With persistent chatter that he may jump into the presidential race as a sort of last-minute Trump-alternative, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has a big test in front of him that could determine his political future.
Virginia’s state house elections are coming in just a few weeks and Youngkin seems to recognize that a failure to stunt a Democratic blue wave would be a real problem if Republicans are to continue hyping him as a knight in a shining sweater vest.
Which is why Youngkin and his allies are ponying up huge dollars for these normally sleepy local races.
Sitting on more than $6 million in cash on hand for his Spirit of Virginia PAC—and raising $4 million of it from a pair of billionaires in just under two days earlier this month—Youngkin’s money machine is forking over massive sums to help Republicans retain the Virginia House of Delegates and potentially take back the Senate. (Republicans hold a 52-to-48 seat advantage in the lower chamber, and are down by three seats in the 40-member state senate.)
But just as Youngkin is going all-in, Democrats are also preparing to spend big.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the lead fundraising arm for Democrats on state legislative elections, brought in a record $16.7 million by the end of the third quarter, The Daily Beast can exclusively report. That’s more than all of 2021, when the outfit raised $15 million, and major money for an organization often overlooked by the national party apparatus and donor class.
“We’ve known since June that the Republican flood was coming, since Youngkin was very transparent about it,” Abhi Rahman, the DLCC’s communications director, told The Daily Beast.
What they didn’t know, Rahman said, was how Youngkin would hit it big late in the game with a $2 million donation from Jeff Yass, one of the biggest investors in TikTok and a longtime GOP megadonor. Yass, along with fellow GOP financier Thomas Petterfly, helped give Youngkin the $4 million shot in the arm last week.
As Virginia pollster and political science professor Stephen Farnsworth explained, Youngkin could live and die by these elections, where the winners are often decided by just hundreds of votes across a few districts.
“Youngkin is getting a lot of money for Virginia elections this fall because he’s dangling the possibility of a presidential run before would-be donors,” Farnsworth, the director of the University of Mount Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, told The Daily Beast. “So Youngkin has very much made this election his to win or lose.”
Youngkin isn’t just going to live and die by these races because of the megadonor dollars he has or hasn’t brought in; the races are also a statement on Youngkin because he played an active role in the GOP primaries this cycle, where all 10 of the candidates he endorsed across both chambers won their races.
Youngkin seems to be enjoying the hype around his potential presidential candidacy—either in 2024 or beyond. Youngkin has stayed out of the primary thus far, but he’s done little to shoot down the rumors that he could be recruited late—potentially on the Republican National Convention floor—to miraculously become the GOP’s nominee.
More likely than this fan-fiction, however, is that Youngkin isn’t squashing the rumors because he knows it raises his political fortunes more broadly. A decisive loss during these local races, however, would significantly damage the narrative that he’s any sort of savior at all.
Federal campaigns in Virginia have become among the priciest in the country, but money has been pouring in at the commonwealth level. The past two off-year cycles have proven, for the most part, that more money spent leads to a higher vote share.
Major organizations and outside groups were doubling their spending in 2019 compared to the previous off-year cycle in 2015. Youngkin has also upped the ante substantially compared to his Democratic predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, who broke a fundraising record in 2015 with just $1.6 million raised compared to the $7.45 Youngkin hauled in through his PAC in this year’s third quarter alone.
Yet with little apparent appetite among the GOP base for a Youngkin run in 2024, his true gamble might be a much longer play toward 2028, Farnsworth said.
By betting big on this year’s legislative races, Youngkin could set himself up to be “the Bill Clinton of the Republican Party” by preemptively setting himself up to be a lone bright spot in what could be a rough year in 2024 for Republicans elsewhere, if Trump drags down the party atop the ticket.
“The ideal scenario for Youngkin would be Republican majorities in Virginia next year, a solid legislative record of conservative governance, and a repudiation of Trump at the national level in the 2024 presidential election,” Farnsworth said, adding that, in that scenario, GOP voters might see how a more moderate path is better than Trump’s extremist politics.
To get to that place, Youngkin will have to overcome an abortion issue that has persistently invigorated voters after Roe v. Wade was overturned—plus a local Democratic machine that’s already put more than $2 million into Virginia races thus far.
Still, the DLCC is sounding the alarm.
“We have been raising the resources to keep state Democrats competitive but our ballot-level remains underfunded,” Heather Williams, the DLCC’s interim president, told The Daily Beast in a statement. “To counter the wave of Republican cash we are seeing in states like Virginia, we need our supporters and party fully behind us.”
While Democrats say they expect the upcoming Youngkin PAC attack ads to continue campaign messaging they’ve seen on crime, Spirit of Virginia actually went on the offensive over abortion in a new ad released on Monday, calling the party’s 15-week ban “a common sense” approach as part of a $1.4 million buy on local broadcast networks.
Youngkin, notably, rose to power in 2021 before federal abortion rights protections were overturned by the Supreme Court in the Dobbs decision. Now, without his name on the ballot, he’s testing how much his “Trump-adjacent” brand of conservatism, as Farnsworth put it, will hold up with an electorate still highly concerned about abortion, including the 54 percent of Virginia independents who indicated in a recent poll that the Dobbs decision is a “major factor” in their approach to the upcoming election.
“Youngkin has very much made this election his to win or lose,” the pollster and political scientist said.
“Even though he’s not on the ballot,” Farnsworth continued, “he has weighed in so aggressively that he will be entitled to credit if the Republicans get the majority, and blame if they do not.”