The Memo: Trump dinged by Youngkin win
Former President Trump hailed Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia as a triumph, but the more compelling case is that his fortunes took a hit from the gubernatorial race.
The strenuousness of the four separate statements issued by Trump between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning claiming credit for the win betrayed an insecurity.
Youngkin in defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe has provided Republicans with a new template for victory. The blueprint doesn’t require repudiating the former president — but it doesn’t require kissing Trump’s ring, either.
In victory, Youngkin has provided a blast of hope to those in the GOP who want to move past Trump.
“Youngkin was stiff-arming Donald Trump,” former Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.) told this column on Wednesday. Dent, a moderate, retired in the middle of the Trump presidency. “Youngkin won by ignoring Trump and appealing to swing voters in a more traditional, thoughtful way.”
Other Republicans reacted to Youngkin’s win in more starkly personal terms.
“I do think there is a new template, and that’s why I’m excited personally,” said Jean Card, who served as a speechwriter in the administration of President George W. Bush. “I have been a Republican my entire adult life, but I did not vote for Trump. I thought he was a bad leader for the Republican Party; it made me worry about the future for the party. And now there is another way.”
The excitement in Trump-skeptical circles needs to be tempered by other realities.
Right now, Trump remains the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP 2024 presidential nomination if he chooses to run.
Strident anti-Trump voices within the Republican Party have been marginalized. And Youngkin’s win came in a state abutting the District of Columbia, just 10 months after Trump incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Youngkin also accepted Trump’s endorsement and was careful not to directly alienate supporters of the former president.
But on the flip side, Youngkin kept his distance from Trump, never campaigning alongside him in the general election. When Trump allies held an event featuring a flag purportedly flown at the rally that immediately preceded the Capitol riot, Youngkin called the decision “weird and wrong.”
Just as importantly, Youngkin was Trump’s polar opposite in tone and demeanor.
An affable and even-keeled figure, his campaign leaned into his success in the business world and projected an image of him as an inoffensive father and husband.
“He didn’t disparage the [former] president, but Youngkin spoke to voters in Virginia in a manner that was very appealing,” said Brad Blakeman, another veteran of the George W. Bush administration. “He wasn’t divisive. He was nice, he wasn’t mean, and he comported himself as a gentleman.”
The success of that effort meant that McAuliffe’s efforts to brand Youngkin as a Trump acolyte and quasi-racist fell flat.
It also enabled Youngkin to perform strongly with demographic groups that recoiled at Trump’s excesses.
Youngkin racked up a 9-point advantage with independent voters, according to exit polls. Trump had lost those voters to Biden by almost 20 points last year. Youngkin held McAuliffe’s advantage among women down to 6 points, whereas Biden had carried female voters in the commonwealth by 23 points.
The impact among some subgroups was even more striking. Youngkin won white women without college degrees by 50 points, whereas Trump’s advantage was only 12 points.
The effect of all those changes was felt geographically as well as demographically — Youngkin was much stronger than Trump in the populous Northern Virginia suburbs. He still lost the region, but by a significantly smaller margin.
But to the surprise of many observers, Youngkin’s lukewarm approach to Trump didn’t have any detrimental effect at all in conservative, rural counties in southwest Virginia, where support for him equaled and in many cases exceeded Trump’s 2020 margins.
“The conventional wisdom is that you have got to have Donald Trump in order to appeal to those voters. Youngkin has put the lie to that,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy.
But Judy said it was the differential between Youngkin’s appeal to middle-ground voters and Trump’s toxicity with those same groups that was the most important takeaway.
“It’s encouraging to me because one of the big questions, post-Trump, was whether we had lost some voters for good — especially … suburban women who deserted the Republican Party in droves over the past five years. Can we get them back? For Glenn Youngkin, at least, the answer was a pretty emphatic ‘Yes,’ ” Judy said. “It’s a very positive sign for Republicans that the voters Donald Trump lost are not necessarily lost for good.”
Trump has been denigrated or dismissed plenty of times before only to come back. His grip on the soul of the GOP remains strong.
But Tuesday’s Virginia result prised that grip a little looser — and gave some encouragement to would-be rivals.
“If I am a Republican candidate, a presidential hopeful today, I think ‘Maybe I can actually pull this off,’ ” said Card. “Now those non-Trump hopefuls have a stronger argument to make that there is more than one way to do this.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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