Glenn Youngkin and the Fast Fade of the Virginia Old Guard
The former Carlyle Group CEO beat out a slew of convention opponents in a party, and a Commonwealth, settling into the new course of things.
Virginia politics, especially conservative Virginia politics, used to be a waiting game.
Though, of course, folks occasionally jumped the line, the Commonwealth was once run by the iron rule of the Byrd machine. Only a half-century ago, “the Organization” as it was called, worked on paying your dues. Delegates became state senators. State senators became attorney general. AGs so often became lieutenant governor, and on.
The election of Republican Gov. Linwood Holton ended old school Southern Democratic reign in 1969, but a holistic, incremental ethos seemed to pervade the state’s politics even into the 1990s and 2000s, even with the rise of the rapidly growing Northern Virginia. Douglas Wilder went from the state senate to the LG’s office to the governor’s mansion, the first black governor in the nation’s history, in the capital of the former Confederacy, no less, before a quixotic, stillborn bid for the presidency, and an encore stint as Richmond mayor, becoming a sort of Jerry Brown figure in the original California.
The former delegate, congressman, and governor George Allen, though not a native Virginian (born in Richard Nixon’s Whittier, California) paired with the former Navy secretary, John Warner—the state the site of so many military installations, and so much military service—in the Senate when I first moved there, though my family’s ancestral home, in 2003. Warner would serve 30 years, and Allen was a George W. Bush heir apparent back then. Democrats, strikingly, would take pains to show fealty to the old ways.
They were “Virginia Democrats,” as partisans in the state were fond of emphasizing, well into Barack Obama’s years in the White House.
Mark Warner (no relation to John) anchored his 2001 triumph in gubernatorial politics, yes, in Northern Virginia, but with a lynchpin in the state’s sparsely populated but mammoth southwest, what would become core Donald Trump country. His successor, future Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, married into Virginia royalty (former governor Holton’s daughter, Anne) before becoming councilman, Richmond mayor, lieutenant governor, and then governor, but not before taking out an ad at a critical juncture of the 2005 campaign assuring voters that just because he was Roman Catholic didn’t mean he’d hesitate to enforce capital punishment. The Commonwealth, at that time, was killing convicted murderers at a near-Texas clip, and doing so with real law-and-order pride. Between appearances of Cicada Brood X, they’ve shuttered the practice altogether.
To believe Guy Friddell’s “The Virginia Way,” old Richmonders used to call their metropolis “the Holy City,” a nod to the seven geographic hills, evocative of Rome, lined with church steeples, many of which are now gone. Charleston, South Carolina claims the moniker, as well, which is widely used, whereas contemporary Richmonders abjure it, unless one wishes to signal membership in or affinity for the old guard. Far more likely are you to see the state-sanctioned “RVA” bumper sticker, a product of a corporate campaign, of refinement culture.
Virginia has seen change before, and doubtless, in a place like the South, generations before have cried that the place is really going to hell this time, quite often on dubious grounds. Four hundred and fourteen years since the founding of Jamestown, four hundred and two years since the first known appearance of slaves in chains, two hundred and forty years since the Commonwealth-led military establishment secured final humiliation of the Crown at Yorktown, one hundred and fifty-six springs since humiliation of its own at Appomattox, a half-century since desegregation and the related party realignment, it’s hard to shake the impression the place has truly changed again this time.
Cue the coronation of Glenn Youngkin, the former Carlyle Group co-CEO, as the next Republican nominee for governor, official as of late Monday night. A political rookie, Youngkin will no doubt invite comparisons to Warner who likewise won statewide as an inoffensive, wealthy businessman without previously having served in office. Like Warner, Youngkin now leads the underdog party, with Virginia Republicans learning to live life with the shoe on the other foot.
Mark Warner, though, had run John Warner close in 1996 in a Senate race, earning him a sort of Lincoln-Douglas cache so rarely afforded a loser; Mitt Romney, a more contemporary example, had similarly benefited in 2002 from frightening Ted Kennedy in 1994. Youngkin, on the other hand, is completely green. He almost surely will run against former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the scandal-scarred but dominant Democratic party unsure of who else to nominate, led by a man who wanted to be president, or at least in Joe Biden’s Cabinet, and now unsure of what else to do.
McAuliffe was quick to latch onto the narrative that Youngkin had essentially purchased his shot at the prize, to say nothing of linking the new nominee to a radical out group, as Republicans did to Democrats in the state a generation prior.
“Now, Glenn Youngkin has paid enough to purchase the Republican gubernatorial nomination so he can run Donald Trump’s dangerous playbook here in Virginia,” the former governor said in a statement. McAuliffe’s messaging could serve the dual purpose of undermining Republican enthusiasm in a time of increasing party hostility to big business (and the feeling’s mutual). The rift was laid bare last month with corporate-hostile statements from Republican grandees, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Justice Clarence Thomas, revered on the right. Licking its chops, the anti-Trump Bulwark noted wryly on the nomination of a private equity executive of a firm with past ties to the Bin Laden family: “Finally, the GOP has cast off the globalist elites.”
Youngkin will, no doubt, try to couch his business experience in nationalist terms. He noted during the primary that then-President Donald Trump had thanked him by name on China policy. And indeed, the new nominee received the former president’s endorsement, something he could have used during the convention, but will likely assiduously ignore when it suits him in the general, as he did in his first remarks Tuesday. “Glenn is running against Bill Clinton’s longtime enabler, Terry McAuliffe,” Trump said. “Terry McAuliffe was the Clintons’ bagman in more ways than one, from the cover-ups to the get-rich-quick schemes, and his deals with Communist China look suspicious.”
The endorsement is a continuation of Trump’s reverence for corporate figures, from his first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (ExxonMobil), to first chief economic advisor Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs)—who would likely have been embarrassed to shake his hand in a past life, and odds are they are again. (Cohn even recently abandoned the former administration’s line of a low corporate tax rate, a signature achievement). In short, Youngkin’s corporate pedigree and corresponding wealth is a double-edged sword, likely guaranteeing a high floor for his performance in November, but also surely a stab point for Democrats politically in an increasingly oligarchic economy. Not that McAuliffe is Huey Long.
“My guess all along…was that Youngkin would win,” Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, the dean of the Commonwealth’s political scene, told me. “He was swamping the others, even [his principal rival, Pete] Snyder, with rather lavish campaign spending of all sorts.… Republican sources have told me Youngkin will spend a minimum of $30 million of his own money, and I had one tell me Youngkin had pledged $75 million. It’s possible McAuliffe will be outspent.”
The Democrat who took Sen. Allen out, Jim Webb, was once the party’s State of the Union respondent, only to nine years later find himself a keynote speaker at an event put on by The American Conservative. The architect of Webb’s sole political victory was David “Mudcat” Saunders, an Appalachian former aide-de-camp to Warner. He was profiled, rather approvingly, in the Weekly Standard in 2005 by Matt Labash, an old friend of Tucker Carlson’s. It’s easy to think what has occurred in the Old Dominion was a fait accompli. But Northern Virginian hegemony, with half the state’s population and more of its money, was clear by the Obama presidency, to which Virginia lent its electoral votes.
And yet, a certain culture endured. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell, a 14-year delegate and then attorney general, walloped State Sen. Creigh Deeds by seventeen points to become governor. Even Deeds’ surprise nomination had been a vindication of the old school, with a rather notorious good old boy beating out Northern Virginians Terry McAuliffe, the Buffalonian former Democratic National Convention chair, and Brian Moran, of the local Northeast transplant Moran dynasty. In the McDonnell administration, statues of Confederate luminaries Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson continued to line Richmond’s Monument Avenue with a seeming bipartisan shrug.
It was likely only after Obama’s second Virginian victory—2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney announced his selection of Paul Ryan on a battleship in Norfolk—that things began to truly change. What went down was a combination: a collapsed statewide political style, that is, the rules of the road, an increasingly national Virginia Democratic Party, and a clear drift rightward by the Republicans, but an aimless one.
In 2013, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a man by whose Caesarian ambition those who know him swear, jumped the line. His was an ideologue’s tenure at the AG’s office, from covering the breastplate of Virtus, the Hellenized warrior woman on the state seal, to suing the University of Virginia for climate change studies, his stint as the Commonwealth’s chief law enforcement officer was defined by gestures—some would say stunts—geared toward the hard right.
Above all, Cuccinelli is intense: from the size of his family (a no-slouch seven children), to his daily hours-long commutes from Richmond to his home in NoVa as AG, to slamming down his credentials at the 2016 Republican National Convention in vainglorious protest of Donald Trump’s ascent, from reversing himself and serving the 45th president on immigraton policy with a hardliner’s imprimatur, to the two hours he spent on a weekday morning with college students including this future reporter (Cuccinelli’s senior, Governor McDonnell, seemed more the master of the five minute gladhand).
But an instinct for scorched earth would cost him: Cuccinelli’s allies jerry-rigged the nomination process for governor, so that Republicans would vote by convention, not primary. The maneuver may have successfully sidelined the longtime lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling (who had his own Granita Pact with McDonnell), but it saddled him with a rather ludicrous wingman, the bombastic and decidedly unsavvy E.W. Jackson, after a day of grinding subterfuge in a Richmond convention hall. Cuccinelli lost the race that November by less than two points. His cutthroat, unrelentingly partisan reputation inspired a quite credible Libertarian challenger, Robert Sarvis, who garnered nearly seven percent of the vote, and Jackson ran a full nine points behind Cuccinelli.
In short, the Republicans blew it. And they’ve arguably never been the same since.
The convention chicanery didn’t start in 2013. In the 2008 Senate election, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who would later become more famous as a gadfly loser of presidential elections, pushed for a convention, to muscle out Congressman Tom Davis, considered a moderate. It worked, and Gilmore lost literally two-to-one against Warner in a performance that would presage his potency at the national level.
But it was 2013 that seemingly codified this new institution, the legerdemain of consistent losers.
By 2021, it would be more establishment figures accused of using the process to knife the hardliners. State Senator Amanda Chase, censured earlier this year by her colleagues for pro-Capitol Hill riot statements, claimed repeatedly that former lieutenant governor candidate Pete Snyder had feared her performance in a primary, and vowed to run as an independent if Synder triumphed. Snyder ended up having bigger problems than Chase, running into the Youngkin buzzsaw. Youngkin gamefully contrasted Snyder’s business experience with his own, calling the venture capitalist “J.V.” In conceding, Snyder said it was clear the electorate clamored for an outsider with business experience, but as observed by veteran political columnist Jeff E. Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Snyder lost to “the only candidate with a bank account bigger than his,” giving an impression of a Commonwealth for sale.
A former state House speaker, Kirk Cox, also competed, but finished a clear fourth in the ranked-choice voting, after Youngkin, Snyder, and Chase. Cox had had the support of former Sen. Allen, former Governor McDonnell, and former Congressman Davis: the goodwill, if not charity, of many old colleagues. But it was Snyder who lined up many of the state’s more recent political players, namely the full slate from the 2013 race: Cuccinelli, Jackson and State Sen. Mark Obenshain. It wasn’t enough. And though Youngkin had devotees in the state’s high command, such as State Sen. Steve Newman who wrote he was convinced Youngkin had “a very personal relationship with Christ,” Youngkin’s closer wasn’t from Virginia at all: it was Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Youngkin cut a slick video with the 2016 GOP runner-up for president, and Cruz’s enthusiasm for his fellow Gen Xer was clear, barnstorming the state. Youngkin also received favorable treatment from a Californian: conservative Washington Post columnist and fixer Hugh Hewitt. The Richard Nixon Foundation CEO called Youngkin “the next governor of Virginia” during an interview with the candidate during the convention campaign, and by this week was pitching Youngkin’s strategy to compete in the state’s liberal north, and urged his listeners to join the campaign and donate.
In many ways, Cruz is a neat contemporary for Youngkin. Both men are plainly talented, with a populist’s panache, but one paired with a high-brow background. They’re actually from the state, but are somewhat unknown and distrusted by the local political elite; they’re pro-Trump when necessary; they’re ideologically vague, not a full break from the party’s past—certainly to the relief, if not enthusiasm, of conservative grandees like Hewitt.
But above all, Sabato emphasized that Youngkin is a “near-complete unknown,” and that, at least, is a sea change for a state and state party as secretive and old school as any in the country.