Youngkin tries to push swing state Virginia to the right

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has used his first two weeks in office to push Virginia firmly to the right and attempt dramatic political change in a state once considered staunchly Democratic and widely viewed by others in the GOP is closely monitored.

In his early days, the new governor issued executive orders, methodically ticking off his key campaign promises. The orders undermined mask mandates in the classroom, aimed to restrict how students are taught about racism, authorized an investigation into a wealthy suburban Washington school district that has become a national symbol of struggles over so-called parental rights, and sought to block Virginia’s involvement to strike at a carbon mitigation initiative to combat climate change.

Youngkin has also expanded the duties of a state diversity commissioner created by his Democratic predecessor to be an “ambassador for unborn children” since Virginia dropped in the Supreme Court its opposition to a Mississippi law allowing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy prohibits.

“That ruffled some feathers on the other side,” Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert said, thanking Youngkin for sticking to his word. “I don’t think they believed him that he would try to see through these things.”

Everything didn’t go smoothly. The governor’s order to weaken school mask mandates has been challenged in court. Many large school districts have refused to comply with Youngkin’s order, citing a Virginia law passed last year that says classroom policies should conform to federal guidelines, which still mandate masking.

How Youngkin responds will have profound implications for the governor himself — rumors are already rife that he could seek higher office — and national Republicans, who see him as a tastier conservative alternative to former President Donald Trump. Democrats counter that Youngkin has taken a divisive approach to appealing to the GOP’s extreme right, which would please Trump’s base in a state that has rejected the former president.

“This is not Texas,” House Democratic Chairwoman Eileen Filler-Corn said on the chamber floor Friday. “Virginians will remember the first two weeks of the Youngkin administration and the hyperbole.”

Even some in Youngkin’s own party are cautious.

The executive orders are “fulfilment of campaign promises. They were certainly very fast-moving and ill-advised,” said David Ramadan, a former Republican member of the Virginia House who supported 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 Center of Politics the University of Virginia.

The political whiplash was already acute. Youngkin’s victory in November rocked a state that has been considered a reliably blue in presidential races since supporting Barack Obama in 2008.

His efforts also follow Democrats, who have controlled both chambers of the Virginia Statehouse and the governorship for the past two years. In that time, they’ve abolished the death penalty, legalized marijuana, and expanded LGBTQ and voting rights. Many statues celebrating the Confederacy — even in its ancient capital — have also been removed as part of the state’s reckoning with its history of slavery and racism.

Republicans had not won statewide office since 2009 before Youngkin’s disgruntled victory, which was by just 2 percentage points — about a fifth of Joe Biden’s 2020 lead over Trump. Tom Davis, a former moderate Republican congressman who has long represented Washington’s fast-growing, heavily Democratic suburbs in northern Virginia, said Youngkin’s victory may have been the result of voters showing “a little resistance” to Democrats, for they tried to move to the left of the state.

“I think he’s stayed in the mainstream,” Davis said of Youngkin.

National Republicans already see Youngkin as a role model for conservative candidates elsewhere. They have highlighted his success in attracting Trump supporters without alienating the moderates.

“The fact that voters made their choice and that Glenn was able to form the coalition that he made will be a success for this year and of course give momentum to everyone across the country,” he said Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez.

Youngkin could even offer an alternative to Trump once the 2024 GOP presidential primary takes place — despite a field likely to be crowded with more experienced fellow governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis. Youngkin could offer much of the former president’s uncompromising conservatism, the musing goes, without the same harsh personal edges.

“He’s spoken out positively during a divisive time in politics, and that speaks to people,” said Alice Stewart, a Virginia-based Republican strategist. She worked for Mike Huckabee when he was Arkansas governor, and speculation mounted that he might run for the 2008 presidential nomination — and he did, eventually winning the Iowa caucuses.

“You’re going to have people from all sides – whether they just want to talk about it or profit from it – discussing him as a possible candidate,” Stewart said of Youngkin.

Youngkin, who declined to be interviewed, says he will serve as governor every four years despite the construction frenzy. Still, he raised about $2.2 million in about six weeks before taking office, despite being barred from seeking consecutive terms under state law.

In other early moves, the governor has met with higher education leaders, including heads of historically black colleges and universities, to discuss his legislative push to expand school choice. And Youngkin faces an early test of whether he can get lawmakers’ approval for a contentious cabinet election: Andrew Wheeler, who was Trump’s EPA administrator.

Republicans retook the House of Representatives in November, but Democrats still hold the Virginia Senate. Youngkin, who often begins his days in office before dawn, quickly began reaching out as governor-elect with Democratic members of the legislature and vowed to be a unifier.

Democrats have been particularly harsh in their criticism of Youngkin’s first executive order, which seeks to root out elements of the academic framework known as critical race theory, or any “inherently divisive concept.” On the floor of the House of Representatives, Democrat Del. Don Scott questioned whether Youngkin was a man of faith — and urged the governor to take the unusual step of visiting the legislature’s office for a closed meeting that lasted about half an 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 sometimes strikes a sharper tone. During a recent radio interview, he criticized teachers’ unions and “liberals”. And Youngkin told Fox News Sunday that “Virginians spoke loudly, they want a new direction and we delivered that on day one.”

Critics such as Senate Democratic Group leader Mamie Locke have slammed the governor’s aggressive approach to executive orders and other early moves, such as firing the entire state parole board, which had been criticized for expedited and sometimes chaotic inmate releases early in the pandemic.

“That’s not the way to start saying, ‘I’m going to give you the right hand of the fellowship,’ as they say in the Baptist church,” Locke said.

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Weissert reported from Washington.

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