Republicans see Youngkin win as blueprint for midterms

Republicans are eyeing Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for the Virginia governor’s mansion as a roadmap for the 2022 midterm elections.

For the GOP, the victory is more valuable than simply gaining another governorship. Youngkin’s campaign, Republicans argue, offers a blueprint for dealing with some of their biggest challenges of the upcoming midterm elections, including how to win over swing voters, exploit President Biden’s vulnerabilities and navigate their party’s relationship with former President Trump.

“I think it’s clear that Youngkin and Republicans have found issues that work,” Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said. “You’ve got to address voters’ direct concerns and not your own hobby horses, for lack of a better term. You’ve got to react to what the voters want.”

Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, on Tuesday in a hard-fought race that dealt a blow to Democrats’ belief that Virginia had moved firmly into their corner. The victory is almost certain to propel Youngkin to star status within his party as Republicans dissect his campaign for lessons ahead of the midterms.

A former private equity CEO and first-time candidate, Youngkin used his campaign to elevate issues like taxes and education. While Trump endorsed Youngkin for the governor’s mansion, it was only after he had secured the GOP’s nomination, and Youngkin never campaigned side-by-side with the former president.

In fact, he rarely mentioned Trump’s name during his general election campaign. While he seized on issues that resonated with Trump’s conservative base  demands for increased election security, for instance he talked about less controversial messages with swing voters.

Naughton said that strategy undermined Democrats’ efforts to cast him as a Trump acolyte while helping him avoid backlash from the former president’s most loyal supporters.

“The things that mattered in suburbia  over education and safety and crime  they resonate with Trump voters,” Naughton said. “You just have to translate that to the broader electorate, people in the suburbs. And Glenn Youngkin did that very successfully.”

Jean Card, a former Bush administration official and Trump critic, said that Youngkin’s campaign offers a new model to other Republican candidates by defying what has often been treated as conventional wisdom in the GOP in recent years: that fealty to Trump is the best and easiest path to victory.

“It has a lot to do with threading that needle; accepting the Trump endorsement, but not embracing Trump in any way,” said Card, who lives in Virginia and voted for Youngkin in Tuesday’s election. “It’s clear to me that a lot of effort must have been made to keep Trump away. He never campaigned here.”

“The more McAuliffe said ‘Trump, Trump, Trump,’ the more Youngkin’s team seemed to stay away,” she added.

That strategy appeared to help Youngkin win back some of the support that Republicans lost in Virginia during Trump’s time in the White House. He outperformed the former president’s margins in places like Loudoun County and won outright in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, where Trump lost to Biden by nearly 7 points.

“It’s a matter of keeping Trump at arm’s length, or maybe fingertip length. He had the right personality for this. He looks like a governor, he has an upbeat personality. His style was so obviously different from Trump.”

Trump hasn’t hesitated to take credit for Youngkin’s win, arguing that it was his loyal base of voters that handed him the governorship. In a radio interview on Wednesday morning, the former president expressed frustration that he had not been given more credit for the race’s outcome.

“Without MAGA, he would have lost by 15 points or more,” Trump said on the “John Fredericks Radio Show,” using the acronym for one of his political slogans. “Instead of giving us credit, they say, ‘Oh he’s more popular than Trump.’ It’s unbelievable.”

Still, Youngkin’s success exposed the limits of Democrats’ continued focus on Trump as a campaign weapon, a strategy that helped propel them to victory in recent years.

It also underscored the party’s vulnerabilities as it prepares to head into the 2022 midterm elections. Biden’s approval rating has plummeted in recent months, damaged by the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a summer surge in new COVID-19 infections and rising inflation.

At the same time, Democrats in Congress have been mired in an intraparty debate over Biden’s key legislative priorities, including a $1 trillion infrastructure package and a $1.75 trillion social policy and climate change bill. One veteran Democratic strategist said that McAuliffe’s loss emphasized the need for the party to act quickly on Biden’s agenda.

“We missed the writing on the wall” in Virginia, the strategist said. “We haven’t shown that we can get anything done and we’re still expecting people to give us more power, more governing capacity.”

Other Democrats, however, had a different takeaway. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has pumped the brakes on his party’s spending plans, said that the election results were proof that many voters are concerned about the size and scope of Democrats’ agenda.

“You can read so much into all of that last night,” he said. “I think it should be a call to all of us have to be more attentive to the people back home.”

The Democratic losses in Virginia were a sobering reminder for the party of its precarious position heading into 2022. The GOP needs to net just five seats in the House and only one in the Senate to recapture control of Congress. What’s more, the party of a new president almost always loses ground in Congress in the midterm elections  a foreboding reality that Democrats are well aware of.

Republicans, meanwhile, are already game-planning around Youngkin’s strategy. In a memo sent to members of the conservative Republican Study Committee on Tuesday night, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) advised lawmakers to “learn from Glenn Youngkin.”

“Youngkin turned out the Republican base in southern Virginia, kept working class voters in the fold, and made big gains in suburban, immigrant-heavy, college-educated and wealthy northern Virginia. The exact group that supposedly ‘disowned’ the GOP,” the memo reads. “He expanded the GOP tent and he did it by focusing on the issues.”

Of course, picking which issues and messages to focus on is one thing, Naughton said, but keeping Trump on the sidelines in 2022 is a fool’s errand.

“You can’t keep Trump from being quiet. He’s going to do what he wants to do for himself,” Naughton said. “He’s unpredictable. He can say anything and stick his nose in at any time and upset the apple cart. And Republican candidates have no control over it.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Terry McAuliffe
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