for Congress, propelling her past then-Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., in one of the most competitive districts in the country. She believes he will play a similar role in the fall.
“For the governor to have such a big stake in this election, and to be prioritizing it and promoting just voting in general, but even promoting our conservative Republican messages and what that conservative Republican leadership looks like — I mean, he’s the perfect person to do it,” she said.
GOP strategist Karl Rove, who previously worked for the Virginia GOP, agrees. Rove believes Youngkin and his political team have made all the right moves to take full advantage of his popularity and channel it properly.
“Money isn’t everything in politics, but it’s important and he began raising it early and spending it wisely, which happens far less often than you might think in politics,” Rove said.
It is Youngkin’s efficiency that has Democrats most worried. They believe he will use GOP majorities to usher in a conservative legislative package that could include rolling back abortion and voting rights. They hope to counter the GOP’s fundraising and operational message, by drilling down on policy issues they believe are out of step with swing Virginia voters.
“Virginia is the last state in the South that still basically follows Roe v. Wade, allowing women to make their own reproductive decisions. That is in jeopardy,” Kaine said.
But Republicans counter that Democrats went too far to the left when they controlled the legislature in 2019, leading to Youngkin’s rise.
Rove believes that while Youngkin’s national profile is on the rise, a race for president might still be a difficult proposition this late in the calendar.
“It’s a long shot if he decides to pursue it,” Rove said. “The irony is it’s a better shot if he stays focused on November and makes a decision afterwards than if he decides today.”