“He’s going to be basically Mr. Veto,” said Scott Walker, the one time Wisconsin governor, “vetoing the outrageous, obnoxious things that the extreme legislature is going to be pushing him on, but in some ways that might actually help him.”
But it’s not entirely clear yet if Youngkin will do it. The day after the election, he sounded more like a politician willing to chart a conciliatory path than one who’d take Walker’s advice to become a roadblock for Democrats.
“We are a state that is very comfortable working together, working across party lines, in order to get things done,” Youngkin said, adding that he had not yet spoken with Democratic legislative leaders but looked forward to doing so once they were formally named. “We’re going to be able to find places to work together, I’m quite sure.”
Few individual politicians had more on the line Tuesday. His win in the 2021 gubernatorial election had opened the door to Republican possibilities in the age of Joe Biden. And in the weeks leading up to Tuesday night, he was pitching his 15-week abortion ban as the type of sensible compromise that could allow conservatives to navigate that particular thicket.
A good night, his supporters hoped, would give him precisely the type of platform and springboard needed to both govern ambitiously in Virginia and increase his presence nationally.
Instead, by night’s end, any 2024 presidential chatter had been finished off. And so too had Youngkin’s legislative portfolio. He was, as he told reporters on Wednesday, “a little disappointed, to be clear.”
The way Youngkin positions himself to govern — Mr. Veto or Mr. Bipartisan, or somewhere in between — will be a significant choice that could point to what role he sees himself playing in the Republican Party of the future.
Youngkin will likely end up somewhere in the middle, depending on the individual issue and if there is consensus, said Zack Roday, a spokesperson for Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC: “He’ll veto, and he’ll work together, and frankly I think he’ll remain really popular. The dynamic might even drive greater popularity.”
“He’s not a veto guy,” echoed Brad Hobbs, a major Youngkin donor and decades-long friend who is still encouraging Youngkin to run for president, either next year or down the road. “He’s not a negative guy. A veto sounds wrong. He will get together with them and say, ‘here’s what we can do together.’”
The setbacks for the governor were real. But you don’t have to squint particularly hard to see the results in a more nuanced light. Democrats have complete control of both chambers, but only by incredibly narrow margins, with the difference between victory and defeat amounting to a few thousand votes.
Republicans actually netted one seat in the state Senate, and Democrats flipping the state House will likely come with only the narrowest possible majority. Youngkin’s team circulated a memo highlighting that Republicans carried a handful of districts that President Joe Biden would have won in 2020 — just not enough of them to squeeze out a majority and propel Youngkin on the national stage.
Youngkin’s critics were quick to gloat. “The giant sucking sound coming out of Virginia right now is the end of his national aspirations,” said Jeff Timmer, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
But others saw opportunity, even in a disappointing loss. Tucker Martin, a longtime GOP operative in the state, said the next two years could prove to be surprisingly fruitful for Youngkin if he positions himself as a bulwark against Democratic priorities emerging from the general assembly.
“When you step back and look at the big picture, I can paint a picture where he emerges just as popular — if not more so — at the end of the term, and with people talking about him for other opportunities,” said Martin.
Even Democrats conceded that Youngkin’s political trajectory had been dented but not foreclosed.
The governor, said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), is still a “young man, and a very wealthy one. He’ll still have his next two years. … We could see more of him.”
Aides had always insisted that chatter of Youngkin making a late-stage entrance into the 2024 race was painfully misplaced and failed to account for the obvious stranglehold that Trump has on the party. Now, those in the governor’s orbit say, they can dispense with the idea and focus on building out a longer-term operation.
“While not happy with the results, because he cares deeply about Virginia and would have liked to have both houses to be able to continue to deliver for Virginia, this does take the pressure off him to run in ’24 and enter a messy race — and in so doing, probably positions him better in 2028,” said a significant Republican donor close to the Youngkin camp.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Youngkin backer who attended his Red Vest Retreat donor summit in recent weeks, advised Youngkin to embrace a path of bipartisan governance.
“There’s almost very little he’s gonna do this year that’s going to have anything to do with 2028,” said McDonnell, who traded texts with the governor consoling him after Tuesday’s night’s defeat. “That’s an eternity in government.”
He added that if Youngkin is going to rack up further legislative accomplishments, he’ll need to find one or two pragmatic Democrats with whom to do business — “It’s simple math” — and that there’s the added incentive of wanting to build a record for any future campaign: “He knows unless you do very well in the current job, there’s no chance for promotion.”
Had things gone slightly different on Tuesday, Youngkin would not have had to face this choice. But Youngkin, in the end, may have been a victim of the expectations that surrounded him — expectations that his team helped nurture.
The governor made himself the face of Virginia Republicans’ push to capture the legislature this cycle, barnstorming the state with battleground candidates and raising millions from influential political donors to fund his efforts. A Republican legislature would have likely passed the 15-week abortion ban that Youngkin urged candidates to rally around and push for larger tax cuts that Youngkin had pushed for over the first two years of term.
Along the way, he never directly ruled out a run for president in 2024, repeating the well-worn line that while he was humbled by the question, he was laser-focused on the legislature in 2023.
Then came Tuesday’s losses. That squashed the 2024 talk, but Youngkin’s team says that doesn’t mean he is going away.
“We’re taking medicine, right? We lost. It was a disappointment, we came up short,” said Roday. “And yet he’s still going to be a big force in the party, and certainly in Virginia.”
Youngkin was a popular surrogate in the midterms, making appearances in just about every state with a competitive gubernatorial contest, something Roday said would likely continue. “I would imagine he’ll continue to make that case beyond Virginia’s borders, when it’s appropriate,” he said.
But those close to him say his political future is not set in stone. “I think he’s torn,” Hobbs, the donor and longtime friend, said.” I think there are concerns of running in ’24 and leaving behind what he’s doing for the Commonwealth of Virginia. I don’t think it’s easy even in ’28 given the consideration of his children and his family.”
Other Republicans believe that there are lessons to take from the Virginia defeat. Operatives working on the contest argued that the push by Youngkin and his allies to get Republicans to actually vote early is a roadmap the party must follow across the country if they want to be competitive next year.
On a press call Monday, Dee Duncan — the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the party’s main legislative arm — said the early voting effort netted 27 percent of their turnout goal heading into Election Day and converted almost double the number of low-propensity voters that they originally expected.
And at Youngkin’s Wednesday press conference, he defended his push on a 15-week abortion ban.
It is all part of a nascent effort to not just keep intact a political reputation but chart out a backend of a governorship that is now more limited but isn’t without ambition.
“That whole notion that he was going to jump in late and be the guy [in 2024] was completely divorced from reality,” said Lanhee Chen, a longtime Republican policy expert and Hoover fellow. But, he added, Youngkin “is still going to be formidable if he decides to make a push in 2028 or down the road.”
Nicholas Wu, Daniel Lippman, Lisa Kashinsky and Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.