With the two front-runners for the Republican nomination, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, constantly competing to be more rightwing and polarizing than the other, it is wise to look to the rest of the Republican field to see if there are more electable candidates who – while polling well behind the frontrunners – potentially have broader national appeal than either Trump or DeSantis.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – as a successful governor, a compelling United Nations ambassador and a woman of color – would be an enormously attractive general election candidate, as would her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott. Scott, is one of the few Republican candidates running on an aspirational platform that is both optimistic and inclusive. Given his compelling personal story and affirmative view of American life and values, he would be very appealing to the national electorate.
Beyond Haley and Scott, there is one person who could potentially galvanize the Republican electorate, though he is not now in the race, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin’s upset win over Former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2021 – after Biden won the state by 10 percentage points one year before – made him the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade. He got elected by avoiding Trumpian style politics – without directly denouncing Trump or his voters – and running a center-right campaign centered on quality-of-life issues like the economy, public safety, education and personal freedoms, which is precisely what Republicans need to do at the national level to remain viable.
Youngkin’s national polling numbers are particularly remarkable. A survey conducted earlier this year – which looked at hypothetical general election matchups between Biden and a series of potential Republican challengers – found Youngkin ahead of Biden by 16 points, 55 percent to 39 percent. Comparatively, DeSantis led Biden by only 5 points (48 percent to 43 percent), while Trump trailed Biden, 46 percent to 47 percent.
Further, despite Virginia’s light blue tilt, Youngkin is relatively popular in his home state. According to University of Roanoke polling, 51 percent of Virginia voters approve of Youngkin’s job performance, which is 9 points higher than Biden’s approval rating in the state. Further, while a plurality of Virginia voters (46 percent) view Youngkin favorably, majorities have an unfavorable view of both Biden (52 percent) and Trump (63 percent). The Virginia governor is also more popular than both Biden and Trump with independent voters.
The real test of Youngkin’s national viability will be in Virginia’s elections this year, which will be closely watched as a harbinger of the trends that could play out in swing states in 2024. In this week’s primaries, Youngkin endorsed 10 candidates for the state House and Senate, all of whom won their respective races, giving the state GOP a unified front ahead of the November general election.
Youngkin has hinted that he may have ambitions beyond the Old Dominion, though for now he is insisting that his focus is on only Virginia. But people close to the governor have suggested otherwise. Last month, Youngkin’s political team tweeted a video with the caption, “It’s time to usher in a new era of American values. It’s our turn to choose life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Further, a source close to Youngkin recently told Axios that, “He’s reconsidering. He’d be in his own lane: He’s not never-Trump and he’s not Trump-light.”
That latter characterization was a thinly veiled swipe at DeSantis, who, following his historically strong performance in last year’s governor’s race, seemed well-positioned to lead his party in 2024. But DeSantis has been less successful at bringing Republican voters nationally into his fold, and his hard-right pivot on hot-button cultural issues – in an apparent effort to emulate Trump – has alienated the traditional Republicans who were once drawn to him. He now trails Trump by an average of 31-points in national primary polls, and a growing number of big donors have backed away from supporting him.
While both DeSantis and Youngkin are popular governors of swing states, consider how their styles differ: Both men have waged culture war fights on hot-button issues like critical race theory, yet Youngkin does so in a tempered but still forward-looking fashion, avoiding the angry, grievance-centered rants that are staples of DeSantis’s (and Trump’s) campaigns. Youngkin also picks high-profile fights over issues that directly impact his constituents – i.e., giving parents more say over what their children are taught in schools – while DeSantis is all about creating a national spectacle, as evidenced by his sweeping “Don’t Say Gay” agenda and his ongoing feud with Disney.
Further, the passage of DeSantis’s overreaching conservative agenda has been facilitated by a GOP-controlled state legislature, while Youngkin has notched several notable wins with a Democratic-controlled state Senate. Youngkin passed a two-year budget that contained a major tax cut, increased funding for education, gave teachers raises and boosted funding for law enforcement. There is the notable exception, however, of Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban, which – despite being one of the least draconian proposals put forward by a Republican governor, and thus not something that would necessarily sink him in a national campaign – was defeated by Virginia Democrats.
This is not to say that Youngkin’s road to the Republican nomination would be smooth. Trump’s grip on the GOP base remains intact – despite facing two criminal indictments and the possibility of additional charges in Georgia for attempting to steal the 2020 election and federally for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot – and he leads virtually every national and state poll.
And despite a less-than-stellar start to his campaign, DeSantis is the only other candidate polling in the double-digits, is popular with Republican voters and has a massive campaign war chest, with an allied Super PAC planning to spend $100 million on voter outreach in the four early states.
Realistically, the resonance of Trump’s angry rightwing populist message suggests that there is little room for a traditional conservative like Youngkin to break through in today’s GOP field.
That said, if Trump and DeSantis bludgeon each other into political oblivion – or more likely, if Trump’s mounting legal problems render him unable to seek public office – the Republican Party would be wise to strongly consider Glenn Youngkin.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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