RENO, Nev. – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin took his I’m-not-really-thinking-about-running-for-president tour Thursday to one of the key states for early voting contests in the 2024 Republican presidential nominating process, with a pair of campaign stops for Nevada’s Republican nominee for governor.
“Virginians had a chance to make a statement last year, and we did. Now, it’s your chance,” Youngkin told a crowd of about 150 gathered at the Nevada Trucking Association’s headquarters in a high-ceiling garage decked out with a massive U.S. flag behind the stage. “The headwaters of a red wave that we started in Virginia can spread across the entire country.”
Earlier in the day, he had spoken to about 300 supporters of Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo at Liberty Baptist. The church is known for its anti-gay and no exceptions anti-abortion stance and is located in a working-class neighborhood of stucco apartment complexes and shopping centers a few miles north of the Las Vegas Strip.
Neither of those topics came up, though, in either Lombardo’s or Youngkin’s remarks. Instead, the focus was on the supposed failure of Democratic governors around the country, current Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak among them, in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youngkin spent a good portion of his speech painting a grim picture of Virginia during 2021, with schools still not reopened and many businesses either shut down or operating at reduced capacities because of “progressive, liberal” leaders, he claimed.
“Does that sound familiar, Nevada?” Youngkin said.
That, plus rising violent crime rates and Democrats’ efforts to teach “critical race theory” in the public schools led to Virginians coming together to elect him governor, Youngkin told the crowd.
“These are not Republican values. These are American values we’re talking about,” he added.
Lombardo, who according to recent polling is virtually tied with Sisolak, said he was grateful for Youngkin’s visit, which included a Lake Tahoe fundraiser sandwiched between the two public events.
“I believe in his foundation, his platform, and what he’s trying to achieve in Virginia is synonymous, is exactly what I’m trying to achieve in the state of Nevada,” Lombardo said. “And that’s why he’s standing here today.”
Political unknown to presidential material
Youngkin spent the bulk of his adult life with the Carlyle Group private equity firm, co-running it his last three years and amassing a nine-figure personal fortune. He decided to leave the firm in 2020 to enter politics.
Many Republicans felt that statewide offices there were out of reach for their party. Virginia had been trending toward Democratic in recent years capped off with a double-digit victory by Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
But Youngkin focused on parental anger over lasting pandemic-related school closures in the Democratic suburbs of Washington, D.C. He appealed to pro-Trump Republicans by promising to end “critical race theory” in schools, which many Trump supporters took as a pledge to deemphasize the teaching of slavery and segregation.
As important in the populous northern Virginia suburbs, though, was Youngkin’s refusal to spread lies about the 2020 election having been “stolen” from Trump. Youngkin generally avoided talking about Trump at all. While at one point Trump promised to campaign for Youngkin before the election, in the end, he stayed out of the state.
On Election Day, the Trump distancing appeared to have worked. Northern Virginia neighborhoods where Trump had no visible support in 2020 sprouted red with “Youngkin for governor” signs just a year later. He also benefited from record-high turnout in rural Virginia counties where aggrieved Trump supporters remained angry about the 2020 election result.
The net result: Youngkin managed to eke out a 2-point win statewide, which instantly made him a star among Republican consultants and donors nationally.
Youngkin, who took office in January, originally answered speculation about a potential 2024 presidential run by saying he was focused solely on Virginia. That answer began evolving within a few months, until by June, when he visited New York City to meet with major Republican donors. He had already begun saying he was “humbled” by the question and that he had not made any decisions yet.
“We’ll see what comes next,” he told Fox News on June 27.
Days later, Youngkin visited Nebraska on July 9 to aid Republican candidates. He visited Michigan on Aug. 27 to boost GOP nominee Tudor Dixon in her challenge to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And earlier this month, he was in Maine for a fundraiser for Paul LePage, the former Republican governor who is now trying to return to that job.
Still to come for Youngkin are trips to Georgia, Kansas and New Mexico to help Republican gubernatorial candidates in those states, as well, with visits to Colorado, Oregon and Wisconsin also possible.
On Thursday, he laughed off a question about his visit to an early 2024 state. “You’re very kind,” he said. “This is my most important visit to Nevada to support Joe Lombardo. And I think this is what Republican governors did for me last year.”
While some Republicans, including Maryland Gov Larry Hogan, have made a point not to help candidates who have spread Trump’s lies about the 2020 election having been “stolen” from him, Youngkin has not.
Dixon in Michigan, for example, regularly pushed Trump’s lies during her primary election campaign, while LePage has never stopped spreading them. Youngkin is also open to a trip to Arizona to help Kari Lake, the GOP candidate for governor who is among the most prolific spreaders of Trump’s elections falsehoods among current GOP office-seekers.
While Youngkin during his campaign for the nomination did not claim that the election had been stolen from Trump, he didn’t denounce it as a lie. It wasn’t until one of the televised debates with Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe that Youngkin finally said that Biden had been legitimately elected in 2020.
Today, Youngkin prefers to avoid the issue entirely. In a July appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he was asked three times whether Trump should stop lying about the election. And three times he changed the subject and would not answer.
“I think what I did last year was I focused on 2021. And we had 5,000 people come and volunteer at elections and that gave everybody confidence in our election process,” he said, referring to poll watchers his campaign recruited. “They showed up, they voted in record numbers for a governor’s race, and we won.”
On Thursday, Youngkin declined to comment on candidates who continue to push Trump’s lies. Instead, he offered the standard answer many mainstream Republicans have settled upon. “We have to look forward. That’s what we have to do as Republicans. The reality of course is that we have to work to make people feel more confident about the election process,” he said.
Helping his brand while helping others
Lombardo at the Las Vegas and Reno appearances thanked Youngkin for his support in the coming election. But the reality is probably the opposite. Youngkin remains largely unknown among the voting public nationally, and his visit will likely help him lay the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run far more than it will help Lombardo six weeks from now.
“I’ve heard of him,” said Randall Carney, 68, a ministry student and Lombardo supporter shopping at a Walmart grocery store less than a mile from Liberty Baptist. Carney had not heard about the campaign event on the eve of Youngkin’s visit. However, he also seemed unclear about who he was, asking, “His last name is Young?”
David Barron, 67 and a retired autoworker from Pennsylvania who now works part-time at Walmart said he was aware of Youngkin’s win in Virginia. “I know he ran on that critical race theory stuff, whatever that is,” he said during a cigarette break.
Jean Adams, who is 70 and said she recalls watching the Kennedy-Nixon debate on television as a child, said she knows all about Youngkin. “He’s got a future,” she said.
As to whether his trip would matter in November is another matter. “I don’t know if that many people are paying attention,” Adams said.
At least one person, however, does appear to be paying close attention to Youngkin and his newfound appeal: Trump.
On Sept. 6, days after a clip of Youngkin awkwardly dancing to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” in his red vest at Dixon’s rally made the rounds on social media, Trump tried to take credit for Youngkin’s 2021 victory on his Truth Social web site.
“Helped him get elected – big time,” Trump wrote. “Press refused to acknowledge, but that’s OK – the people know!”