Blank slate to best hope: Can Youngkin rescue the Va. GOP?

Politics
Glenn Youngkin

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin greets supporters during a meet and greet at a sports bar in Chesapeake, Va., Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Youngkin faces former Governor Terry McAuliffe in the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When Glenn Youngkin threw his hat and his cash into the Republican nominating contest for Virginia governor this year, he was a rich former private equity executive with no experience as a candidate, and few insider connections or public political views.

“Most party loyalists and insiders didn’t know much about him,” said Todd Gilbert, the state House minority leader, who initially endorsed a fellow lawmaker in the race.

Nearly nine months later, Gilbert and much of his party have come around.

Republicans from all factions of the GOP now say Youngkin may be the ideal candidate to reverse more than a decade of stinging losses in Democratic-leaning Virginia and show a path forward for a national party riddled with division after the turmoil of the Trump years.

A blank slate, Youngkin has scant public record to examine. He’s self-funded much of his bid. He’s proved to be a natural campaigner, deftly seizing on dissatisfaction with Richmond and Washington. In style, the genial, 54-year-old suburban dad who often opens meetings with prayer is nothing like former President Donald Trump, who galvanized a surge of Democratic resistance before losing the state last year by 10 percentage points.

But in substance, Democrats see an extremist with softer packaging. They have accused Youngkin of promoting democracy-eroding election fraud conspiracies. Youngkin has embraced Trump’s endorsement and kept up ties to far-right figures. He’s dodged when pressed for details on policies on abortion rights and gun control, and leaned into culture war fights over schools and pandemic precautions. Like many Republicans, he’s preferred interviews with right-leaning news organizations. His opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, calls Youngkin a “Trump wannabe.”

Youngkin’s chances may hinge on whether voters believe that characterization.

“How do we bring people together, as opposed to push them apart and separate them?” Youngkin said in a recent interview when asked about what inspired his run for office.

There’s little doubt his approach is working with Republicans. The former co-CEO of The Carlyle Group has poured millions of his own fortune into an energetic campaign that has peppered swaths of Virginia with red lawn signs and left Democrats, currently in full control of state government, increasingly nervous.

Less than two weeks out from an election whose results are likely to ripple far beyond Virginia, polls show a tight race.

But if Youngkin has trouble broadening his appeal in the state’s critical, swingy and moderate suburbs, it may stretch back to his fight for the GOP nomination. Then, he ran on “ election integrity ” and refused for months to say plainly whether President Joe Biden had been legitimately elected.

Brad Hobbs, a close friend who has helped the campaign fundraise, donated personally and traveled to campaign stops with Youngkin, said the candidate was just appeasing the base.

Youngkin told him “early on” in the nomination contest that Biden had legitimately won the election, Hobbs said. But Youngkin was facing “rabid” party activists who wanted to hear that the candidate shared their concerns about the election, said Hobbs, who described himself as a moderate who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

“If he just dismissed it, no way he could have won the primary. I mean, just no way,” said Hobbs, who allowed that maybe things would have been different if Youngkin had more time to campaign. “Once you meet him, you really don’t care what he believes. You just go, ‘I want him to win.’”

Youngkin’s campaign declined comment about Hobbs’ remarks.

Now, as he courts independents and moderates, Youngkin talks about pumping the brakes on Democrats’ progressive drive in Richmond. But he largely campaigns on solidly conservative positions.

He opposes mask and vaccine mandates, rails against critical race theory and wants to expand Virginia’s limited charter schools. He pitches substantial tax cuts, promises to overhaul dysfunctional state agencies, opposes a major clean energy mandate passed two years ago and objects to abortionin most circumstances.

In his ads and campaign appearances, he emphasizes he’s a “homegrown” Virginian.

Born just outside Richmond, Youngkin’s mother, his “hero,” was a nurse and accomplished nursing educator. His father worked as an accountant and bookkeeper, he said.

The family relocated to Virginia Beach after his father — “a good dad” but not a “good career guy” — lost his job. Childhood friends described him living a comfortable but not lavish middle-class life.

The 6-foot-6 Youngkin said he received a partial scholarship to attend a prestigious private school, Norfolk Academy, where he excelled at basketball and was recruited to play at Rice University in Texas.

He wasn’t the best player, said teammate Dwayne Tanner, but he worked exceptionally hard. By Youngkin’s senior year, the two were co-captains and Youngkin was honored as the “most inspirational” player.

After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering and managerial studies, he worked in investment banking before earning an MBA at Harvard University and eventually joining The Carlyle Group, where he would spend 25 years rising through the ranks, eventually becoming co-CEO.

Youngkin, who retired from Carlyle in September 2020, described leaving because he felt “called into public service.” Reportingfrom Bloomberg has suggested his retirement also came after a power struggle with Kewsong Lee, his co-CEO, who declined an interview request for this story. Several other people with whom Youngkin worked with closely at Carlyle did not respond to interview requests.

Youngkin accumulated a fortune at the firm; one Forbes estimatesays his net worth is roughly $440 million. He now lives in a seven-bedroom home in Great Falls, a pocket of mansions in the well-off Washington suburbs. He also owns properties in Texas and Wyoming, according to tax records and financial disclosures.

His friends say Youngkin’s rise up the professional ladder hasn’t changed him and he remains down to earth, hardworking and humble.

In public, Youngkin, who dresses down in boots and zip-up fleece vests, is warm and upbeat, speaking with a folksy sincerity. (“Man, all right, this is just out-of-bounds awesome!” Youngkin said as he came on stage at a rally in Chesterfield County.)

“He’s earnest and he is honest. … It’s almost like a throwback. Glenn’s a throwback of just old-school hard work,” said Stock Watson, a childhood friend.

He’s been married to his wife, Suzanne, whom he calls “Suzie,” for 27 years, and the couple has four children, the oldest in his early 20s and the youngest in high school. He’s typically up before the sun.

“If you start checking your email at 7, there’s going to already be 10 emails, or 20, from Glenn,” said Caren Merrick, a friend and CEO of a nonprofit job training initiative the Youngkins founded last year.

Merrick also worships with the family at the nondenominational Holy Trinity Church, which the Youngkins helped found in the basement of their home with 12 people and has since grown to a much larger congregation with a brick-and-mortar location. Merrick said Glenn Youngkin’s faith “informs everything he does.”

According to Merrick, it was important to the Youngkins that the church offer an evangelical faith education course called Alpha, which Youngkin has said he’s taken and which got its start at the church Holy Trinity Brompton, which they attended when Carlyle took them to England.

In an interview, Youngkin said his faith impresses on him the importance of loving others and informs his view that the deeply divided country needs to come back together.

Asked in the same interview whether his faith shapes his view of same-sex marriage, Youngkin responded with a vagueness common in his answers to questions about policy. He reiterated that he feels “called to love everyone.” Pressed on whether that was intended to convey support for same-sex marriage, he responded: “No,” before saying that gay marriage was “legally acceptable” in Virginia and that “I, as governor, will support that.”

The interview, the first Youngkin’s campaign had granted to The Associated Press since he won the nomination, was cut off by campaign aides when the subject turned to his policy positions.

Youngkin often talks about his faith on the campaign trail, where he sports a small yellow bracelet with an inscription about prayer. At the recent rally in Chesterfield County, he quoted from Psalms.

He’s also used his religion to attack others. At the Chesterfield campaign stop, he slammed Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam for allowing liquor stores to remain open but keeping churches closed early in the pandemic. “I knew he didn’t start the morning every day like I do, which is in prayer,” Youngkin said.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, called the remark “a new low.”

But overall, many voters say much of his appeal is in his kinder, softer approach to politics. He lingers at events, listening and asking questions of the voters who often crowd around him afterward.

“Just to talk to him, you feel like he has your interests at heart. He’s not a politician,” said Sue Bridenstine, who typically votes for Republicans and was at her fifth Youngkin rally in Chesterfield.

Some longtime observers say they haven’t seen a similar type of enthusiasm for a candidate for statewide office since the 1990s.

Gilbert, the GOP lawmaker who says he’s come around on Youngkin, said he sees that ability to connect with people as Youngkin’s best attribute. The shifting political winds from Washington aren’t hurting either, he said.

“This is going to be a historic effort when it’s all said and done,” he predicted.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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