November 2 was a boffo night for the Republican Party, and not such a great night for Donald Trump.
It’s not as though the interests of the two are diametrically opposed, but they are in tension. To the extent that the GOP shows that it can thrive without former President Trump being on the ballot or even at the center of attention, it undermines the idea that he, and only he, knows the secret to Republican success.
Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election is a particular threat. There’s no doubt that the former Carlyle Group CEO assembled a geographic and demographic coalition — heavily rural and non-college-educated — that reflects a change that Trump accelerated and cemented, and that Youngkin’s full-throated attack on critical race theory showed an unapologetic attitude to cultural politics with Trumpian overtones.
Fundamentally, though, Youngkin did it his own way and still turned out Trump voters in droves, while eroding Terry McAuliffe’s margins in areas where the Democratic advantage once seemed insurmountable.
Youngkin’s path to victory was one that Trump himself or any of his epigones would have been incapable of.
For Trump, being radioactive had its uses. It meant he’d dominate news cycles, which he considered good in and of itself, and bonded his base even more strongly to him.
Youngkin thoroughly rejected this model. His approach from the beginning was to soften his image, assuming that base Republican voters would support him, even if he was branded as a nice guy and voters otherwise not willing to listen to a Republican would give him a chance.
He was right.
With all the focus on critical race theory, it’s easy to forget that exit polls showed that the economy was the top issue in the campaign. Youngkin emphasized the cost of living, and according to the Washington Post, won among voters who cared most about the economy, 55–44 percent.
It is undoubtedly true that Youngkin wouldn’t have prevailed without hitting education hard, and that critical race theory is a winning cultural issue for the GOP. But Youngkin’s position on education was more complicated than sometimes acknowledged.
What first brought education to prominence was widespread school closures during the pandemic, and a key part of Youngkin’s message was increasing educational standards and paying teachers more — positions with obvious appeal to the center.
There is no doubt that Trump brought a new cultural combativeness to the GOP, sensed a hunger among the party’s voters for new departures on immigration and trade, and won the presidency in 2016 based on an electoral map few thought possible.
But Trump has lived off the legend of 2016 — only he knows how to win or fight, and he holds the key to a working-class-based electoral coalition that no one else understands as instinctively or as well.
Trump’s image as the wizard of winning was always doubtful. In 2016, some Republican Senate candidates notably outperformed him in their states. In 2020, Republican House candidates did the same.
Trump’s magic was to a large extent based on running against a very unpopular candidate, Hillary Clinton, and in a race where he could lean on the Electoral College. He never had to aim for 50 percent +1, but 46 percent and just the right breaks in the battleground states. This is not a sustainable or readily replicable model.
Now, Youngkin, who at the end of the day is a Glenn Youngkin Republican, exceeded Trump’s 2020 margins in the reddest parts of Virginia. In Southside Virginia, Trump won by 22 points; Youngkin won by 36. In Southwest Virginia, Trump won by 45, Youngkin by 53. And so on.
Worried that he’s not getting enough credit for Virginia, Trump said afterward that there’s no way Youngkin would have won without MAGA voters. True enough. Youngkin needed to get them out and did, without Trump campaigning for him and barely mentioning his name.
Therein lies a tale.
© 2021 by King Features Syndicate