VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Gov. Glenn Youngkin headlined a rally on Saturday outside the red-brick City Hall here, urging voters to back a fellow Virginia Republican in a special election for State Senate.
It was part of a broader effort by the governor to use the 2023 session of the Virginia legislature to bolster his conservative credentials and agenda as he tests a possible presidential run in 2024. “I need Kevin in the Senate to help me get it done, so we have to win this election now,” Mr. Youngkin told the crowd, referring to Kevin Adams, the State Senate candidate.
But Tuesday’s election was a bust for Mr. Youngkin and Virginia Beach Republicans: Mr. Adams was narrowly defeated, Democrats flipped the Republican-held seat he was seeking and one of the governor’s prominent right-wing initiatives — a 15-week abortion ban — seemed all but doomed as Democrats expanded their narrow majority in the upper chamber of the General Assembly.
Mr. Youngkin’s 2021 election in blue Virginia instantly set off speculation about a potential White House run in 2024. In just his second year in office, he has had both a local and national focus.
The governor has laid out priorities beyond abortion for the legislative session that begins this week: a proposed $1 billion in tax cuts, improving crisis mental health care and luring 2,000 police officers from other states that, as he put it, “do not support law enforcement.” He has also cultivated big donors and Republican voters outside Virginia, traveling widely before the midterms to support 15 Republican candidates for governor and appearing frequently on Fox News, where he advances the “parents’ matter” agenda that helped get him elected.
But unlike some other potential Republican contenders in 2024, Mr. Youngkin is facing home state political dynamics that make it harder to notch clean conservative victories.
Although other Republican governors testing the presidential waters enjoy Republican-led statehouses — in New Hampshire, Florida and South Dakota — Mr. Youngkin has a divided legislature. After the G.O.P. defeat in the special election for State Senate, Democrats hold a 22-18 majority. Republicans control the House of Delegates.
“His challenge is that he can talk about things, but because of the political environment of Virginia, which is different from, let us say, Florida, he can by no means accomplish these conservative goals,” said Bob Holsworth, the founding director of the School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Mr. Youngkin’s rising profile has attracted the attention of former President Donald J. Trump, whose unusually early announcement of a third presidential campaign in November was aimed in part at clearing the Republican field for 2024. On his social media platform, Mr. Trump wrote on Nov. 11 that his endorsement of Mr. Youngkin had cemented the governor’s 2021 victory. And Mr. Trump also made a racist remark about Mr. Youngkin’s name.
“Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?) in Virginia couldn’t have won without me,” the former president said in a seriesof posts on Truth Social.
Mr. Youngkin’s victory — becoming the first Republican elected governor of Virginia since 2009 — stemmed from appealing to the Trump-centric base while keeping Mr. Trump himself at arm’s length to win suburban voters, whom he wooed with promised tax cuts. But he has now signaled a more aggressive approach toward Mr. Trump.
In a brief interview before the rally on Saturday in Virginia Beach, Mr. Youngkin rejected Mr. Trump’s taunt about his name as the opposite of how he deals with people.
“I do not roll that way,” Mr. Youngkin said. “I do not call people names. I treat people well, and I believe that’s the way that everyone should behave and sometimes in politics I think folks forget that.”
Since the midterms, when many Trump-endorsed candidates lost their races, some of Mr. Youngkin’s backers perceive Mr. Trump’s influence on the wane and the opportunities for challengers on the rise. Furthermore, the former president has all but disappeared into his Florida estate after announcing his bid for re-election.
Mr. Youngkin is little known to Republican voters beyond Virginia, barely registering in early primary polls. His main appeal is to political consultants and to the donor class, those who connect with him as a wealthy former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group, a financial investment firm.
Ron DeSantis, Florida’s pugilistic governor, is the leading Trump alternative. But Youngkin supporters paint him as a worthy alternative with a more affable, less prickly personality, someone who transitioned easily from a corporate glad-hander to a first-time candidate. Supporters envision Mr. Youngkin winning over droves of primary voters in the intimate campaign settings of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“He’s got this very likable persona,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. “He’s not angry. He walks into a room and he smiles.” Mr. Davis called Mr. DeSantis “the shiny new object right now,” but added, “When you get into one-on-one campaigning, I would just say Glenn is a natural.”
Jimmy Centers, a Republican strategist in Iowa, said Mr. Youngkin’s championing of parent rights — over how America’s racial history is taught or what books students can be exposed to — grabbed the attention of conservatives nationally in 2021. But now, Mr. Centers said, Mr. Youngkin needs to build on that victory.
“One could argue he was the first candidate to demonstrate parental rights was a winning issue,” Mr. Centers said. “That issue and his position will open doors for him in Iowa and other states, but my sense is that voters and caucusgoers will also want to measure results now that he is in office.”
Mr. Youngkin, who is 56, insisted on Saturday that he had no timeline for making up his mind about a presidential run.
“There’s no plans for decisions,” he said. “What there really is a plan for is to focus on delivering the agenda when Virginians hired me.”
A political action committee Mr. Youngkin set up to support the campaigns of fellow Virginia Republicans and to tend to his own political future raised $4.8 million from donations of $10,000 or more through last year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The PAC paid $94,183 in 2022 to Axiom Strategies, a top G.O.P. consulting firm.
Jeff Roe, the head of Axiom and Mr. Youngkin’s chief political adviser, addressed major Youngkin donors at a September retreat at a luxury resort outside Charlottesville. No specific plans were laid for 2024, according to attendees.
“Youngkin is obviously somebody I’d very much like to run,” said Ray Washburne, a major G.O.P. donor from Dallas, who attended. But he said he wanted to hear more about Mr. Youngkin’s potential strategy, and gauge his legislative achievements, before making a lasting commitment. “After he finishes this session, let’s see what that world looks like.”
Virginia Republicans were lowering expectations for the new legislative session even before this week’s special election solidified Democrats’ State Senate majority. The Virginia Beach race drew tens of thousands of dollars from pro- and anti-abortion groups. After Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, tossing abortion regulation down to the states, Mr. Youngkin told an anti-abortion forum he would “gleefully” sign any bill “to protect life.” In December, while unveiling a new state budget, he proposed a 15-week abortion ban.
At the rally in Virginia Beach, however, Mr. Youngkin did not mention abortion once in an eight-minute speech. It suggested he wished to draw no further attention to an issue on which he could not deliver a conservative victory.
The special election was a preview of a more important crucible for the governor this fall, when every seat in both legislative chambers is on the ballot.
If Republicans hold their House majority and flip the Senate, the governor can present himself nationally as a giant slayer, someone who fully turned around a blue state. If, however, his party suffers further setbacks, Mr. Youngkin will have fewer claims on conservatives outside Virginia.
Campaigning widely for Republicans running for governor last year, including Kari Lake in Arizona and Tudor Dixon in Michigan, both of whom lost, Mr. Youngkin was sometimes trailed by a media crew filming him for future TV ads. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News last week to denounce a Virginia high school for delaying notification to students who earned distinction on a national test. “They didn’t want the other students to feel bad,” Mr. Youngkin said.
Although Mr. Youngkin issued an executive order on his first day in office banning teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools (educators said it wasn’t taught in the first place), other initiatives have gone less smoothly. A revision of state history standards, influenced by Youngkin appointees, was withdrawn after an uproar that it downplayed slavery as a cause of the Civil War and referred to Native Americans as the “first immigrants.”