RICHMOND – Republican Glenn Youngkin spent months talking to voters about his plans to roll back Democrats' “left, liberal, progressive agenda." When he takes office in January as Virginia's next governor, he'll need to talk to Senate Democrats about that.
Youngkin's victory was part of a Republican sweep that saw the GOP retake Virginia's two other statewide offices and Democrats concede control of the state House. But in the Senate, where no one was up for election this year, Democrats will still have a narrow majority.
“We’re the Senate Democratic Alamo,” said one Democratic member, Scott Surovell.
Days after Youngkin's defeat of Terry McAuliffe, a former governor and longtime Democratic Party fundraiser, conversations in Richmond pivoted from campaign rhetoric to rosy talk of bipartisanship, with elected officials in both parties expressing hope that next year’s legislative session will provide opportunity to find common ground. Youngkin is reaching out by phone to Democrats and Republicans and planning to meet with Senate lawmakers at a finance retreat later this month, according to Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment. He also joined outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam for lunch, and gave public remarks suggesting he might turn to the Democrat with questions.
“He said during the campaign he was going to govern in a bipartisan manner. His campaign was all about unifying Virginians under a specific vision for the future, and he intends to fulfill that promise,” said Devin O’Malley, a Youngkin spokesman.
Youngkin did position himself during the campaign as a unifier who would transcend the nation's partisan rancor. But he also selectively engaged with the news media, sought to avoid specifics on controversial issues such as abortion and gun control and spent months refusing to acknowledge that President Joe Biden had been legitimately elected, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats.
In a statement Friday, the state's Democratic Party chairwoman, Susan Swecker, said the “fight for Virginia's future” has begun.
Youngkin has made a handful of appearances in the news media — including with Fox News host Tucker Carlson — but has not held a formal news conference to take a wide range of questions. In a statement after election night, he struck a conciliatory tone, thanking his supporters and saying to those who voted differently, "Thank you for fighting for what you believe in. I look forward to coming together and earning your support over the next four years.”
The former private equity executive and first-time candidate campaigned on what he called a Day One game plan, most of which cannot be enacted on his first day because it will need legislative approval.
It includes a wide range of tax cuts, including the elimination of the state's grocery tax, a 12-month suspension of the gas tax and one-time rebates. His platform also calls for boosting funding for law enforcement, raising teacher pay, opening new charter schools, restoring the requirement to show a photo ID to vote, and banning critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions. It is not being taught currently in any of the U.S.'s K-12 public schools, according to the The National School Boards Association.
Youngkin, who is independently wealthy and has pledged to donate the salary he receives as governor to charity, set up a transition office in a state government building this week. He told a conservative radio host that Jeff Goettman, a top campaign staffer and former official in the Department of the Treasury under President Donald Trump, would chair his transition. Inauguration Day is Jan. 15.
O’Malley said Youngkin visited a food bank and a mosque Friday and was making his way through an extensive, bipartisan call list. He declined comment on whether Youngkin had been in touch with Dominion Energy, a powerful player at the state Capitol that drew the candidate's ire after it backed a secretive anti-Youngkin political action committee.
No other details about key staffers or Cabinet members were immediately announced.
Dick Saslaw, the Senate majority leader, said he had a “very nice, friendly call” with Youngkin that didn't veer into policy.
“There could be a common ground on education, there could be a common ground on the environment. There could be a common ground on so many things. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Saslaw said.
With just a 21-19 majority in the Senate — where newly elected Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears will cast tie-breaking votes — Democrats can't afford a single defector if they want to block a bill.
That reality has sharpened a focus on two Democratic members, Joe Morrissey — a Catholic who personally opposes abortion — and Chap Petersen, a moderate from northern Virginia. The two not infrequently vote against their caucus on a range of issues. But the GOP also has a few members who buck party-line votes.
“The field may lend itself to bipartisan cooperation," said Republican Sen. Richard Stuart, who sometimes votes with an independent streak of his own.
Morrissey and Petersen have drawn comparisons to U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have forced cutbacks to President Joe Biden's sweeping policy initiatives. But several Democrats said that comparison was overblown and the caucus would stick together. Saslaw was adamant there would be no outright party-switching.
Morrissey said he would not vote for a Texas-style abortion law and sees the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to an abortion as part of the fabric of the country. But he also said there has to be middle ground, implying that he would consider some restrictions.
He also expressed some skepticism about how long the post-election honeymoon period would last.
“At the beginning of every session, everything is kumbaya, everyone holding hands, then it often takes about one week for the bipartisan divides to be created,” Morrissey said. “It’s important for moderates on both sides to bridge those gaps.”
Todd Gilbert, the House minority leader and a contender for speaker, said in a news conference that his caucus's priority will be education. While The Associated Press has not yet called each contested House race, Democrats conceded control Friday night.
He said Republicans will be focused on tweaking, not scrapping, a recently enacted marijuana legalization bill. Asked whether the GOP will seek to reinstate restrictions on abortion that Democrats rolled back when they were in full control of state government, he suggested that issue wouldn't be a focus.
Gilbert predicted the House and Senate might actually have a smoother relationship than when the Democrats controlled his chamber. The two groups of Democrats often spoke disparagingly of one another, and the House routinely pushed through bills, only for the more moderate Senate to spike them.
“I think we’re going to get along fine from an institutional standpoint,” Gilbert said.