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Schapiro: '24 may be Youngkin's first, best and last chance for president

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Election 2022 Wisconsin Governor

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin attended a rally last month in Waukesha, Wis., to support Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels. Michels lost to Gov. Tony Evers. in Waukesha, Wis. Michels lost to Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

As goes Maine, so goes Connecticut, New York, Michigan, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Arizona.

These are the 10 states where Gov. Glenn Youngkin, as part of his audition for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, campaigned for losing candidates for governor. They were a menagerie of MAGA election-deniers, the rare comparative centrist, a perceived bigot and other hopeless causes. As a consolation prize, each got a souvenir red vest from the guy whose own didn’t have coattails.

In five other states where it was in Youngkin’s vest interest to plump for gubernatorial candidates, Republicans were victorious: Nebraska, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Nevada. Not that they needed help. Republicans were favorites — even in Nevada, a pickup. It was attributed to fury over the economic shocks of the pandemic, from which Nevada’s casinos are recovering, but not soon enough to save the only governor denied reelection this year.

At home — when Youngkin was home — he splashed for three congressional candidates in Northern Virginia and South Hampton Roads. Two lost, testifying to Youngkin’s inability to graft to their campaigns the performance and popularity he achieved in all or part of their districts in 2021. The notable casualty: Yesli Vega, running in a district anchored in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., to become the first Hispanic woman from Virginia elected to Congress.

Had she won, Youngkin — narrowly elected with the first Black woman and first Hispanic to win statewide here — would get props for further diversifying his party, one dominated by older, conservative white males, many of them rural and whose enthusiasm for Donald Trump was exceeded by that for Youngkin. All Vega got was a damn vest.

Ahead of Virginia’s midterm elections in 2023 that could accelerate Youngkin’s descent into lame-duckdom should they produce another divided legislature or, worse, one again ruled by Democrats, he shows no sign of retreating from his flirtation with national office.

Can you blame him?

Campaigns are about convincing voters a candidate’s personal ambition is in the public’s interest. This is why politics is described as Hollywood for ugly people. And borrowing a flourish from George Will, who used it describe Carhartt-wearing Democrat John Fetterman, if synthetic authenticity — as symbolized by Youngkin’s fleece vest — charmed Virginia, why shouldn’t it beguile the rest of the nation?

Presumably this is what Youngkin is hearing from the consultants who see the multimillionaire former private equity investor as a self-financing gravy train and the mega-donors who consider him one of their own.

Even as Donald Trump plunges into a third presidential campaign — after taking a racially tinged swing at Youngkin for his supposed ingratitude for 45 mobilizing the MAGA vote on his behalf — 2024 may be Youngkin’s first, best and last chance for the White House. Were he to give all to his day job — as a majority of voters told a Roanoke College poll in August he should — he could leave the governorship in 2026 and run in 2028 potentially as a successful Republican with blue-state appeal.

Problem is the presidency could be out of reach.

That’s because there might be a Republican president, having been elected in 2024 over Joe Biden or whoever the Democrats run. And he or she — assuming it’s not Trump, who, barring another attempted coup, would be constitutionally ineligible for a third term — would be readying for a re-election campaign in 2028.

Bob Holsworth, the longtime Virginia political analyst, calls this Youngkin’s “timetable challenge.”

It’s where things get hinky for His Excellency.

Trump announced for 2024 in 2022 not just to get a jump on the competition for the Republican nomination but to somehow short-circuit federal and state criminal investigations of his various alleged misdeeds.

Youngkin would have to say something definitive in 2023, if only through a de facto declaration in the guise of a presidential fundraising committee through a mandatory filing with the Federal Election Commission. But 2023 is also the year in which General Assembly elections could make or break his governorship.

It’s bad enough that Republican candidates for the legislature will have to again answer for Trump, as they did in 2017 and 2019, when Virginians’ hostility for the then-president initially narrowed and ultimately ended two decades of almost-absolute GOP control of the General Assembly. Momentum for Youngkin helped Republicans take back the House in 2021.

Some Republicans have started distancing themselves from Trump. The first: Del. Tim Anderson of Virginia Beach, a MAGA-esque lawyer who, because of redistricting, faces a primary with a longtime incumbent from the Eastern Shore, Rob Bloxom. Maybe Anderson aims to distinguish himself from Bloxom by dissing Trump?

A Youngkin presidential candidacy, if only as a favorite-son bid, could offer apron strings behind which Republicans could hide through the Virginia midterms — an idea floated by Holsworth at a post-election conference Tuesday.

But that’s perilous for Youngkin and General Assembly Republicans. It’s an in-your-face reminder to Virginians that the governor they elected to a single non-renewable term puts, with the consent of legislative enablers, his ego-driven hankering ahead of his sworn obligation. Virginia voters may be dumb. They are not stupid.

Further, Youngkin must demonstrate there is more to his national potential than the murmurings of paid operatives who leak to Fox News.

He will have to spend more time out of state, demonstrating measurable grassroots support. Youngkin’s continuing absence in Richmond will feed the narrative — and resentment — that he’s a part-time governor. And national press attention could focus on his preoccupation with cultural issues: restricting abortion, whitewashing Virginia’s troubled history and demonizing the tiny minority of trans school kids.

Voters beyond Virginia’s borders will learn what those here are finally figuring out: That Youngkin campaigned as the friendly next-door neighbor but he governs like a prep-school bully.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.

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