Republicans see Trump weakening as Democratic talking point

Republicans are growing increasingly confident that former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE won’t be the biggest factor in their effort to win back their House and Senate majorities next year.

There’s little doubt among Republicans that the former president continues to wield deep influence over the GOP and its conservative voter base, and it’s clear that he’ll play a dominant role in the 2022 primary process.

But Republican Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinOvernight Health Care — White House sees quick uptake for free tests Governors declare state of emergency ahead of severe winter weather Virginia's new AG tells state colleges they can't require COVID-19 vaccine for students MORE’s victory in last week’s race for Virginia governor has many in the party convinced that their path to victory — at least in key political battlegrounds — will hinge more on issues like education and the economy, a strategy that could complicate any effort by Democrats to cast the midterms as another referendum on Trump.

“You need someone to go first and not embrace the big DJT,” said Jean Card, a former Bush administration official and Trump critic. “We needed someone to show that you can win without him. And the first step toward shrugging off Trump is to win without him. And that just happened and that gives an example to follow. That is political leadership at its best, because it involves winning.”

That takeaway flies in the face of recent GOP orthodoxy arguing that the best way for Republicans to get ahead is to embrace Trump and his laundry list of political grievances. But it’s one that could prove pivotal for Republicans as they look to win control of Congress next year, a goal that will hinge in part on their ability to win back many of the voters who drifted away from the GOP under Trump.

Republicans need to net just five seats in the House and only one in the Senate next year to recapture control of Congress. And with some of their best pickup opportunities sitting squarely in battleground states and districts, luring back swing voters is a top priority for the GOP.

Throughout his campaign, Youngkin deftly balanced the demands of Trump’s conservative base with a broader focus on issues like education policy, taxes and inflation that caught the attention of many of the independent and suburban voters who helped power Democratic gains in Virginia in recent years.

While he echoed parts of Trump’s rhetoric during his early campaign for the Republican nomination, Youngkin spoke little of the former president in the runup to the Nov. 2 election and never campaigned alongside him.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to cast Youngkin as a Trump acolyte, hoping to replicate the strategy that helped deliver the party key victories in recent years. That message ultimately fell flat with many voters who were more focused on quality-of-life issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and inflation, than they were on Trump.

“I hope Democrats continue to be obsessed with Donald Trump,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “What we have to do is, we have to say we would love Donald Trump’s endorsement. If you’re a Republican, you want his endorsement. But you’re going to win on the issues.”

Scott’s remarks strike at the heart of the GOP’s approach to the midterms: no Republican candidate can afford to isolate or ignore the former president and the conservative voters who remain loyal to him, especially if they hope to win their party’s nomination in the first place. But it will be issues like jobs, public safety and education that push the party to victory next year, Scott said.

Even among Republican voters, Trump’s endorsement alone isn’t a guarantor of political support.

A recent Morning Consult poll found that Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell aims to sidestep GOP drama over Trump There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future MORE’s  (R-S.D.) approval numbers have risen sharply among GOP voters, despite Trump’s calls to primary him. That same poll showed a similar uptick for Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats sense opportunity with SCOTUS vacancy Biden approval rating drops to 34 percent in Georgia: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Who will replace Justice Breyer? MORE (R), whom Trump vowed to campaign against after he refused the former president’s demands to overturn his state’s 2020 election results.

For Democrats, their dismal performance in Virginia and a handful of other states underscored what one party strategist called a “major miscalculation,” namely that lingering animosity toward Trump would be a key animating force for both their base and the swing voters who rebelled against the former president in 2018 and 2020.

“At some point, there needs to be kind of a broad acknowledgment that the anti-Trump vote is really only enough when he’s on the ballot,” the strategist said. “The rules still apply. People don’t go vote thinking about who the former president is. This is going to be about [President] Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE and what Democrats are doing.”

Still, there’s little consensus in the party over how much to talk about Trump. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, insisted this week that the former president remains “a tremendous liability” for the GOP, noting the lengths Youngkin went to in order to distance himself from Trump.

“Glenn Youngkin ran like a teenaged girl in a slasher movie away from Donald Trump,” Maloney told The New York Times.

One Republican strategist said if Republicans take away anything from the Virginia governor’s race it should be that each candidate should make their own determination on how to handle Trump — and the former president should also give Republicans the freedom to do so.

“Politics is demand driven and the demand is up to the voters,” the strategist said. “So yeah, keeping Trump on the sidelines in Virginia was a good idea, because it’s not a state that loves Trump. Maybe that’s not going to be the best strategy in a place like Ohio or Florida or another state that he won. But could it be useful in a place like Pennsylvania? Yeah.”

“As far as Trump goes, he wants to be involved in everything,” the strategist added. “He needs to know when showing up is self-destructive.”