Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin works at his desk inside his private office at the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

You may have blocked this from your memory, but there was a time when Democrats thought they could work with Donald Trump. During that brief period between his 2016 election and his 2017 inauguration, Senators Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown all spoke of potential common ground on infrastructure, trade, and other issues. 

Then, on Trump’s seventh full day in office, he signed the so-called Muslim ban, an executive order temporarily banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries—as well as refugees from anywhere—from entering the United States. The sudden and swift action triggered immediate street protests and even demonstrations at airports. Any doubt was erased: Trump would be a divider, not a unifier. 

Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new Republican governor, didn’t have the courtesy to wait seven days.

Within hours of being inaugurated, Youngkin issued several executive orders, including a ban on local mask mandates in public and private schools. Democrats argued that Youngkin didn’t have the authority to hamstring public schools, because state law directs public school boards of education to follow COVID-19 mitigation guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In turn, more than three dozen school districts—including those in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun Counties—said they will keep their mask mandates in place. 

Upon hearing of the pushback, on his first full day in office, Youngkin shot back, “They haven’t listened to parents yet … We will use every resource within the governor’s authority to explore what we can do and will do in order to make sure that parents’ rights are protected.” His lieutenant governor, Winsome Earle-Sears, delivered a pointed threat during a Fox News interview: “There are certain combinations of monies that we send … to the local school boards, and he could withhold some of that.”

As with Trump five years ago, Youngkin has deliberately chosen to begin his tenure with a divisive tone. This should worry not only Virginians, but also Republicans who hoped that Youngkin would provide a model for how to win back the suburbs and flip blue states. 

Conservatives, of course, are cheering Youngkin, insisting that he just “did what he said he would do.” However, when it comes to local school mask mandates, that is not accurate. 

Last summer, right after the previous gubernatorial administration announced the statewide school mask mandate, Youngkin declared his opposition. At the same, he rejected a statewide ban on local mandates, signaling that he would not follow the lead of seven states with conservative governors, most notably Florida’s pugnacious Ron DeSantis. TheWashington Post reported that “a Youngkin spokesman … said he would not go quite as far as DeSantis, claiming that as governor, Youngkin would leave the policy decision about masks up to local school districts and ‘strongly encourage’ them to let individual parents decide.” Youngkin reiterated this position shortly after his election, telling WRIC-TV, “Localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works.” So much for that.

In defending his policy now, Youngkin is claiming to be the one listening to parents. But in September, most Virginia parents—and most Virginians in general—told pollsters they supported the statewide school mask mandate. This was shortly after the mandate went into effect and when Virginia’s daily average of COVID-19 cases was about one-sixth of today’s level. A Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Virginia’s registered voters were in favor of the mandate. Monmouth University reported a similar 67 percent support among registered voters, and 64 percent among parents. I’m guessing Youngkin did not conduct a fresh survey of parents, in the midst of the biggest COVID-19 surge yet, to see if those numbers had changed. 

Not only is Youngkin flip-flopping on banning local school mask mandates, and not only is he lacking a political—and perhaps legal—mandate to ban local school mask mandates, but he is also betraying his campaign persona.

It’s one thing to issue a policy that some local school districts resist. It’s quite another to browbeat them publicly and threaten to cut their funding. A governor looking to unite his state would have set a tone of civil disagreement, offered to meet with school officials to better understand each other’s views, and assured that the judicial process could resolve any differing interpretations of legal authority. Instead, Youngkin, with the help of Earle-Sears, chose to be a bully. He might not follow through and cut school funding—he might not have the power to cut school funding—but the threat is there to intimidate and make school districts think twice about defying him.

The fleece-wearing, aw-shucks Youngkin didn’t campaign as a Trumpian bully. As I noted in October, he won with testimonials from registered Democrats assuring that he would not polarize. “I’m tired of seeing my neighbors demonize each other over politics. Haven’t we had enough division?” one Democratic voter said in an ad. “Politics are being put before children,” complained another about the Democratic administration in Richmond. But when Youngkin threatens to cut school funds over a policy disagreement, he is the one putting politics before children. 

This isn’t how Youngkin eked out 50.6 percent of the vote in a state that hasn’t supported a Republican for president or senator in 14 years. And this doesn’t look like a model for repeating the feat. 

But remember, Virginia has a unique one-term gubernatorial term limit. Youngkin can’t run for reelection in 2025. 

But he could run for something else in 2024. Maybe Tim Kaine’s U.S. Senate seat? If so, Youngkin would need to win statewide again, and would be more inclined to follow a moderate path. But if his eye is on the presidency, then his play-to-the-base actions make political sense. Still, his pugilism won’t point the path forward for his party to win back blue states. 

Democrats were stunned by Youngkin’s win, and many a hot take burned the party for misplaying education and stumbling into a myriad of culture war minefields. But two can lose a culture war. Youngkin’s I-know-best mandate ban has all the hallmarks of a misread mandate and classic overreach. 

After seeing the number of school districts snub his executive order, Youngkin may have belatedly come to that conclusion. On January 22nd, Youngkin sought to lower the temperature with a Twitter post: “While the legal process continues on the parental opt out of mask mandates for their children in schools, I urge everyone to love your neighbor, to listen to school principals, and to trust the legal process.” Is this Youngkin recognizing he risks losing his ability to unite Virginians after just one week in office? Or is this akin to those periodic sterile-sounding Trump tweets we all knew he didn’t write himself and wouldn’t have any bearing on his policies? 

In any event, Democrats should no longer assume that Youngkin has his finger on the pulse of the electorate. On the contrary, they should see the new governor as a useful foil to remind the public which party really believes in local control and can be most trusted to protect our health. 

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.