PHOENIX — Incoming Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Wednesday his victory in a strongly Democratic state showed a winning path for Republicans to talk about education, an issue for which he said the GOP has “historically been a bit on our heels.”
Youngkin spoke at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting in Phoenix, where governors, donors and strategists were riding high on his victory in a state Democratic President Joe Biden won by 10 points just one year ago.
A newcomer to politics, Youngkin won by tapping into culture war fights over school curricula, emphasizing parental rights to make decisions about their children's education with the slogan, “parents matter.”
“The polls kept telling us that education was the seventh or eighth or ninth most important issue," Youngkin said. “Let me tell you, it is the top issue right now, and Republicans across the country can own this topic.”
He said Republicans can win by pushing for “strong schools that teach our children how to excel, not watering down the curriculum, a school where parents have a say in what their children are being taught."
Youngkin’s victory set off alarm bells for Democrats, who were already facing the historically daunting challenge of running in a midterm election with their party in control of the White House. It also provided a roadmap for Republicans in states where the party is weaker.
On top of his emphasis on parental rights, Youngkin focused intensely on local issues like taxes and distanced himself from former President Donald Trump. He effectively walked a tightrope to appeal to suburban voters who turned against Trump without alienating the former president's fervent supporters.
He later told reporters he viewed the emphasis on “kitchen table” economic issues and local over national politics as keys to his victory.
But the strategy may be tough to replicate in states where Republicans face primaries that push them to enthusiastically embrace Trump or take positions that could be harmful in a general election. Youngkin won the GOP nomination in a convention with ranked-choice voting among a limited pool of Republican voters.
Youngkin implicitly cautioned against relitigating the 2020 election, a strategy at odds with Trump's continued false claims that he lost because of fraud.
“I have fundamentally campaigned on looking forward and not looking backward,” he said, adding that he does “plan on investing in our election process going forward so Virginians can trust our election process.”
Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, who oversees the party's efforts to elect Republican governors as chairman of the RGA, cast election integrity as important but just “one among a number of issues.”
Arizona, which Biden narrowly won, was the epicenter of Trump's push to cast doubt on the 2020 vote count when a group of his supporters, working on behalf of state Senate Republicans, led an unprecedented partisan review of the ballots and vote-counting machines in Maricopa County.
The review, which Trump allies labeled a “forensic audit,” was widely panned and elevated the profile of Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to replace Ducey, who is term-limited.
Similar election reviews have been pushed in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states led by Democrats that are among the top GOP targets.
While Youngkin emphasized his relentless focus on local issues, other GOP governors highlighted what they see as liabilities for the Biden administration, including inflation, supply chain shortages, gas prices, border security and the chaos surrounding the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“The contrast couldn’t be more clear for Republican governors,” said Gov. Peter Ricketts of Nebraska. “We provide that leadership. We’re held accountable for results and are delivering on the things that makes the lives of the people in our states better.”