Glenn Youngkin, political novice rewrites the Republican playbook
As Glenn Youngkin took to the stage at a crowded hotel ballroom in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the 1969 classic rock hit “Spirit in the Sky” blasted through the loudspeakers.
Wearing a navy blue suit and red tie, the Republicans’ man of the moment greeted supporters and clapped in time with the music, pausing to point one finger to the heavens and mouth the lyrics: “you know it’s a must, gotta have a friend in Jesus”.
Minutes earlier, the Associated Press had projected the 54-year-old political newcomer as the winner of Virginia’s hotly contested governor’s race. The former co-chief executive of the private equity giant Carlyle Group defeated veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe by a 2.5-point margin in a state Joe Biden had won by more than 10 points a year earlier.
The results sent shockwaves through the Democratic party — and buoyed the spirits of Republicans who fretted about their party’s future with Donald Trump out of the White House. Youngkin had successfully walked a political tightrope to secure Trump’s base of rural conservative supporters while winning over independents in affluent suburbs outside Washington, DC.
Leading Republicans said Youngkin, who campaigned on a platform of lower taxes, more money for law enforcement and an emphasis on parent involvement in public schools, offered their party a playbook for next year’s midterm elections, when control of Congress will be up for grabs. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat took the argument one step further, tweeting: “I’ll just say it: Glenn Youngkin should seriously consider running for president in 2024.”
It was a meteoric political rise for a man who less than 18 months earlier had left the top job at Carlyle after losing a power struggle with his co-chief executive Kewsong Lee. The Republican donor had never before run for public office having spent the first three decades of his career climbing the corporate ladder.
Youngkin grew up in Virginia Beach, a resort city that is also home to several military bases. Cultivating his everyman image on the campaign trail, he talked about his first ever job as a dishwasher at a local diner. The avid basketball player attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, on a sports scholarship, earning a degree in engineering. After his victory on Wednesday, Youngkin signed basketballs with a Sharpie before tossing them into the crowd.
Youngkin moved on to Harvard Business School and joined consulting group McKinsey after graduation. He married his wife, Suzanne, with whom he has four children. In 1995, he was recruited to Carlyle by the firm’s co-founder, David Rubenstein, and spent the next quarter-century charting its rise from start-up to powerhouse — amassing a net worth of approximately $470m, according to Forbes.
He opened Carlyle’s London offices in the early 2000s, helping to launch many European-based funds before returning to the US. After the 2008 financial crisis, he shifted his focus to broader strategy, becoming chief operating officer and later co-president. In 2017, he was named co-chief executive alongside Lee who, insiders say, outmanoeuvred the mild-mannered Youngkin.
Former colleagues provide mixed reviews of their ex-boss. One described Youngkin as a skilled operational expert and a “pleasant person”. Another called him the “poster child of the good American . . . but he will stab you in the back if he sees an advantage”.
Months after leaving Carlyle, in July 2020, Youngkin launched his bid for Virginia governor, using his sizeable wealth to hire political consultants and produce a slick PR campaign that depicted a down-to-earth dad preaching “common sense” conservatism. The one-time executive swapped his suits for fleece gilets and khaki trousers and clinched his party’s nomination in May.
The evangelical Christian, who colleagues say kept his religious convictions closely guarded at work, began speaking openly of his faith, sharing how his beliefs deepened while attending Holy Trinity Brompton in London. Youngkin and his wife later set up a parish modelled after HTB in McLean, Virginia, called Holy Trinity Church.
His private equity background and country club-style drew comparisons to Mitt Romney, who was an executive at Bain before entering Republican politics. But his opponent McAuliffe branded him “Donald Trump in khakis”, arguing Youngkin’s moderate persona concealed more hardline views.
The political novice often stumbled as he sought to escape Trump’s shadow. In one instance, he declined to answer an interviewer’s question about whether he would have voted to certify the election had he been a member of Congress on January 6, when violent mobs of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. Following backlash, Youngkin changed his tune, telling a local TV network he “absolutely” would have voted to certify.
Analysts say Youngkin’s hazy messaging worked to his advantage when cobbling together a coalition of voters to make him the first Republican elected Virginia governor in more than a decade. “Youngkin seems friendlier, nicer, more normal. Who knows if he really is?” says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “We know nothing about him, really. That is what [his campaign] wanted: tabula rasa. You write on that slate anything you want.”
Additional reporting by Kaye Wiggins and Antoine Gara