Can Glenn Youngkin convince the GOP base to choose him as the 2024 presidential nominee?

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has been in office less than seven months but is already facing questions about his national political aspirations, ahead of the 2024 presidential election cycle.

Youngkin’s defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe last year – the first time a Republican won the Virginia governor’s office since 2009 – signaled positive signs for the GOP after former President Donald Trump’s ouster from the White House.

It also gave a roadmap for Republicans looking to win in battleground states on how to navigate Trump’s out-sized influence in the Republican Party during the campaign.

Now Youngkin is planning to stump for GOP candidates ahead of this year’s midterms.

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He’s also raised $2.64 million for his political action committee, Spirit of Virginia, in the first half of this year, according to the Washington Examiner – another sign that Youngkin could be organizing a potential run for president in 2024.

But can Youngkin – not known for embracing Trump’s bombastic personality – parlay his term in office into a presidential run, especially against other potential conservative contenders including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem?

Some political experts are skeptical, but others are taking Youngkin seriously.

“When people are looking for someone to take back the White House, last year’s campaign would be a good blueprint,” said Brian Kirwin, a Virginia GOP political consultant. “I think Glenn Youngkin has been part of the conversation since day one, to be on the ticket in some form.”

The big challenge now: Name identification

Republican political professionals are keeping an eye on Youngkin’s political moves.

Republican voters? Not so much.

Most Republicans have no idea who Youngkin is, and building name identification would be job one if he decides to take the plunge, political analysts said.

Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican political strategist who conducts focus groups, said voters in those sessions show a “much diminished appetite” for Trump himself, but she hears much more about DeSantis as a possible alternative.

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Youngkin’s name has not surfaced.

“I just don’t think he has the name ID,” Longwell said.

Getting known is one of the purposes of his exploratory moves, which includes creation of a political action committee and pledges to campaign for GOP candidates in the fall midterm elections.

Along the way, Youngkin will meet donors and gauge the landscape of 2024.

Of course, Trump, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and others are following similar playbooks.

How Youngkin can stand out

If Youngkin is aiming to stand out among the other Republican governors aiming for the presidency, political experts suggest he will need to tout policy wins that he campaigned on.

“One way that Youngkin distinguish himself from DeSantis and from Abbott and from Noem is that he can be the conservative governing in a blue state, who can still maintain those values and make progress on the things people care about,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Any success that Youngkin makes will get Republican support, Rottinghaus said. “And he’s going to get moderate crossover support, and perhaps even more than a few Democrats,” he added.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin emphasized that he would ban critical race theory from public schools, a promise he fulfilled. His first executive order ended the teaching of it.

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In light of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Youngkin said he would sign a bill to end most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. He’s already asked Republican lawmakers to start drafting legislation on abortion. But Youngkin acknowledged that the cutoff may need to be 20 weeks instead of 15 as a compromise with state lawmakers, the Washington Post reported.

Abbott, DeSantis and Noem likewise have amplified their policy wins that will excite the conservative base.

Abbott signed a restrictive Republican-backed voting bill last fall. He’s also issued anti-transgender directives this year that call gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender youths “child abuse” and direct medial employees to report parents who allow their children to transition.

Similarly, DeSantis signed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in March that restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in younger grade levels of public schools.

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Noem repeated her support for South Dakota’s trigger laws banning abortion after the high court overturned Roe last month. She also threatened to sue the federal government over an initiative that cuts off school lunch funds for schools that deviate from federally-backed transgender policy in classrooms.

Youngkin a less combative Republican

On the campaign trail, Youngkin was viewed as a more professional, business-like Republican compared to the more combative personality of Trump.

Indeed, Youngkin was able to thread the needle of handling the former president’s involvement in the governor’s race, given that Trump lost Virginia in both of his presidential runs.

While Trump endorsed Youngkin in the race and phoned into two rallies for Youngkin. However, Youngkin did not attend the rallies in which the former president spoke.

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In a field with more Trump-sounding candidates like DeSantis, Youngkin will need to introduce and endear himself to the GOP base in states outside of Virginia by going on the Sunday political shows and stumping for Republicans this midterm cycle, experts said.

Youngkin should visit other states besides the ones that dominate the early presidential primaries – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina.

“I would have him campaign for reelection of his two likeliest opponents. He should be in Florida and in Texas,” said Kirwin. “Because that gives the voice of unity … ‘we may have differences about who gets to carry the torch, but we don’t have any disagreement on what the torch is.'”

And if Trump does run for the presidency again, which he is expected to do, Youngkin will need to stay above the fray.

“The way you don’t beat Donald Trump is by attacking him,” Kirwin said. “There’s nothing he likes better than being attacked, because then he can attack back.”

Instead, Kirwin suggests Youngkin embrace Trump’s policies and explains how he’s implemented it in Virginia without the blowback.

Tony DeTora, the Stafford County, Virginia, GOP chairman, said the GOP base may be ready to move forward after Trump’s loss in 2020.

“People are ready to move on a lot of times. So he may not have the full support to run again that he just has in general,” DeTora said. “There are pathways for other candidates who are not Donald Trump.”

Can Youngkin become the Trump alternative candidate?

In theory, Youngkin could run for president in 2024 the same way he ran for Virginia governor in 2021: A business-oriented conservative who believed in many Trump policies, but without the Trump bombast and divisive rhetoric, that turned off many women and suburban voters.

Youngkin would not run in the alternative lane alone, and his calm and cool style may not be an asset, analysts said. Even Republican voters who have been dismayed by Trump’s behavior like his attacks on the political opposition. That’s one of the reasons DeSantis, not exactly a soft touch, is polling so well.

Many GOP voters “crave that combative style,” Longwell said.

Youngkin has another thing working against him: Virginia restricts its governors to one term at a time, and the state holds gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years – 2021, in Youngkin’s case.

That means presidential talk about Youngkin has begun less than nine months after his election, and that might annoy some of his current constituents, analysts said.

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DeTora said Youngkin has been focused on his job as governor.

“He has to remain focused on doing the job as governor that’s going to be critical to the Republican base. You don’t want somebody who’s shirking their responsibilities,” DeTora said. “That said, the more victories he gets as governor, both policy and political, the more that’s going to shine a light on what he’s doing.”

On the other hand, if Youngkin waits until 2028, he will have been out of office for more than three years.

“It tends to mean that either they’re running when they’re too early for most voters to feel that they’ve established a real record, or they’re running when they’re out of office,” said Liz Mair, a Republican political consultant.

Mair said Youngkin could appeal to many Republican voters, but some might say, “‘hmmm, but he’s only been in for a short time. How do we evaluate how he’d perform as president?’”

There’s always hope, however: Jimmy Carter had served only a single term as governor of Georgia (early 1971 to early 1975) when he won the presidential election of 1976.

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There are also questions about Trump’s political future, including investigations into his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.

Striking while the iron is hot

Republican pollster Whit Ayres, based in Virginia, said a number of current and former Republican governors are considering campaigns to be the alternative to Trump.

Youngkin could be an attractive package, he said, given his appeal to the suburbs in a state that has been trending Democratic in recent years.

“A guy who could unite the populist and governing wings of the party,” Ayres said.

His chances? “That remains to be seen,” Ayres said. “He’s certainly figured out the formula.”

There is something to be said for striking while the iron is hot, said Tim Miller, a former Republican strategist who worked on Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.

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A candidate like Youngkin could benefit if Trump, DeSantis and/or Pence cut up each other on the campaign trail, Miller said, though the Virginia governor right now remains “a very outside long shot.”

Miller, the author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell,” said Republican voters “have demonstrated they are looking for something Trump, or as close to Trump as they can get.”

Still, he said, a lot can happen between now and 2024.

“Sometimes there’s value in trying to be the right person in the right place,” Miller said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia win could catapult him as 2024 GOP nominee

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