Trump on trial, DeSantis wilting: But don’t expect Glenn Youngkin to be the Republicans’ 2024 white knight

Admirers – said to include Rupert Murdoch – want the Virginia governor to throw his hat in the ring this election cycle. But there are plenty of good reasons why he won’t writes John Bowden

Thursday 31 August 2023 22:41 BST
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Glenn Youngkin is sworn in as governor of Virginia in January 2022
Glenn Youngkin is sworn in as governor of Virginia in January 2022 (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The Republican establishment already has a multitude of alternatives to Donald Trump to choose from. So why are they still looking for another one?

That’s the question that Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin is probably pondering after a whirlwind few weeks of buzz in the DC press prodding him to enter the crowded GOP field.

Mr Youngkin, who is limited under state law to one term, has also garnered speculation about a possible Senate run. But he has repeatedly refused to entertain the idea of a late entrance into the race.

"I’ve said over and over again how humbling it is to even talk about my name in this context, but I am so focused on Virginia elections this year,” he told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo this week.

But that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill — or maybe more accurately, the hopium-huffing — from proceeding ahead at full steam.

First there was that Axios piece in May reporting that Mr Youngkin was “reconsidering” a bid for the presidency. Then, in mid-August, a report from The Washington Post detailing how Fox bigwig Rupert Murdoch had personally pressed Mr Youngkin to run during face-to-face meetings in June. Finally, a poll from Virginia’s Roanoke College this week surveyed voters in the state and found that Mr Youngkin was currently polling third in a state that he currently represents as governor.

Enough! That last bit should be a wake-up call to pundits, Republican donors and/or whoever else is pining for Mr Youngkin or frankly anyone to enter the GOP primary field at this late in the game and “save” the Republican Party from running a prosecution-plagued Donald Trump in 2024.

The 56-year-old Youngkin was swept to victory last year over a close ally of the Clinton family, Terry McAuliffe — who himself had already served one term as governor. In Virginia, individuals may serve multiple terms only as long as they are not consecutive. Voters, however, weren’t on board for Mr McAuliffe’s attempted revival of his political career, and delivered Republicans a sense of confidence that would go on to be shattered in the November midterm elections.

Since taking office, Youngkin has charted a more moderate course than some other GOP governors, while remaining an ally of right-wing activists who have sought to influence school curriculums and ban books mentioning LGBT+ material. Most recently, he has floated adding Virginia to the list of states with restrictions on abortion that would not have been possible under the protections of Roe vs Wade.

But his future as a presidential candidate, at least this cycle, is dim for almost too many reasons to count. Let’s examine the two biggest:

First, and most obviously, Donald Trump is not going anywhere. In that same poll mentioned above, Mr Trump was steamrolling his rivals with the support of 47 per cent of likely Republican voters. For context, that’s more than three times the support registered for Ron DeSantis, his closest rival.

Republican primary voters have shown no signs of breaking from Mr Trump unless the former president himself decides to drop out of the race. His polling dominance has only solidified as he has come under four separate criminal indictments this year, despite wailing from GOP elites and other candidates that the ex-president has too much baggage to win a general election.

Secondly, there’s the issue of Mr Trump’s competition. There remain about a dozen other candidates for the Republican nomination — many of them well known, like Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. All of them, without exception, would have months’ worth of an on-the-ground advantage over Mr Youngkin or anyone else who chose to enter the race now. Early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire could be entirely out of reach, putting the campaign in the unenviable position of working for a come-from-behind victory.

Kyle Kondik, the Virginia political guru who serves as managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, agreed that Mr Youngkin would be at a massive organisational disadvantage were he to begin campaigning in September.

“Filing deadlines for the primaries start in November. He would have a ton of work to do and would need a lot of breaks to become a leading candidate if he did in fact enter the race,” Mr Kondik told The Independent.

Mr Youngkin does not yet have a national brand among Republicans, Mr Kondik explained, meaning that the governor would have to start at the very beginning and introduce himself to the electorate.

“It’s not obvious to me that Youngkin would immediately become a top contender if Trump were vastly weakened. I don’t think Youngkin is all that established among national rank-and-file GOP voters – if he were to become a major factor in the race, he would have to grow his support significantly as an actual candidate,” he said.

All the times Donald Trump was mentioned by the GOP candidates

“Donors may like Youngkin a lot, but I don’t think there’s a ton of grassroots demand for him out there,” Mr Kondik added.

The lesson for the GOP establishment in 2024 may end up being very similar to the one the Republican primary electorate tried to teach them in 2016: their voters, by and large, do not care about electability concerns and have grown increasingly attached to figures like Mr Trump whom they see as wronged or maligned by the powers that be. There isn’t going to be a “white knight” not because there are no viable candidates out there; the GOP electorate simply does not want one.

And why would a candidate with any sense jump in the race under the banner of being some GOP power brokers’ answer to Donald Trump? Doing so would immediately open that individual up to relentless attacks from Trumpworld, the kind of attacks that would make building such a national brand on one’s own terms all the more difficult.

Donald Trump’s legal problems may very well end up becoming too much for him to bear along with a campaign for the presidency next year. Or, they may not — and the GOP could be left in total disarray in the middle of election season without a viable standard-bearer. But one thing is abundantly clear for now: this is Mr Trump’s primary to lose, and everyone else is just fighting for the leftovers.

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