In contrast to his campaign persona as a genial, fleece-wearing dad, newly elected Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has spent his first few weeks in office as a MAGA warrior.
His day-one executive orders canceled school mask mandates and banned the teaching of “critical race theory.” He established a snitchy tip line for citizens’ “reports and observations” of “divisive practices” in the classroom. He nominated Donald Trump–aligned figures to populate his administration, such as the former Trump EPA chief (and coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler. And he unleashed savage Trump-style Twitter attacks on perceived enemies of his agenda.
These moves have not gone over well in a purple state that has elected pragmatic moderates like U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and that gave Joe Biden a 10-point win in the 2020 presidential election.
A majority of the Commonwealth’s public school districts, comprising a majority of the state’s students, have defied his mask order. Seven districts have sued to block it (though a pending bill in the Virginia legislature may soon render the suit moot). TikTokers have spammed his tip line with prank complaints, and the Virginia Senate nixed his bid to install Wheeler as the state’s top environmental officer, making him the first cabinet pick of any governor, Republican or Democrat, to be rejected by the legislature since 2006. One of his Twitter victims also turned out to be a teenager, and Youngkin is now under fire for revealing the 17-year-old’s full name and photo. Doxxing is not a good look for someone who ran as Mr. Nice.
There’s a simple explanation for the resistance Youngkin faces: This is Virginia, not Texas. The 55-year-old cannot run as an aw-shucks Republican and then try to govern like Florida’s Ron DeSantis. Case in point: When Youngkin recently ventured to the grocery store, a fellow shopper confronted him for being the only unmasked customer in the checkout line. After Youngkin defended himself as “making choices,” the woman shot back, “Yeah, look around you, Governor, you’re in Alexandria. Read the room, buddy!” A video of the encounter has so far racked up more than 4 million views.
Youngkin has indeed failed to “read the room,” mistaking his narrow win as a mandate for Trumpism in a state that has, at most, become a deeper shade of purple. His attempts to remake the Commonwealth into a southern South Dakota will end in frustration, thanks to a closely divided legislature and a skeptical electorate in heavily Democratic northern Virginia.
Rather than doubling down on a highly polarizing culture war where any “victory” will likely be pyrrhic, Youngkin should try to capitalize on his well-run campaign and credentials as a Harvard MBA and private equity CEO to make real progress on the abundance of challenges facing Virginia.
While the state is far from the economic basket case that Youngkin claimed it to be during his campaign, growth has been uneven—which the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated. Loudoun, Arlington, and Fairfax Counties in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., are three of the 10 wealthiest counties in America, with median household incomes as high as $142,000 a year (Loudoun), yet nearly 40 percent of Virginia residents earn less than the “basic cost of living for the state,” according to a 2020 report by the United Ways in Virginia. These citizens struggle to afford food, housing, and other necessities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income inequality in the state is rising, and Virginia ranks among the top half of states as far as the gap between rich and poor.
The hardships are especially prevalent in rural southwest Virginia, where Youngkin racked up his highest margins and which has seen steep job losses in recent decades with the decline of manufacturing, tobacco, and mining. One analysis found that from 1990 to 2016 farm employment dropped by 22 percent, while mining and manufacturing jobs plummeted by nearly half. In places like Buchanan County, Virginia, on the Kentucky border, the 2019 (pre-pandemic) poverty rate was 23.7 percent, more than double the national rate.
It’s telling that in October, outgoing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam announced the construction of a medical glove factory in rural Wythe County that could eventually employ 2,500 workers. Northam called the development “the biggest job creation announcement in the struggling region in a generation,” which gives a sense of how desperate the area is for an economic jolt. Youngkin, the former CEO of the Carlyle Group and a Virginia native, should be hustling jobs for Virginia’s Trump country instead of hunting down teachers in the Democratic suburbs.
To his credit, the legislative priorities Youngkin unveiled his first day in office did include new funding for workforce development and partnerships with employers to offer job training. These measures should marginally improve workers’ skills, better qualifying them for well-paying jobs —if they’re available. But the rest of Youngkin’s job creation menu is knee-jerk, trickle-down fare—tax cuts that experts say would gut essential services—along with a pledge to crack down on unions. He needs a much more sophisticated plan to build “Silicon Hollers,” as Kentucky Republican Representative Hal Rogers puts it, when bringing tech jobs to his district. He could quietly adopt his Democratic opponent and former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s aggressive courting of businesses across the country and overseas.
It’s too much to expect that when it comes to education, Youngkin will abandon his phony attacks on critical race theory—which, as has been exhaustively documented, isn’t taught in Virginia’s primary and secondary public schools. A blanket statement that he wants American history to be taught with warts and all should be enough. He recently issued a Black History Month proclamation that was perfectly fine. That’s the kind of tone he should take.
Better to put his policy muscle behind the fundamentals that parents care about. Pandemic-induced online learning was a catastrophe for many Virginia students, as it was for kids around the country. Just 54 percent of Virginia’s students passed the 2020–21 statewide Standards of Learning in math, a 28 percent drop from the year before, while 59 percent of students got passing marks in science and 69 percent passed reading. In Fairfax County—a crown jewel of Virginia’s public school system—11 percent of middle and high school students received two or more Fs in the first quarter of 2020–21, an 83 percent increase over the prior year. Nationally, students finished the last school year about five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, said an analysis by McKinsey.
Youngkin should have a plan for overcoming these gaps. And he should get back to things he campaigned on, like hiking teacher pay and reducing class size. Unfortunately, however, Youngkin’s current education plan—with its fixation on the CRT boogeyman—seems focused on limiting what students learn, versus elevating their capacities. And he is aggressively pushing for charters instead of strengthening existing public schools, essentially encouraging parents to undermine their local schools by opting out. (In another failure to “read the room”—or the classroom, in this case—the Virginia Senate has already killed his charter plan.)
Youngkin’s education appointments are also a mixed bag. While his choice of the data guru Aimee Guidera as education secretary has won bipartisan plaudits, his other top picks are best known for their breathless opposition to nonexistent CRT curricula and modest LGBTQ rights. Youngkin’s superintendent of instruction, Jillian Balow (who held the same job in Wyoming), endorsed anti-CRT legislation in back in Cheyenne, arguing that “K–12 classrooms are not an appropriate forum for radical political theory such as CRT.” According to one Wyoming news outlet’s analysis of teaching materials in Natrona County schools (the second-biggest district in Wyoming), the “curriculum includes just three references to the word slavery or slaves—all in the same section for eighth-grade students. The word ‘racism’ does not appear in the curriculum once.”
Youngkin’s other top education pick, the former Fairfax County school board member Elizabeth Schultz, wrote an op-ed decrying the “infiltration” of CRT into Virginia schools and opposed the inclusion of gender identity and transgender issues in both the county’s sex ed curriculum and its anti-discrimination policy. She was the sole dissenting voice and later lost reelection in 2019.
Rational Republicans and disaffected Democrats supported Youngkin hoping that he’d be the vanguard of a saner, post-Trump version of the GOP. He was, for instance, adamantly pro-vaccination but opposed mask mandates—which is becoming the preferred position of governors, blue and red, across the country. But the Biden-Youngkin voters who put him in the governor’s mansion in Richmond have reason to feel fleeced by the man in fleece.
Youngkin is no doubt aiming for national office, unable to run for reelection in 2025 because of Virginia’s unique no-successive-term rule for governors. The conventional wisdom is that leaning rightward would strengthen Youngkin’s hand in a GOP presidential primary.
But that’s as shortsighted as it is cynical. In a state as blue as Virginia, he can’t rack up a record as conservative as Texas’s Greg Abbott or South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, each of whom might also seek the Oval Office. Youngkin is probably better off running like Mitt Romney or George W. Bush—as a popular, get-things-done governor with enough liberal bona fides to win over Democratic and minority voters. A record of gridlock, failed conservative policies and barking over CRT probably isn’t good for Youngkin—and it certainly isn’t good for those of us living in his Virginia.