Democratic Wins in Virginia could Deflate Youngkin’s White House Buzz

Julia Nikhinson for The Washington Post
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) visits a Richmond polling station Tuesday.

RICHMOND – Before Tuesday’s election, Gov. Glenn Youngkin was everywhere – on the stump in Virginia, in the Hamptons with megadonors, in TV ads and on the lips of Republicans still pining for a fresh face to snatch the GOP presidential nomination away from front-runner Donald Trump.

And then, suddenly, he seemed to be going nowhere.

The presidential buzz that began two years ago when the political newcomer flipped blue-trending Virginia red – and persisted even after key filing deadlines, the Iowa State Fair and GOP primary debates came and went – seemed to peter out after Tuesday’s election. With all 140 Virginia General Assembly seats on the ballot in contests that Youngkin billed as a midterm referendum on his leadership, Democrats flipped the House of Delegates and held on to the Senate.

While a handful of Youngkin associates held out hope in the aftermath that he could still seek the presidency this cycle, and while the governor himself at a news conference Wednesday afternoon refused to rule that out, MAGA Republicans happily declared Youngkin’s prospects dead.

“The Donor conceived, Murdoch News driven fantasy of Youngkin as President died because MAGA smelled a phony and couldn’t be bothered,” former Trump White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon wrote in a text message to The Washington Post.

Conservative radio host John Fredericks, who was Trump’s Virginia chairman in 2016 and 2020, texted The Post to say Youngkin has “Zero national prospects.”

“At midnight he turned into a pumpkin with a washed out red vest,” Fredericks wrote, referring to Youngkin’s trademark campaign attire.

Not everyone counted Youngkin out, including the governor himself, who in his news conference on the steps of the Virginia Capitol on Wednesday fell back on his standard, studiously coy response when asked if he would run.

“I am focused on Virginia. I have been in Virginia,” he said. “My name is not on the ballot in New Hampshire. I have not been in Iowa. I am not in South Carolina. I am in Virginia, and I look forward to staying focused on Virginia, just like I have been.”

Brad Hobbs, a friend since junior high school and a major donor who has urged Youngkin to run since before he won the governorship, said Tuesday’s results should not be a factor in the governor’s decision.

“The reasons to do it are independent of the outcome of yesterday’s election,” he said Wednesday. “He’s a better leader than Trump or Biden to me, and last night didn’t change that. … I think it’s possible because it’s still him.”

Hobbs also suggested that Youngkin, saddled with an entire General Assembly in Democratic hands, has nothing to lose by seeking national office.

“I look at it as now he’s not going to be able to get his agenda passed, so why not run?” he said. “He can’t do the things that he wants to do.”

One person familiar with the governor’s operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private deliberations, suggested that the door on a 2024 run was not completely closed.

That person said the results underscore Virginia’s blue tilt, making it all the more remarkable that polls show Youngkin is personally popular – even if that failed to rub off on the candidates and abortion restrictions he promoted.

“Popularity is not transferrable to anything,” that person said. “And we got clocked on abortion. You can’t spend $2 million to convince a person they’re wrong on an issue. It’s like trying to convince an ex-girlfriend she still loves you.”

Given that many of the legislative races were close, some said that Republicans did reasonably well – but that Youngkin made the optics worse by leaning into his plan to ban most abortions after 15 weeks and stoking the notion that a red wave could propel him to the presidency.

“Youngkin’s Rs *did* run strong campaigns in Virginia,” David Weigel of Semafor wrote on X, noting that, pending mail ballots, the GOP was on track to win every seat that Joe Biden won by less than eight points in 2020. “But the 2024 savior/we cracked the abortion code hype makes it look like a debacle.”

Youngkin morphed from political unknown to object of presidential speculation the moment he defeated Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe in 2021, just a year after the Old Dominion gave Biden a 10-point win. Telegenic and tall – the 6-foot-5, ex-Division I basketball player seemed to benefit from the old saw that voters favor the vertically blessed – the former Carlyle Group executive was hailed for his ability to wage MAGA culture wars with a smile, revving up the GOP base without alienating suburban swing voters.

Political insiders also saw a path for Youngkin based on his ties to the donor class and a personal fortune that Forbes estimated at $470 million at the time of his election. Another plus: his appeal to evangelicals as someone who frequently prays in public and started a church in his basement.

Some conservatives, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch and megadonor Thomas Peterffy, have urged Youngkin over the past year to get into the presidential contest as an alternative to Trump and Republican rivals who’ve failed to gain traction against the former president.

Murdoch, the New York billionaire whose family owns a controlling stake in News Corp. and Fox Corp., encouraged Youngkin in two face-to-face meetings and heavily promoted the governor in his media outlets. Peterffy, a Florida resident and former backer of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign, gave $3 million to Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC after announcing in the spring that he had cooled to his home-state governor.

Even before Tuesday’s election, Murdoch had stopped pushing Youngkin to run in the same way he had earlier this year, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private discussion. Sensing the governor was reluctant to get into the race given Trump’s continued dominance and the timing, Murdoch felt there was no longer any sense in encouraging him to do so, one of the two said.

Murdoch did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Nor did Peterffy.

Youngkin has always breezily brushed off the presidential chatter, claiming he was “humbled” but unwilling to consider a bid until after the General Assembly elections. He fanned the speculation all the same, popping up at forums showcasing declared candidates, courting billionaire Republican megadonors, weighing in on international affairs by jetting to Taiwan and dispatching National Guard troops to the Mexican border, and promoting himself in presidential-launch-quality videos. He’s never ruled out a run and has pointedly refused to commit to completing his four-year term.

In an August radio interview, Bannon said MAGA voters in Virginia should consider staying home, because Republican wins in the General Assembly would make Youngkin a bigger threat to Trump.

“Why should they set up another competitor to Trump?” Bannon said then.

On Wednesday, as many blamed GOP losses on a post-Roe v.Wade abortion rights zeitgeist and the state’s new political maps, Bannon was the rare Republican seeking credit for his party’s performance. Claiming his entreaties dampened GOP turnout and Youngkin’s national aspirations, Bannon said Virginia Republicans will thank him in the long run even if they’re not happy now.

“Hey, the thing of the matter is, saving the country and not having any more of these flavor-of-the-week [presidential candidates] from Fox News,” Bannon said. “MAGA giveth and MAGA taketh away.”