Youngkin’s political brand at risk after GOP losses in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) political brand is facing a potential setback after a series of disappointing GOP losses in the commonwealth. 

The latest blow came earlier this week, when Democrat Aaron Rouse flipped a GOP seat in Virginia’s Senate, bringing the Democratic majority to 22-18 in the chamber. Youngkin had thrown his endorsement behind Republican challenger Kevin Adams, who lost the state’s 7th Senate district, previously held by now-Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.) by 348 votes.  

That followed the party’s underwhelming performance in the state during November’s midterms. 

“He’s yet to be successful in transferring his popularity around the state,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “These last results should focus the Republican mind and have them understand that the Youngkin victory was not necessarily a sign of what was going to come.”  

For Youngkin, considered a potential White House contender, the defeats threaten to put a damper on his prospects and raise questions about whether his conservative positions on issues like abortion will ultimately hurt the party heading into 2024. 

Youngkin’s win over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in 2021 sparked Republican optimism up and down the ticket going into 2022 in Virginia and across the country. Youngkin, a first-time politician, was also branded as a rising star within the GOP.   

In last year’s midterms, Republicans took aim at incumbent Virginia Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton and Elaine Luria. Youngkin played a public role on the midterm campaign trail in Virginia, stumping with GOP candidates in hopes of bolstering them on the ballot.  

But Republicans were only able to oust Luria, even though she outperformed McAuliffe’s 2021 performance in the district. The 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the 7th state Senate district won by Rouse, was redrawn in a way that favored Republicans.  

“It’s a wakeup call to suggest that the Youngkin election has not been followed by this period of Republican success,” Holsworth said.  

On top of the political setbacks, Youngkin will also have to contend with a Democratic Senate, which will likely block a number of his key policy proposals, including a 15 week ban on abortion in the state.  

“They were going to have trouble in the legislative no matter what. I think this now really complicates Youngkin having many sort of victories that will appeal to a Republican base,” Holsworth said. “The abortion ban is dead. That will go nowhere.” 

Youngkin’s allies argue that Rouse’s win doesn’t have that big of an impact on the governor.  

“Virginia is not Florida; it’s not another red state,” said one Virginia GOP strategist. “The governor was always going to have to get one Democrat vote, now he’s going to have to get two.”  

“His brand has always been bringing people together to get things done,” the strategist continued. “Now you’re going to see him show off, really, what helped him win in 2021.”  

The governor echoed this sentiment in his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday and pushed for a number of initiatives, including lowering taxes, combatting learning loss as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and proposing a 15 week ban on abortion.  

“For the commonwealth, accelerating means getting more done and doing it faster, and Virginians don’t have time for political posturing or foot-dragging,” the governor said.  

Youngkin continues to enjoy a decent approval rating in Virginia. A Roanoke College poll released last month showed the governor with a 52 percent approval rating — though it also showed his disapproval rating at 41 percent, a notable increase from his 35 percent disapproval rating in the same poll from August.  

“Youngkin’s going to have a lot of money. He’s a very successful fundraiser,” Holsworth said. “He’s going to try to use those resources to flip a few seats in the Senate while keeping the House.”  

However, the loss could signal a tough road ahead of November for Republicans in the purple state. 

“Tuesday night’s result shows that Virginia’s state legislative elections will be incredibly challenging in 2023, but Virginia Republicans are no strangers to defying the odds and winning tough fights,” said Mason Di Palma, deputy communications director at the Republican State Leadership Committee. “We’re confident that the voters will reward Virginia Republicans as they continue to deliver on their campaign promises to cut taxes, strengthen their education system, and protect their communities.”

And despite what is likely to be a halt on his abortion ban, anti-abortion groups remain staunchly behind Youngkin and Republicans, despite Rouse making abortion rights a central issue in his campaign.  

“If the Democrats make a choice to block those bills or not allow a vote on those bills, we’re going to make clear that they were the ones who stopped a protection for a baby that can feel pain from advancing,” said Stephen Billy, vice president of state affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.  

“Republicans didn’t lose on this issue Tuesday, and they didn’t lose on this issue in the midterms,” Billy said. “Gov. Youngkin should take away the fact that pro-life governors who sign strong laws got reelected.”  

But Democrats have telegraphed that they plan to hit Republicans on abortion going into November. The White House even congratulated Rouse on his victory this week, citing his stance on abortion access.  

“He made his campaign clear about the choice Americans across the country have between extreme MAGA Republican policies that will take away women’s ability to make their own health care decisions and Democrats focused on expanding access to reproductive care and lowering costs for American families,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “It’s not just in Virginia. This was of course a critical issue in the midterm elections.”  

Ultimately, Virginia’s General Assembly elections in November could prove to be a significant test for Youngkin’s political brand.

“This is so important to his future that he has to be out there,” Holsworth said.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Aaron Rouse abortion rights Glenn Youngkin Glenn Youngkin Jen Kiggans Virginia special state Senate election

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