Alarmed Republicans Are Preparing to Draft Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin

From a Washington Post column by Robert Costa headlined “Alarmed Republicans are preparing to draft Glenn Youngkin”:

Some of the biggest Republican donors in the country will converge next month at the historic Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach for a two-day meeting to rally behind Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The closed gathering, named the “Red Vest Retreat” after the fleece Youngkin wore during his 2021 campaign, will begin Oct. 17 and be focused, officially, on the Republican effort to win full control of the General Assembly in Virginia’s upcoming elections. But unofficially, several donors tell me, it will be an opportunity for them to try to push, if not shove, Youngkin into the Republican presidential race.

Others say they will be busy prodding Youngkin and his allies in phone calls from afar. “He appears to be leaving the door open,” Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire who has already given millions of dollars to Youngkin’s PAC, told me this week. “And if Republicans win in Virginia, maybe we can talk him into it. He obviously wants to see what emerges, what the state of play is.

“The money would be there,” Peterffy assured me.

Drafting Youngkin as a last-minute addition to the sclerotic Republican presidential field is something that has lingered for months as a donor fantasy — a whispered, can-you-imagine gambit rarely meriting much discussion because there has been widespread hope that somebody, anybody, would gain traction against former president Donald Trump. But now, fantasy talk of an audacious, break-the-glass moment for the anti-Trump faction has morphed into not-so-quiet consideration.

Wednesday’s debate in California likely did little to calm the restlessness felt by plugged-in Republicans desperate for an alternative to Trump. Even as some contenders understandably boast about a bounce, dissatisfaction with the field has become a refrain that will not abate.

The thirsting for Youngkin is not a well-orchestrated power play. It is the latest slapdash scheme in a long search for a standard-bearer and a portrait of the powerlessness so many Republicans feel as Trump plows ahead, shrugging off criminal indictments and outrage over rhetoric they fear is growing dark and dangerous.

After months of hearing mostly about Democratic concern about President Biden’s poll numbers or his age, it’s evident that a Republican panic is emerging from hibernation.

Donors and anti-Trump Republicans have been fixated on Youngkin for two years, since his 2021 election impressed them for how he was able to win support from Trump voters while keeping Trump himself at a distance. They also know a direct challenge to Trump would be politically brutal — and that late entries are logistically near-impossible.

Nevertheless, the anti-Trump Republicans carry on, in text messages and emails, and over meals at five-star hotels, talking to friends and megadonors about the need to be prepared to help Youngkin ramp up a robust national campaign. They want to be ready.

“I’m for whoever can beat Trump in the primary and, while I still think some of the current candidates can do this, I’d welcome Youngkin putting his oar in,” William P. Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, told me. “If the governor indicated he’d to it, I believe he would draw serious support and be a strong candidate,” Barr said.

Rupert Murdoch, the new chairman emeritus of Fox Corporation and News Corp., has encouraged Youngkin in at least two face-to-face meetings, as The Post reported last month. And Murdoch has continued to speak highly of a possible Youngkin campaign to colleagues, according to a person familiar with his comments.

“The search for other people is very real,” Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told me, recounting how he went to Atlanta in August to try to recruit Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who resisted Trump’s pressure campaign in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Bolton left unconvinced that Kemp would do it. “A lot of people put Youngkin in the category of a kind of fresh face who could make a difference,” he said. (Bolton hasn’t ruled out his own late run if others decide against it.)

Of course, many other donors and anti-Trump Republicans hope that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) or former vice president Mike Pence, among others, could eventually pull even with Trump. But the experience of DeSantis has dampened spirits. If someone who thundered to national prominence couldn’t overtake Trump by now, who can?

“DeSantis has faltered and failed to meet expectations and donors know it,” Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s former campaign manager, told me. “No one has a real opening right now, but people are trying to figure out what to do.”

The various Youngkin 2024 theories go something like this: If Virginia’s state legislature goes Republican on Nov. 7, Youngkin could claim he flipped a state that Joe Biden won in 2020. If the governor then signaled interest in exploring a run, supporters could rush to collect signatures for him to get on the ballot in delegate-rich states, many of which have December deadlines. If he got in, he’d make a play for Iowa and build a campaign with an eye on staying in until the convention.

If that isn’t daunting enough, he would have to do it all while Trump takes aim. There are some around Youngkin who say the prospect of relentless attacks from the GOP front-runner could be what keeps him on the sidelines, with one person close to him saying, “Glenn cringes when he thinks about what Trump would do.”

Youngkin, while listening to overtures, does not seem particularly keen to take such a risk. These days, he is “super careful to say little” but also “does little to stop you from talking about it,” according to one person who has pitched him on 2024. “Hamlet on the James River,” said another with less enthusiasm, referring to the “Hamlet on the Hudson” nickname given to Democrat Mario Cuomo, then the governor of New York, when he long deliberated over a presidential run in late 1991 and left a plane waiting to take him to New Hampshire idling on the tarmac.

On Tuesday, appearing at the Washington Economic Club, Youngkin was asked about what the host called the “elephant in the room.” He said he was “humbled” by the encouragement for him to run and notably declined to endorse a candidate. “I think voters should choose this,” he said.

That breezy Beltway chat is far different than the campaign grind that would test the smiling, often-red-vested governor. Youngkin’s push to restrict abortion in Virginia after 15 weeks of pregnancy would be under the microscope from rivals who think he doesn’t want to go far enough and from supporters of abortion rights who think he might as well be Trump. Opposition researchers would dig into his record, and Democrats would happily revive the playbook they used against Mitt Romney in 2012, painting him as out of touch, uber-rich former chief executive.

“If somebody wants to come in, great,” Romney told me, but he said any addition to the race would risk being meaningless if the Republican field remains crowded and the non-Trump vote is split a dozen or so ways. “I don’t really know Governor Youngkin. I’ve heard him give one speech to our caucus,” Romney said. “I wish him well, but I don’t begin to know how he would fare on the national stage.”

No one should ask Romney to mull a late entry, either. “Zero,” he chuckled, when asked about the chances of him jumping in.

No one should ask Romney to mull a late entry, either. “Zero,” he chuckled, when asked about the chances of him jumping in.

History has frequently been unkind to those who run late. In November 2019, after months of wavering about a run, allies of billionaire Democrat Mike Bloomberg began to hustle to get him on primary ballots. Within days, he ran and became a ripe target — and after spending more than $1 billion on his campaign, he secured a mere few dozen delegates. Dust off old campaign memoirs and look up chapters on the bids of candidates like Wesley Clark, Fred Thompson and Rick Perry and you’ll see that few of them have happy endings.

The ballot deadlines would present huge hurdles for Youngkin. He would likely miss some key contests in Nevada and South Carolina, which have October filing deadlines, forcing supporters to scramble to get him on the ballot in delegate-rich states holding primaries throughout March, beginning with Super Tuesday on March 5.

“If he misses some, it’s going to compromise the number of delegates he’d be eligible for,” the nonpartisan elections expert Josh Putnam told me. “While there are some contests after April 2, there are not too many heavy hitters after that.”

Putnam went on: “That’s only the ballot deadline part. Getting folks in line to be delegates in these states is going to be another tough logistical nut to crack.”

Youngkin — or anyone running late — also can’t count on the party convention as a place where the race could be upended, even if Trump were to be convicted in one of his several trials scheduled for next year.

“Trump will elect a fair number of delegates and they will not be people subject to switching,” Bolton said. “The famous battles in the past where conventions did make a difference is where people were prepared to switch or freed and Trump’s not going to do that. He would fight to the bitter end.”

Behind the scenes, Youngkin’s political talent is widely debated by senior Republicans. Some of them find him likable and able to handle the populist headwinds in the party without seeming uneasy. They point to the governor’s support for election denier Kari Lake as evidence of his willingness to dance with Trump’s coalition without much hand-wringing.

“That, more than anything, tells me he wants to run for president,” one longtime Republican presidential campaign adviser told me. “He’s willing to get into the mud with people who lie about the election because he knows he has to.”

Others worry that he’s not doing enough to put himself in a position to come across as commanding and viable, organizationally and in terms of his message. Several Republicans told me he has a window of maybe days, if that, after Virginia’s elections to decide or else supporters would struggle to secure enough signatures.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who challenged Trump in 2016 and has not yet endorsed in 2024, smiled tightly when I asked him how Youngkin would fare if he jumped in.

Trump, Rubio said, is “basically the de facto Republican incumbent running for reelection.” He added, “If you’re going to run for president, you can’t just put that thing together in a couple months.”

It’s unclear who would run a Youngkin campaign, but his inner circle, on both the official and political sides, includes players such as Richard Cullen, a well-connected former Virginia attorney general, and David Rexrode, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association who has helmed Youngkin’s PAC, which has published dramatic, polished videos of Youngkin, including one in which he praises Reagan. Youngkin’s 2021 campaign guru, Jeff Roe, is gone and working as chief strategist for DeSantis’s super PAC.

As the clock ticks, those who know Youngkin have referred me to a term straight out of Harvard Business School, where Youngkin earned an MBA: “optionality.” It is a term, they say, Youngkin has used while governing and when discussing his political career. He likes having options without any obligation to choose one.

But a decision — a final and definitive one, not another “I’m humbled” by the suggestion — will be necessary if the clamor gets louder after the polls close in Virginia in November and Youngkin finds himself facing cameras in Richmond.

In the meantime, Youngkin’s supporters on Wall Street and in Washington will keep trying.

Robert Costa is the chief election and campaign correspondent for CBS News.

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