Trump has been a gift to Va. Democrats for years. Now can they win without him in the White House?

June 14, 2021 12:09 am

Former President Donald J. Trump disembarks Marine One at Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, and boards Air Force One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Winning elections for the past five years has been low-hanging fruit for Democrats in Virginia, and the reason can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump.

The divisive former president’s unpopularity in the commonwealth has had the net effect of turning Virginia – where no Republican has won a statewide race since 2009 – from deep purple to a bright cobalt blue.

Consider that since 2016, the year Trump led his party’s ticket and won the presidency, the GOP in Virginia has lost: two U.S. Senate races; the 2017 gubernatorial race; its U.S. House of Representatives majority; its majority in the Virginia Senate and; its House of Delegates majority. The last time the Republican Party found itself so shut out of Virginia political power was 1969.

But now, with Trump spending his days out of power and Twitter-less at his Florida resort paradise, can Virginia’s Democrats rely on the same level of Trump antipathy to retain their grip on the three statewide offices and the state House majority up for grabs this fall?

“This is something like the existential question for Democrats, and, because of that, for Republicans,” said Quentin Kidd, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Christopher Newport University.  

“If you look at the level of Democratic wins pre-2016 vs. post-2016 – just presidential and (Virginia) gubernatorial races – in ’16 and ’20, Democrats got like 50 percent and 54 percent of the vote in presidential races and Republicans were sort of stuck at 44 percent, and in the gubernatorial election in 2017, Republicans were at 45 percent,” Kidd said. “So it’s clear that Republicans have had a ceiling of 44-45 percent since Trump in statewide races.”

Already the Democratic party and its newly minted standard-bearer, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, have made it clear that they intend to make his November adversary, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin and the rest of the ticket own Trump’s indelible Trump brand.

Glenn Trumpkin,” is the message the Democrats began pumping out from after Youngkin won his party’s nod last month. McAuliffe, in his first digital campaign ad last week, says Youngkin “is not a reasonable Republican, he is a loyalist to Donald Trump.” In an interview with the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin last week, McAuliffe said he would love to see Trump campaign in Virginia, adding, “I’d pay for the gas for him to come.”

Youngkin was not the most ardent Trump follower in this spring’s GOP gubernatorial field. That was state Sen. Amanda Chase, who has called herself “Trump in heels” and finished third in the four-person race.

But the self-made hedge-fund multimillionaire and first-time candidate was careful to signal just enough fealty to Trump to appease his loyal and significant base within the GOP.

In regard to Trump’s unsupported claim that he lost re-election because of massive electoral fraud, Youngkin announced an “Election Integrity Task Force” that supports tightening voter identification and absentee balloting restrictions, and he danced around whether he believed Joe Biden’s election was legitimate. He praised Trump’s handling of the economy and ran a commercial featuring Trump commending him. He campaigned across Virginia with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Trump ally.

Shortly after winning the nomination, Youngkin got a glowing endorsement from Trump. Youngkin said in a broadcast interview that he was “completely honored” by it and attempted to position it as evidence of a unified GOP as he pivoted to other issues. In other post-convention interviews, Youngkin conceded the legitimacy of Biden’s election, but press questions about it will persist through November.

But for all the visceral revulsion that Trump’s legacy wields, not just among Democrats but among the state’s moderate, educated suburban voters who resoundingly rejected Trump twice, there is peril for Democrats who consider it a panacea.

An introspective postmortem on the 2020 campaign by three Democratic advocacy organizations sheds light on why last year’s congressional results fell far below the party’s stratospheric expectations and potential lessons for subsequent elections.

Among the findings gleaned from more than 100 interviews and data analysis about the campaign was that Democratic messaging dwelled too much on Trump.

“One theme that arose was party messaging that leaned too heavily on ‘anti-Trump’ rhetoric without harnessing a strong economic frame,” the report said. “Some campaign teams we spoke with felt that the party didn’t have a message beyond ‘Donald Trump sucks,’” creating split tickets where many voters supported Biden over Trump but backed Republicans in down-ballot races.

Beyond that, the study said, Democrats lacked a strong brand of their own, leaving them vulnerable to GOP attacks on them as “radical socialists” who would “defund the police” and prolong the economic devastation from the coronavirus shutdowns.

“Anecdotally, messages about jobs, the economy, and rebuilding post-COVID were most effective – but the GOP successfully branded Dems as the party that would keep the economy shut down,” according to one conclusion that Democrats had no good antidote to Republican messaging that they were radicals.

Democratic primary voters outside polling precincts on Tuesday delivered a variation on the same theme. Two McAuliffe voters at Petersburg’s 4th Ward precinct said they want a broader message more tailored to their daily lives.

“I don’t think hammering Trump the whole time is going to get it done,” said Carol Johnson. Creating jobs as the nation emerges from the pandemic was foremost among her concerns as is the rising cost of living, especially food prices, she said.

Another voter, small business owner Ethan Calvert, was bothered that Youngkin took so much time entertaining the notion that the election was stolen from Trump before admitting that Biden won fair and square.

While Trump’s stain may linger into this year’s Virginia races, Calvert said, “it’s not going to last forever.”

“I’d like to hear a strong message on the Virginia economy, on jobs. I am less interested in all the social hot buttons like the Capitol riot and the removal of statues. You reach a point of exhaustion on that,” he said.

To some extent, all governors’ races are won or lost on state-specific issues with a view to the future. And without the lift Democrats got from having a foil in the White House and the fresh horror of the deadly “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville during the governor’s race four years ago, Democrats will need to earnestly debate such basics with Youngkin.

“The Republicans have nominated, I think, the perfect candidate to address what is likely to be a prevailing concern among voters about … jobs, good schools, in this case schools that are back open, streets that are paved and communities that are safe,” Kidd said. “Trump put a lot of that on uncertain ground for Republicans because of how erratic he was.”

If Democrats don’t seize the moment, Kidd said, Youngkin will.  He compared the opportunity just ahead for the GOP to those in 1997 and 2009 when Republicans Jim Gilmore and Bob McDonnell, respectively, won on a compelling state-specific issue that they crystallized effectively into a three-word mantra. For Gilmore it was “No Car Tax!” and for McDonnell, in the depths of the Great Recession, it was “Bob’s for Jobs!”

Unlike Youngkin, however, neither Gilmore nor McDonnell had to labor in the still-dark shadow of a Trump.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]