In a stunning victory in Virginia and a strong showing in New Jersey, the Republican Party has fashioned a playbook that could repair the GOP's tarnished image in swing states and suburban districts across the nation.
But it is a formula that may be difficult to replicate on a broad scale in next year's midterm elections.
Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, virtually unknown a year ago, won the Virginia governor's race early Wednesday by running away from the national Republican Party and its most prominent leaders — especially Donald Trump.
The Virginia Republican spent the closing months of his campaign avoiding the divisive issues that most animate Trump's base, including the baseless prospect of election fraud. And Youngkin benefited from running against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a political insider with a muddled message.
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“Candidates matter,” Youngkin chief strategist Jeff Roe said. “We weren’t defined by Obama, we weren’t defined by Trump, we were defined by Glenn.”
With a clear enthusiasm advantage on the right, Democrats should worry that the Republican victory in Virginia and a closer-than-expected governor's race in New Jersey — which remained virtually deadlocked early Wednesday — could signal an anti-Democrat wave in 2022.
Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate the year after Republican Bob McDonnell won the Virginia governor's race in 2009, the last Republican to win a statewide contest. This year, President Joe Biden’s sagging numbers and Democratic dysfunction on Capitol Hill have added to the traditional prevailing winds that plague the party in the White House.
Local, state and national politics
But to take advantage of such a climate in Tuesday's elections, Republicans in Virginia — and New Jersey, to some extent — followed a strategy that relied on placating Trump's base while avoiding Trump and his brand of politics. And in a surprise move, Trump cooperated by keeping a low profile, participating only in remote call-in appearances and sending emails late in the race to his supporters.
In New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli was locked in a tight race with incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy in a state Biden carried by 16 points a year ago. The New Jersey Republican distanced himself from Trump in the election’s closing weeks, having once described him as an embarrassment who was unfit to serve as president. While Trump encouraged Virginia voters to support Youngkin on the eve of the election, he said nothing about Ciattarelli.
Meanwhile, as Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey railed against Trump, the Republican candidates tapped into just enough pro-Trump-style grievance to energize the former president’s base. And Youngkin, in particular, offered an uplifting message focused on “kitchen-table” issues — education chief among them — that gave Trump-weary Republicans and independents permission to vote GOP again.
Perhaps to avoid turning Trump against them, Youngkin's team worked to keep all high-profile Republicans out of the state. Ambitious GOP surrogates actively politicking in other states, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, played no significant role in Virginia.
But as the undisputed head of today's GOP, Trump's muted role loomed above the others.
That worked out well for Youngkin, who earned favorable ratings from about half of Virginia voters compared with Trump, who earned a “very” unfavorable rating from about half of the electorate, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters.
Trump's pugilistic leadership alienated women and suburban voters in Virginia and across the country in 2020, giving Biden a 10-point victory in the state and allowing Democrats to take control of Congress and the White House.
Whether Republicans can maintain this week's success in the 2022 midterms — where the most competitive races will be in traditional swing states and moderate districts — may depend on whether Trump is content to remain an afterthought in national politics, even as he moves toward a 2024 presidential run.
That's not likely.
Already, Trump is actively involved in key Senate races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, where Republican candidates are fighting each other for his support. Most are parroting Trump's rhetoric about “election integrity," code for false claims of election fraud. And Trump's link to GOP House candidates may be even stronger: 121 House Republicans are on record voting against certifying his loss in the 2020 election.
After briefly raising concerns about election integrity in the Republican primary fight this spring, Youngkin landed on a far less controversial policy that would help him unify both Trump's fiery base and anti-Trump suburban voters: education.
Taking a page from Democrats, the Virginia Republican promised to boost teacher pay and spend more on local schools than ever before. To appeal to Trump's base, he railed against “critical race theory,” an academic framework that isn't taught in Virginia schools, but centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people.
But the broader issue of education didn't begin to resonate more intensely until McAuliffe quipped during a late-September debate that, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
The comment, taken out of context during a discussion about banning books, became a centerpiece of Youngkin's campaign, which quickly launched a “Parents Matter” effort reinforced by heavy advertising spending. The issue tapped into suburban parents' deep frustration with pandemic-related forced school closures, which extended across the state for much of last year.
“That struck a nerve with parents, including me,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, suggesting the issue could help Republicans in the future. “Across the country, I think the suburbs are coming back to us.”
Overall, 14% of Virginia voters said education was the most important issue facing the state, according to VoteCast. About twice as many cited economy and jobs, while 17% named COVID-19. Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe.
Democrats quickly explained away their struggles by pointing to historical patterns. Indeed, only once in the last 40 years has a Virginia candidate won the governor's race when their party held the White House. And not since 1977 has a New Jersey Democrat won a second consecutive term.
But they also glossed over their candidates' obvious shortcomings.
Democrats privately acknowledged they may have underestimated the extent to which voters continue to dislike political insiders in the post-Trump era. Murphy was seeking his second term, while McAuliffe spent years as a top political fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton before being elected Virginia governor in 2013.
And as a 64-year-old white man, he struggled to energize young people and voters of color who animate the base of today's Democratic Party.
But above all, the Democrats' message simply was insufficient to generate energy with a fatigued Democratic electorate.
The former governor largely ignored his own accomplishments as governor — and his plans for the state if elected again — and focused the bulk of his record fundraising haul on linking Youngkin to Trump. It didn't help that Youngkin had spent millions of dollars over the summer running positive TV ads casting himself as an affable suburban dad.
While Democrats across the country were badly shaken by Tuesday's results, Biden pollster John Anzalone cautioned against reading too much into the off-year elections.
He predicted that Democrats would have a much more positive message for voters for the 2022 midterms highlighting the policies they adopted to help working families and seniors. That assumes, of course, that Democrats in Congress can come together to enact Biden's agenda.
“Underestimate us today ... at your own risk,” Anzalone said.
Peoples has been covering national politics for AP since 2011.