Virginia’s governor is putting the presidential hoopla on ice.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican whose surprising election in a blue-trending state set off instant talk of a presidential run, has tapped the brakes on 2024, telling advisers and donors that his sole focus is on Virginia’s legislative elections in the fall.
Mr. Youngkin hopes to flip the state legislature to a Republican majority. That could earn him a closer look from rank-and-file Republicans across the country, who so far have been indifferent to the presidential chatter surrounding him in the news media, and among heavyweight donors he would need to keep pace alongside more prominent candidates. He has yet to crack 1 percent in polls about the potential Republican field.
Backing away for now is also a bow to political reality. Mr. Youngkin has a shortage of clean conservative victories in the divided Virginia legislature, compared with, say, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who stole much of Mr. Youngkin’s thunder on “parents’ rights” issues in education.
An effort by Mr. Youngkin last year to raise his profile by campaigning for Republicans around the country fizzled when most proved too extreme for voters and lost their races.
Tellingly, Mr. Youngkin’s two top political advisers, who guided his gubernatorial victory and were mapping out a 2024 strategy, both took jobs this month with a super PAC that supports the presidential candidacy of Mr. DeSantis.
Asked about his presidential decision timeline this week, Mr. Youngkin said, “Listen, I didn’t write a book, and I’m not in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina.” Instead, he said, he is putting his full focus on November’s statewide Virginia election, when all 140 seats in both chambers of the General Assembly are on the ballot. A decision to enter the 2024 campaign in November would be historically late, well past the first Republican debate in August.
“I am wholly focused on the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I’m looking forward to these elections,’’ Mr. Youngkin said during an appearance to promote Virginia’s agricultural exports. Standing outdoors at a terminal for barges near Richmond — dressed in a blue suit and tie rather than the red fleece vest he wore while seeking office, a symbol of his suburban dad-ness — the governor, 56, said that gaining majorities in the legislature “is what this year is all about.”
His political fund-raising committees announced last week that they had collected $2.75 million in the first three months of the year, surpassing the best quarterly results of any prior Virginia governor and providing a war chest that could help Republicans in local races.
“There is no amount of money that is going to overcome the regressive policies that Glenn Younkin and the MAGA Republicans have been trying to impose on Virginia,” said Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
She predicted that suburban voters who favored Mr. Youngkin in 2021 would broadly reject Republicans, after the Supreme Court ended the national right to abortion last year and as conservatives press for national restrictions, most recently through a federal judge in Texas who revoked the 23-year-old approval of a common abortion pill.
“We’re going to remind voters of this every single day: Don’t treat women like second-class citizens,” Ms. Swecker said.
Republicans are counting on Mr. Younkgin’s strong job approval rating, 57 percent in a poll last month from Roanoke College, and his fund-raising prowess as a wealthy former financial executive who can connect with the G.O.P. donor class well beyond his state.
Francis Rooney, a former Republican congressman from Florida whose family owns construction, real estate and insurance businesses, donated $100,000 to Mr. Youngkin in November.
“We need to be doing things as Republicans to get back to a broader majority,’’ said Mr. Rooney, praising the governor’s appeal to independents and some Democratic voters. But when asked what Mr. Youngkin had told donors about his presidential ambitions, he said, “I don’t think anybody knows other than him.”
Recently, Mr. Youngkin’s top political strategist, Jeff Roe, who continued to advise him after guiding the 2021 race, signed on as a consultant to a super PAC preparing the ground for a DeSantis presidential run.
Another top Youngkin strategist, Kristin Davison, joined the same DeSantis group, Never Back Down. (Mr. Roe and Ms. Davison also continue to consult for Mr. Youngkin.)
The day after Mr. Roe’s new job was reported, Mr. Youngkin named a new adviser to run his political action committee, Spirit of Virginia. That strategist, Dave Rexrode, has a long history in local Virginia elections.
“If you look at where House and Senate districts are in play, the governor has a high job approval in all these districts,” Mr. Rexrode said. “They like what he’s doing in Richmond, and they want to send allies to work with the governor.”
Virginia’s legislative races will be contested based on new maps that were drawn without regard for incumbents, deeply scrambled familiar political geographies and led to a wave of retirements. Both parties consider the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a slight majority, and the State Senate, which Democrats narrowly control, to be in play.
In his first year in office with the divided legislature, Mr. Youngkin won $4 billion in tax cuts while giving teachers a 10 percent raise in a budget deal with Democrats. He also signed a bill giving parents a veto over schoolbooks with “sexually explicit content,” a measure rooted in one mother’s objection to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in the curriculum.
This year, Democrats stopped Mr. Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban. But on his own, he has rolled back the policies of earlier governors of both parties that automatically restored voting rights to people leaving prison. He has used executive orders to try to rescind environmental mandates from previous administrations, including on power-plant emissions and gas-powered vehicles.
On Monday, Mr. Youngkin was asked about the ruling by the Texas judge last week invalidating the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. If upheld, it would reduce access to abortions for Virginia women, even though abortion is legal in the state.
Mr. Youngkin said he didn’t “have much of an opinion” on the case, which is making its way through appeals courts. “And we’ll just have to wait to see how that gets finalized,” he said.
If Mr. Youngkin does wait until after November’s elections to enter the presidential primary, he not only will miss the first Republican debate in August, but he will also start considerably behind his potential rivals in fund-raising and voter attention. He would be bucking recent history, when very few presidential hopefuls waited past summer and none went on to win their party nomination.
But the 2024 cycle could be different, with former President Donald J. Trump directing fire and fury at early challengers who pick up steam, notably Mr. DeSantis, who has fallen back in polls.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said missing the first debate could be a blessing. “The people who are in it are going to get banged up” by Mr. Trump, he said.
If Virginia Republicans win control of both chambers of the legislature, Mr. Youngkin would emerge as “the fresh face, the new conqueror” of a state that, through 2020, was under full Democratic control, Mr. Sabato said.
Given the electoral losses Republicans have repeatedly suffered in the Trump era, Mr. Youngkin “can step in and promise to put the party together,” he added. At least, he said, “that’s their theory.”