RICHMOND, Va. – Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has used his first two weeks in office to push Virginia firmly to the right, attempting a dramatic political shift in a state once considered reliably Democratic that's being closely watched by others in the GOP.
In his opening days, the new governor issued executive orders methodically checking off his top campaign promises. The orders undermined classroom mask mandates, aimed to restrict how students are taught about racism, approved an investigation into a wealthy suburban Washington school district that's become a national symbol for battles over so-called parents' rights, and attempted to scrap Virginia's participation in a carbon-limiting initiative meant to combat climate change.
Youngkin has also expanded the duties of a state diversity officer created by his Democratic predecessor to include being an “ambassador for unborn children” as Virginia dropped its opposition before the Supreme Court to a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“That has ruffled some feathers on the other side," said Republican state House Speaker Todd Gilbert, crediting Youngkin for sticking to his word. “I think they didn’t believe him that he was going to try to see through those things.”
It hasn't all gone smoothly. The governor’s order weakening school mask mandates has been challenged in court. Many large school districts have refused to comply with Youngkin's order, citing a Virginia law approved last year that says classroom policy should defer to federal guidance, which still calls for masking.
How Youngkin reacts will have profound implications for the governor himself — there's already intense buzz he could seek higher office — and national Republicans who see him as a more palatable conservative alternative to former President Donald Trump. Democrats counter that Youngkin has taken a divisive approach in an attempt to appeal to the GOP's far right, the kind of thing that would delight Trump's base in a state that rejected the former president.
“This is not Texas,” the House of Delegates' Democratic leader, Eileen Filler-Corn, said on the chamber floor Friday. “Virginians will remember the first two weeks of the Youngkin administration and the overreach.”
Even some in Youngkin's own party are wary.
The executive orders were “fulfilling campaign promises. They were certainly very fast-paced and ill-advised,” said David Ramadan, a former Republican member of the Virginia House who endorsed Youngkin's opponent, Terry McAuliffe, and is now at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and a resident scholar at the University of Virginia's Center of Politics.
The political whiplash has already been acute. Youngkin's November win shook up a state that was seen as reliably blue in presidential races since it backed Barack Obama in 2008.
His efforts also follow Democrats controlling both chambers of the Virginia statehouse and governorship over the past two years. In that time, they abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana and expanded LGBTQ and voting rights. Many statues celebrating the Confederacy — even in its old capital — were also removed as part of the state's reckoning with its history of slavery and racism.
Republicans hadn’t won statewide office since 2009 before Youngkin's upset victory, which was only by 2 percentage points — about a fifth of Joe Biden's 2020 margin over Trump. Tom Davis, a former moderate Republican congressman who long represented northern Virginia's fast-growing, heavily Democratic Washington suburbs, said Youngkin's win could have been the result of voters' giving Democrats “a little bit of pushback” for how far left they tried to move the state.
“I think he's stayed within the mainstream,” Davis said of Youngkin.
National Republicans are already holding up Youngkin as a model for conservative candidates elsewhere. They've highlighted his success at attracting Trump supporters without alienating moderates.
“The fact that voters turned out, and that Glenn was able to create the coalition that he did, is going to be a success going into this year and of course builds momentum for everyone up and down the ballot across the country,” said Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.
Youngkin could even offer an alternative to Trump as soon as the 2024 GOP presidential primary — despite a field likely to be crowded with more experienced gubernatorial colleagues, including Ron DeSantis of Florida. Youngkin might offer much of the former president's hard-line conservativism, the thinking goes, without the same hard personal edges.
“He came in on a positive note during a divisive time in politics and that’s appealing to people,” said Alice Stewart, a Virginia-based Republican strategist. She worked for Mike Huckabee when he was governor of Arkansas and speculation built that he could run for the 2008 presidential nomination — and he did, ultimately winning the Iowa caucuses.
“You’ll have people from all sides — whether they want to just talk about it or profit off it — discussing him as a possible candidate," Stewart said of Youngkin.
Youngkin, who didn't agree to an interview, says he will serve all four years as governor, despite the building buzz. Still, he raised about $2.2 million in around six weeks before even taking office, despite being barred by state law from seeking consecutive terms.
In other early steps, the governor has met with higher-education leaders, including the heads of historically Black colleges and universities, to discuss his legislative push to expand school choice. And Youngkin faces an early test over whether he can secure legislative approval for a controversial Cabinet pick: Andrew Wheeler, who was Trump's Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Republicans retook the state House in November, but Democrats still hold Virginia's Senate. Youngkin, who often starts his days at the office before sunrise, quickly began contacting Democratic members of the legislature as governor-elect, vowing to be a unifier.
Democrats have been especially harsh in their criticism of Youngkin's first executive order, which attempts to root out elements of the academic framework known as critical race theory, or any “inherent divisive concept.” On the House floor, Democratic Del. Don Scott questioned whether Youngkin was a man of faith — prompting the governor to take the unusual step of visiting the lawmaker’s office for a closed-door meeting that lasted about a half-hour.
Another Democrat who attended part of the meeting, Del. Lamont Bagby, said it was cordial and productive.
But in interviews with conservative media, Youngkin has sometimes taken a sharper tone. During a recent radio interview, he criticized teachers unions and “left-liberals.” And Youngkin told “Fox News Sunday” that “Virginians spoke loudly, they want a new direction and this is what we delivered on Day 1.”
Critics like Senate Democratic caucus chair Mamie Locke took issue with the governor's aggressive approach to executive orders and other early steps, such as the firing of the entire state parole board, which had faced criticism for accelerated, and sometimes chaotic, inmate releases at the start of the pandemic.
“That’s not the way you start out saying, ‘I’m going to hand you the right hand of fellowship,’ as they say in the Baptist church,” Locke said.
Weissert reported from Washington.