RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When Glenn Youngkin threw his hat and his cash into the Republican nominating contest for Virginia governor this year, he was a rich former private equity executive with no experience as a candidate, and few insider connections or public political views.
“Most party loyalists and insiders didn’t know much about him," said Todd Gilbert, the state House minority leader, who initially endorsed a fellow lawmaker in the race.
Nearly nine months later, Gilbert and much of his party have come around.
Republicans from all factions of the GOP now say Youngkin may be what it needs to help reverse more than a decade of stinging losses in Democratic-leaning Virginia and show a path forward for a national party riddled with division after the turmoil of the Trump years.
In style, the genial, 54-year-old suburban dad who often opens meetings with prayer is nothing like former President Donald Trump, who galvanized a surge of Democratic resistance before losing the state last year by 10 percentage points. Youngkin has proved to be a natural campaigner, both connecting with voters and deftly seizing on dissatisfaction with Richmond and Washington.
But in substance, Democrats see an extremist with softer packaging and have accused Youngkin of promoting democracy-eroding election fraud conspiracies. Youngkin has embraced Trump's endorsement and kept up ties to far-right figures. He's dodged when pressed for details on policies on abortion rights and gun control, and leaned into culture war fights over schools and pandemic precautions. His opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, calls Youngkin a “Trump wannabe.”
Youngkin's chances may hinge on whether voters believe that characterization.
“How do we bring people together, as opposed to push them apart and separate them?” Youngkin said in a recent interview when asked what inspired his run for office.
There's little doubt his approach is working with Republicans. The former co-CEO of The Carlyle Group has poured millions of his own fortune into an energetic campaign that has peppered swaths of Virginia with red lawn signs and left Democrats increasingly nervous.
Less than two weeks out from the Nov. 2 election, polls show a right race.
But if Youngkin has trouble broadening his appeal in the state’s critical, swingy and moderate suburbs, it may stretch back to his fight for the GOP nomination. Then, he ran on “ election integrity ” and refused for months to say plainly whether President Joe Biden had been legitimately elected.
Brad Hobbs, a close friend who has helped the campaign, said the candidate was just appeasing the base.
Youngkin told him “early on” in the nomination contest that Biden had legitimately won the election, Hobbs said. But Youngkin was facing “rabid” party activists who wanted to hear that the candidate shared their concerns about the election, said Hobbs, who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.
“If he just dismissed it, no way he could have won the primary. I mean, just no way,” said Hobbs, who allowed that maybe things would have been different if Youngkin had had more time to campaign.
Youngkin's campaign declined comment.
Now, as he courts independents and moderates, Youngkin talks about pumping the brakes on Democrats' progressive drive in Richmond. But he largely campaigns on solidly conservative positions.
He opposes mask and vaccine mandates, rails against critical race theory and wants to expand Virginia’s limited charter schools. He pitches substantial tax cuts, promises to overhaul dysfunctional state agencies, opposes a major clean energy mandate passed two years ago and objects to abortion in most circumstances.
In ads and campaign appearances, he emphasizes he’s a “homegrown” Virginian. He was born just outside Richmond, and his family relocated to Virginia Beach after his father lost his job. Childhood friends described him living a comfortable but not lavish middle-class life.
The 6-foot-6 Youngkin excelled at basketball and was recruited to play at Rice University in Texas.
After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering and managerial studies, he worked in investment banking before earning an MBA at Harvard University and eventually joining The Carlyle Group, where he spent 25 years rising through the ranks, eventually becoming co-CEO.
Youngkin, who retired from Carlyle in September 2020, described leaving because he felt "called into public service." Reporting from Bloomberg has suggested his retirement also came after a power struggle with Kewsong Lee, his co-CEO, who declined an interview request for this story.
Youngkin accumulated a fortune at the firm; one Forbes estimate says his net worth is roughly $440 million. He now lives in a seven-bedroom home in Great Falls. He also owns properties in Texas and Wyoming, according to tax records and financial disclosures.
His friends say Youngkin's rise up the professional ladder hasn't changed him and he remains down to earth, hardworking and humble.
He’s been married to his wife, Suzanne, for 27 years, and the couple has four children.
The Youngkins worship at the nondenominational Holy Trinity Church, which the family helped found in the basement of their home and has since grown to a much larger congregation with a brick-and-mortar location.
In an interview, Youngkin said his faith impresses on him the importance of loving others and informs his view that the deeply divided country needs to come back together.
Asked whether his faith shapes his view of same-sex marriage, Youngkin responded with a vagueness common in his answers to questions about policy. He reiterated that he feels “called to love everyone.” Pressed on whether that was intended to convey support for same-sex marriage, he responded: “No,” before saying that gay marriage was “legally acceptable” in Virginia and that “I, as governor, will support that.”
Some longtime observers say they haven’t seen such enthusiasm for a candidate for statewide office since the 1990s.
Gilbert, the GOP lawmaker who says he's come around on Youngkin, said he sees that ability to connect with people as Youngkin’s best attribute. The shifting political winds from Washington aren’t hurting either, he said.
“This is going to be a historic effort when it’s all said and done,” he predicted.
Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press