Glenn Youngkin and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night

(AP photo/Jay Paul)

By Carolyn Fiddler
November 9, 2023

Election Day 2023 has come and gone, and while there are votes to be counted, one thing is perfectly clear: Virginians unequivocally rejected Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s conservative agenda.

Reproductive rights were a main focus of Virginia’s House and Senate campaigns. Democrats sought to reassure voters that they planned to preserve abortion access in the commonwealth, and Republicans followed Youngkin’s lead in attempting to mislead voters by claiming that a 15-week abortion ban wasn’t actually a ban.

After enduring a spate of election defeats in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Republicans at the national level hoped that Youngkin had found some magical key to unlocking the secret to successful anti-abortion messaging.

Virginia Democrats were united and clear in their pro-reproductive freedom message to voters: They universally supported women’s right to make their own decisions about their own bodies and reproductive health care, and Republicans wanted to take that decision away from women and ban abortion in the commonwealth.

Further, Youngkin failed to even get his party’s candidates fully lined up behind his 15-week ban proposal. Over the course of the election cycle, several Republicans running in key districts were caught on tape confessing their desire to restrict abortion even further, or in the case of one losing Republican, “a total ban.”

And after Virginia Democrats used the issue of abortion rights to help them keep majority control of the state Senate and flip the House of Delegates, it’s clear that voters refuse to be confused by talk of so-called “reasonable limits” on reproductive freedom.

Underpinning Youngkin’s failure to crack some secret code to successful post-Roe conservative messaging is the raw political fact that, despite spending unprecedented amounts of money on legislative races, the governor’s expensive efforts to help his party win control of the Virginia General Assembly were utterly in vain.

Winning majority control of just one legislative chamber would have been sufficient for Democrats to stymie Youngkin’s conservative agenda, which includes banning abortion, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest Virginians, and diverting taxpayer dollars away from public education to fund private schools.

But losing control of both the state House and Senate to Democrats represents a serious shellacking for a Republican governor being courted by GOP megadonors as a potential presidential candidate.

Despite the fact that Youngkin banned TikTok from all state-owned phones and other electronic devices last December, Youngkin accepted $2 million from TikTok investor Jeff Yass for his PAC. Florida megadonor Thomas Peterffy gave Youngkin $3 million to play with. In all, Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has raised $30 million since its launch in 2021.

This cash went towards the more than $19 million Spirit of Virginia invested in the governor’s losing effort to win Republican majorities in both chambers.

Youngkin might have spent his election night pondering the money remaining in his campaign coffers and wondering if he should have invested more – or more strategically – in the legislative races that many political pundits believed would have catapulted him into the upper echelon of the GOP presidential field.

It’s not clear what Youngkin was up to in the 18 hours between the time polls closed in Virginia on Tuesday and 1 p.m. on Wednesday, when he finally made his first public statements about the election results.

“I’m a little disappointed,” he confessed from the steps of Virginia’s capitol building.

Youngkin also appeared to be putting his presidential ambitions to bed.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he told reporters.

Not that Youngkin’s presence or absence will have a profound impact on Virginians one way or the other.

With Democrats in full control of the General Assembly and just two years left in Youngkin’s term (he can’t run for reelection), it’s reasonable to expect that few to none of his conservative policy priorities will become law. The state budget he’s set to propose next month will be covered in red editing ink from Democrats who want to use the state’s revenue surpluses to fully fund the commonwealth’s public education needs, support improved mental health services, and reduce health insurance costs, instead of cutting the corporate tax rate and establishing a business tax cut that would primarily benefit wealthy Virginians.

And while Youngkin may hold a veto pen over Democratic legislative priorities like improved gun safety, more affordable prescription drugs, and reduced housing costs, he’s in no position at all to block these majorities from making truly enduring changes to Virginia’s laws.

Specifically, these Democratic majorities can prepare to spend the 2025 General Assembly session – Youngkin’s final year in office – passing amendments to the state constitution that protect reproductive rights, repeal the ban on gay marriage, end lifetime disenfranchisement of Virginians with felony convictions, and more. (Virginia constitutional amendments must pass both legislative chambers in two consecutive years with an election in between them: so, 2025 and 2026.)

Because sitting Virginia governors can’t run for reelection, they often lose some of their political capital and influence after their midterm elections.

But after staking his own and his party’s political hopes on failed abortion messaging and legislative majorities he failed to win, Youngkin will finish his term as a fully neutered lame duck.

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

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