The attendees at the Republican Governors Association meeting could not stop gushing about the newest member of their club, who defeated a longtime Democratic politician in a state President Joe Biden had carried by double digits last year.
“Does that sound good, governor-elect?” said Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, when introducing Youngkin on a panel.
“I’m so proud of my neighbor to the south,” Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said. “You ran a great campaign. Congratulations.”
Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina could barely contain himself as he praised Youngkin for his win.
“We’re so happy about that, we can’t stand it,” he said.
By putting Youngkin front and center at Wednesday’s meeting, where he got several hearty rounds of applause, the governors association is hoping to capture his winning spirit as the organization heads into the 2022 midterm election cycle. Republicans are defending 20 governorships next year and hope to make inroads in several states where Democrats currently hold the top job.
During Wednesday’s panel, Republican governors criticized the Biden administration’s record on border security, the economy and the handling of the pandemic. They presented the GOP’s governance in the states as a positive alternative to Democratic leadership in Washington.
Their poster child was Youngkin, who made the case that his own election earlier this month can be a model for Republicans in the future — focusing on “kitchen-table issues” like education and public safety. Democrat Terry McAuliffe had repeatedly tried to tie his GOP opponent to former President Donald Trump, but the strategy didn’t work against a candidate who mostly preferred to talk about local issues, like parents’ frustrations about schooling.
“The issues that I ran on were really straightforward,” Youngkin said at a news conference Wednesday. “I think one of the big lessons that I have learned and that I think so many candidates are watching translate into strategies going forward is that these are our customers. We need to listen to them.”
Learning from Youngkin’s example
Youngkin’s theory about his 2-point victory is that he campaigned “focused on Virginia” and not national politics.
“What we found along the way was that America became very focused on Virginia’s issues, as opposed to Virginia being swept up in national issues,” Youngkin said.
Despite endorsing Youngkin, Trump did not campaign in Virginia for him. That allowed Youngkin to keep Trump voters in the GOP tent while broadening his coalition to win over those who did not support the former President.
Asked whether that formula could be replicated in other states, Youngkin demurred on Wednesday.
“I think that everyone’s going to have to decide their strategy for their state,” he said.
Keeping Trump at arm’s length may not be a viable or desirable option for some Republican candidates running in purple states with motivated pro-Trump bases. Youngkin won the GOP nomination at a convention, so he didn’t necessarily face the Trump loyalty contests that are animating some GOP primaries in states featuring competitive Senate elections next year.
In Georgia, for instance, Gov. Brian Kemp may face a potential primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue. For Trump, who has harshly criticized Kemp for not challenging the results of the 2020 election, Perdue could be the champion the former President has been searching for.
But Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and a frequent target of Trump’s ire, made it clear he wants Republicans to learn from Youngkin’s example.
“I think we saw the road map in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Ducey said.
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.