VIRGINIA—Gov. Glenn Youngkin returned to the place of his birth as a conquering hero earlier this month.
The rising political star spent his adolescence 90 miles down I-64, in Norfolk, and then on to days of college basketball at Rice in Houston, then Harvard, then a long career at the Carlyle Group in Washington (while raising a sprawling family in the Old Dominion suburb of Great Falls). Richmond, noted for its inside-man ways—“the Virginia Way”—marked the end of an era with Youngkin’s inauguration last week, ushered in by a battering of outside forces.
The drastic change in “the Holy City” is, of course, evident in the streets: The national crack-up over race laid siege to the homages to those highly controversial sons of Virginia—Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson—on historic Monument Avenue.
But a Commonwealth that’s been trying to rectify its revolutionary birth with its counterrevolutionary legacy for a century-and-a-half saw its latest state party system installed last week: Youngkin’s ascension, that of a complete political outsider, marked not only the formal end of “pay your dues” politics in the sometimes parochial Southern state, but also the conclusion of dominance for a generation of social-justice oriented but corporate-pliant “Virginia Democrats.” Youngkin’s victory in November marked the first time in the millennium that the cadre of elite-educated modernizers (household Virginia names like Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, or Terry McCauliffe—that crew of senators, governors, presidential consiglieres, party chairmen, and vice presidential nominees) actually lost at the ballot box. Kaine lost in 2016, of course, and Youngkin’s victory last year was arguably the biggest Republican triumph since.
Youngkin has tried to make himself at home with what are to outsiders probably gratuitous and bizarre invocations of “the Commonwealth,” as well as visibly diving into the rich history of the state he is from but only so much (Great Falls is not Gloucester). But the national significance of his triumph hovers over everything. Or, as the Washington Post gasped this week, “Youngkin stormed into Richmond with an assertion of executive power that has thrilled the GOP base but caught even some allies off guard, and he has made clear that he views his two-point margin of victory as a mandate for conservative change.”
Youngkin is a temperament apart from his nakedly combative peer (and potential rival) down in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, but a flurry of executive orders on everything from masks in schools to race quackery in schools has right-wingers licking their chops over the possibility of repeat business up and down the Southeast.
Like Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, the obvious question of almost any swashbuckling Southern executive is when comes the volley at the White House. In Virginia’s case, a politics-side “curse of the Bambino” abounds, though. Here the question is, when comes the reprieve from the fact that the Commonwealth’s last president of the United States was John Tyler, who led an interesting enough life, but for the purposes of 2022 died in ignominy, a backbench former traitor among the Confederates?
Youngkin’s interest in the challenge is obvious. The open question is whether the advice he is getting is to strike while the iron is hot, as Barack Obama did in 2008, and as critics argued Chris Christie failed to do in 2012. Youngkin’s consultant is Jeff Roe, a scorched earth conservative operative who ran Ted Cruz’s bid for the White House in 2016, which some would say was a premature one, but a venture others would counter made Cruz a ubiquitous name and only failed because of one Donald J. Trump. If Youngkin is like-minded, he would be plunging headlong into the maelstrom, one that includes an apparent feud between Trump and DeSantis (though an insider-y column from Hugh Hewitt over the weekend said that feud is kayfabe), not to mention Cruz, whose desire to be president is more obvious than the current occupant of the White House’s was for half a century.
In the meantime, Youngkin has shown some seriousness Virginia-side, but also a lack of desire to blaze into Virginia’s Capitol like a Robespierre of Taylorism. Youngkin may have leveled the state’s (excruciatingly lame) Democratic establishment, for the time being, but he has also hired a real catspaw of the once more-powerful Republican old guard in Richard Cullen, the former state attorney general and all-around state maven at McGuire Woods, the Commonwealth’s first or second most powerful law firm. It is a Machiavelli’s choice, but one that adds to questions about whether Youngkin’s lust for explosive change is really aimed at Richmond after all.