Glenn Youngkin’s winning bid for governor of Virginia last year was closely scrutinized by both parties for signs of what was to come in 2022.
Now, as the Republican begins his work in Richmond, he’s still under the microscope.
The governor made big promises on school choice and public safety. He drew in voters from across the spectrum, even the temperamental ex-president. He channeled suburban voters’ frustrations over masking and remote schooling and gave voice to conservatives’ fears about what students were learning in the classroom.
He has a lot of people to please.
“What he’s got for the first time in a very long time is a lot of energy about school choice, about alternatives, about accountability, about public safety and the classrooms that I’ve just not seen in 30 years that I’ve been in government service,” said Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s last Republican governor.
The base appeal
So far, Youngkin’s conservative base appears happy.
The governor has issued two executive orders that conservatives have cheered: one banning school mask mandates and the other banning critical race theory, the academic framework that has become a catchall term for conservatives who are critical of how schools teach about racism.
The first executive order pledges to end “the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, and to raise academic standards.” It also calls for a review of resources for educators and ends a state initiative in math that Youngkin had criticized as a “left-wing takeover of public education.”
The second order aims to end a school mask mandate put in place by Youngkin’s predecessor, Ralph Northam. “Parents should have the ability to decide whether their child should wear masks for the duration of the school day,” it reads.
It’s not clear whether the order can actually be enforced, however, given that it conflicts with existing state law requiring schools to follow C.D.C. guidelines. But that may be less important to Trump voters who were once skeptical of Youngkin.
They are “ecstatic with his opening week,” said John Fredericks, a radio talk show host who chaired Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia. “Right now, from my perspective, he’s Trump in a red vest.”
The olive branch
Part of Youngkin’s first address to the General Assembly seemed to be aimed at appealing to Democrats who want to see more school funding.
“We’re going to start by investing in Virginia classrooms,” he said. “Education is the key to opportunity, the means by which all children and their parents can realize their greatest dreams.”
He asked for $150 million to form 20 new charter schools, and proposed the creation of lab schools that would partner with Virginia’s universities.
And while Republican governors in other states have angered voters by slashing funding for education, Youngkin said he wanted to sign a budget with bipartisan buy-in that sets a “record investment in education including a significant boost in teacher pay.”
Democrats: No, thanks
The response among Democrats has been a combination of skepticism and outrage.
L. Louise Lucas, the president pro tempore of the State Senate, criticized Republicans for promoting “bad legislation” in a video celebrated by many on the left.
“We have a couple other bills here that we really don’t like,” she said, crumpling up a piece of paper. “And this is what we intend to do with them — put them in the trash can.”
Schuyler VanValkenburg, a teacher and state delegate, called Youngkin’s push for privatization and charter schools a “standard, conservative right-wing educational policy.”
And though he thought he could find common ground with Youngkin on issues like prioritizing in-person learning and raising academic standards, “the executive orders kind of undercut those claims to both of those things,” he said.
As for the mask order, school districts in Northern Virginia immediately pushed back. Parents from one school district have already sued over it, and Democratic state legislators promised more lawsuits if the administration withholds funding to force schools to comply. The state P.T.A. released a statement maintaining its support for continuing to follow C.D.C. guidelines.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a supporter of Terry McAuliffe, the defeated Democratic candidate, said she was baffled that Youngkin repealed the mask mandate in the middle of the Omicron surge. The move led to “more confusion and more angst and more divisiveness,” she said.
Youngkin’s executive order on critical race theory, she said, could have a “chilling effect” on teachers by constraining their ability to teach history and current events.
Like others who have criticized Youngkin’s order, Weingarten noted that it’s simply not in the curriculum. “But,” she asked, “why then do it?”
Youngkin says he plans to pump record amounts of funding into Virginia schools. When combined with his calls to put parents firmly in charge of their children’s education, Republicans see in his approach a new model that can transcend longstanding left-right divides.
“There’s something for everybody to like about that message — more money and more accountability,” McDonnell said.
Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory
Weingarten said that if Youngkin refocuses on items like teacher pay and school funding, he could expect bipartisan support on his agenda. But she’s skeptical.
“I think Youngkin was trying to prove that there is a new Republican Party when it comes to education — that they are going to invest in public schools, they’re going to pay teachers more. And he pretended that he was going to care about public schooling, not just about privatization,” she said.
For some conservatives, that kind of friction is part of the appeal.
Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has urged Republicans to stoke voter anger over concepts like critical race theory, said that Youngkin was already “setting a new paradigm of cultural war as public policy.”
What to read tonight
Two Trump-related investigations made news on Thursday. In Washington, the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot asked Ivanka Trump to cooperate with its inquiry. And in Atlanta, the district attorney asked to convene a special grand jury to help investigate allegations of interference in the 2020 election.
Our colleagues in the Opinion desk conducted a focus group with 14 independent voters — who said they are not impressed with President Biden’s first year in office. “Asked what they held Mr. Biden responsible for and what they would tell him if they had the chance, the independents emphasized energy prices, the economy and the importance of being a moderate, as well as a desire to avoid Covid mandates and lockdowns,” Patrick Healy and Adrian J. Rivera write.
Biden plans an aggressive shift in strategy in the coming weeks, The Times’s White House team reports. His advisers are urging him to pull back from a “president-senator” role that has mired him in endless, unproductive negotiations with Congress.
Is Trump losing his edge with G.O.P. voters?
Buried in a new survey published today is a fascinating nugget that suggests the Republican Party may not be as devoted to Trump as we’ve long assumed.
Roughly every month for the last several years, pollsters for NBC News have asked: “Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?”
Over most of that time, Republicans have replied that they saw themselves as Trump supporters first. But the lines crossed beginning in January of last year — and as of this month, 56 percent of G.O.P. voters said that they considered themselves more as Republicans, while only 36 percent said they identified more as Trump supporters.
What’s going on here?
It’s hard to say why Republicans seem to be weaning themselves from the former president, but we can venture a guess. Two things happened last January: Trump left office and became less of a daily presence in Americans’ lives; and rioters claiming to act on his behalf stormed the Capitol, damaging his image.
Other surveys suggest many on the right are looking for fresh options in 2024. For instance, just 56 percent of Republicans want Trump to run for president again, according to the latest AP-NORC poll.
Whatever the reasons behind the shift among G.O.P. voters, it’s safe to say that Trump’s potential primary rivals are watching these numbers closely.
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