Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is a rising star for the national GOP. But his growing popularity and speculated presidential bid could suffer a setback Tuesday if local Democrats have the Election Day success they’re predicting.
As every seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate are on the ballot this year, Youngkin and Republicans have concentrated efforts on maintaining their House majority and flipping the upper chamber red.
Democrats, though, say they’re “cautiously optimistic” about their outcomes next week.
Youngkin used the same phrase in August to describe his attitude about Republicans’ odds at the time. The governor also said his focus is on these state races, ahead of any calls from national Republicans for him to enter the 2024 presidential race.
“It’s really humbling when people talk about 2024 and a national role for me,” Youngkin told USA TODAY. “And I thank them, and then I reiterate that I’ve got a big job to do here in Virginia right now.”
His work in 2023 might soon be encouraged, though, by a handful of Democratic candidates in some of Virginia’s most competitive Senate races.
Democrats in Youngkin’s target races stay optimistic
Danica Roem, a current delegate and Democratic state Senate candidate, said her race in northern Virginia could be the majority decider for either party. Roem’s district was ranked the 20th-most Democratic district of 40 state Senate seats by the Virginia Public Access Projectputting her in the middle of the competition and the governor’s target list.
Another potential “tipping point seat” for state Senate control lies just west of Roem’s, where Democrat Russet Perry faces Youngkin-endorsed Republican Juan Pablo Segura.
“(Holding) the Senate hinges on me being able to win this race,” Perry said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, a professor at Christopher Newport University and research director at the school’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership, predicted Democrats have “a slight edge” in the fight for state Senate majority.
She said from her perspective there are four truly close races, including Virginia Sen. Monty Mason’s, which she described as an “intense matchup” against former sheriff and Republican JD “Danny” Diggs.
“What’s interesting about the race is that they are both trying to argue that the other is extreme,” Bromley-Trujillo said. “Mason’s saying that Diggs is an extreme Republican, Diggs is saying Mason’s an extreme Democrat, but they’re both running as moderates and also have backgrounds as moderates on a lot of issues. So it’s been kind of fascinating to watch that race unfold.”
Mason’s district in the state’s southeastern peninsula has been a “toss up” since the start of his campaign for a third Senate term, he said. It has also been another clear mark for Youngkin and the Republican caucus, Mason said.
“The governor made no bones about my district being his target. He knew that without my seat, you could not take control of the state senate,” Mason said.
Youngkin is one of the only Republicans in recent years to win the vote in Mason’s area of Virginia, although the senator said Democrats’ margins of victory there are often close.
The governor’s popularity outpaces President Joe Biden, who had a 40% job approval rating among Virginians in an August survey by Roanoke College. Through his time in office, Youngkin’s ratings with Virginians have stayed above 50%.
And Youngkin has put his favorability to use in this election cycle, stumping for Republicans in some of Virginia’s most competitive races. Earlier this month, he took the stage with current state Delegate and Republican Senate candidate Tara Durant in Fredericksburg, in eastern Virginia.
Regardless of Youngkin’s endorsement, Durant’s Democratic opponent and former Marine Joel Griffin said he’s confident heading into Election Day.
“I’m excited to have such a competitive district, because I think that’s a good representation of who we are as Virginians, and hopefully, the election night results will also guide us on to 2024,” Griffin said.
Democratic success in Virginia could be a roadblock to Youngkin’s national path
GOP donors and figures have thrown Youngkin’s name around as a 2024 presidential prospect. They’ve also poured millions into his Spirit of Virginia PAC and these state races.
Republicans’ success in 2023 would give Youngkin a national boost and a potential case for a late presidential bid, Bromley-Trujillo said. On the other hand, a poor showing from the Virginia GOP could make a dent in Youngkin’s promising profile, she said.
“I wouldn’t say it would rule him out, because he’s still a very popular Republican in the state,” Bromley-Trujillo said. “But it would definitely harm his image of being able to win over moderates or Democrats.”
Democrats outside Virginia are also keeping next year in mind heading into Tuesday, said Abhi Rahman, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee communications director.
“If you stop Glenn Youngkin in these legislative elections, he will never become president,” Rahman said.
Optimistic about her own chances next week and Democrats overall position, Roem said she doesn’t see a pathway for Youngkin to win the presidency in 2024, whatever the outcome is in Virginia.
“(Republicans) have been leveraging the ‘will he, won’t he’ narrative so that they can raise money for the state legislative races,” Roem said. “It’s purely taking advantage of the moment. And sure, he gets to build up a national profile, he needs to build up a national donor base.”
At the heart of Virginia 2023: Abortion, other key issues
Griffin said he thought of his 21-year-old daughter when deciding to enter his first run for office this year.
“I start thinking about her making her own decisions here in the next few years. And I just couldn’t sit idly by and allow that to happen,” Griffin said of his opponent’s support for additional restrictions on abortion access in the state.
Republicans in Virginia have backed Youngkin’s proposal for a 15-week abortion limit, with exceptions for rape, incest and severe medical emergencies, something he has called a “common sense” compromise.
The issue of abortion, Rahman said, is therefore “the centerpiece” of this year’s state elections.
“Virginia is the last state in the South to still have access to an abortion and regardless of what Republicans say, a ban is a ban,” he said.
Republicans in many states have struggled with abortion messaging since the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer. Bromley-Trujillo said GOP candidates in Virginia have apparently made adjustments to appeal to a more “consensus position,” such as referring to the 15-week proposal as a “limit” rather than a “ban.”
Still, the issue of abortion is a “monkey wrench for Republicans,” Bromley-Trujillo said. A poll by the Wason Center this month found just 24% of Virginians want abortion law to become more restrictive in the state and 39% support or strongly support a 15-week ban.
Next week’s election night results may signal to Republicans and Democrats in other states how voters’ appetite for abortion restrictions or access will impact 2024 national elections.
“I’m certain that abortion is going to continue to be a topic for everyone, because we’re literally talking about rights, we’re talking about reproductive rights, we’re talking about equality under the law,” Griffin said. “ These are not insignificant issues.”
Mario Yedidia, field director for the UNITE HERE labor union, said abortion has been “extraordinarily important” to the voters his group meets while canvassing in some of Virginia’s most competitive districts.
Also significant, he said, “is the bread and butter stuff.”
“It’s important not to lose sight of that fact,” Yedidia said. “Voters are whole people for whom certainly abortion is a key issue. And it’s also not the only one.”
Other top issues for voters, Yedidia said, is the economy and a rising cost of living.
Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democratic state Senate candidate in an area northwest of Richmond, said gun violence, education and housing costs are the major concerns along with abortion.
VanValkenburg’s race in a “battleground” district could be the deciding factor for control of the state Senate and the outcome of legislation around these issues, he said.
“The Senate seat is going to help dictate whether or not we continue to follow Roe v. Wade, or we see abortion bans implemented,” VanValkenburg said. “The seat is going to be the difference between, can we do more to prevent gun violence? Or are we going to see a legislature that repeats some of the actions that we’ve already taken?”