Youngkin proves a post-Trump model for a GOP resurgence. (If Trump will allow it.)

November 8, 2021 12:01 am

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin walks across Capitol Square in Richmond last month. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Elections are turning points. For one party or campaign, it is a judgment, cold and final, that raises difficult questions and requires humbling introspection. For 10 years in a row in Virginia, that was the Republican Party, and with each passing year, the answer seemed ever more elusive.

Until Tuesday.

Glenn Youngkin led the GOP on a sweep beyond what even his own party hoped for – every statewide office plus a House of Delegates majority returned after just two years of Democratic control. And in the victory, there are answers aplenty Republicans can and should replicate in other elections, particularly next year’s congressional midterms and gubernatorial races.

And for the Democrats? The party must come to grips with whether its warring progressive and moderate wings can really be one party. At least for the moment in control of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, the Democrats have proved ineffectual at best, disconnected from a huge swath of American society.

On Tuesday, the electorate rendered its judgment.

For former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats, it was harsh, particularly in Virginia. But the shock waves were felt hundreds of miles up the East Coast in Democratic New Jersey where Gov. Phil Murphy came within a whisker of losing to a long-shot Republican challenger.

Republicans responded with unrestrained euphoria, particularly in Virginia where the party had not won a statewide race since 2009. They went from being hopelessly out of power as of supper on Tuesday to elected heirs to the three most powerful offices in the commonwealth and control of half of the Legislature by breakfast on Wednesday. (Elections for the 40 seats in the Democratic-ruled Senate are still two years away.)

It all happened in a race the polls showed was close but in a state with Democrat-friendly demographics that most of the political cognoscenti had written off as forever blue.

As it turns out, having a no-name candidate, untested but also unstained, can be a good thing when a party desperately needs rebranding.

Republicans had lost competitive Virginia elections before Trump began his vainglorious quest to twist the GOP into a nationalist cult loyal to him. His politics exploited the nation’s cultural fissures, fed by his unabashed pandering to White grievance. Any Republican who dared remain true to the Constitution and the party’s conservative creed rather than Trump himself — most recently upon the passing of Gen. Colin Powell — was exiled as a RINO (Republican in name only), an apostate whom his worshipful followers reviled as a class lower even than Democrats.

Trump’s tantrums never played well in Virginia. From 2016 until last week, candidates with an ‘R’ beside them on a ballot in any election of consequence were in for a beating, and not just in governor’s races. During the five years bracketing Trump’s first candidacy and his presidency, Republicans lost majorities in both legislative chambers and dropped from holding most of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats to only four now while Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner consolidated their grip on both Senate seats. Not since 1968 had the GOP been so thoroughly out of power in Virginia.

Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden (though Trump and his hangers-on will never acknowledge it) and his banishment from social media platforms reduced his noxious presence and gave the party a chance for a badly needed makeover. In Virginia, the GOP took a gamble with Youngkin, a wealthy, soft-spoken former hedge fund executive with no prior experience in elective politics. Approachable and unthreatening, he campaigned as an empathetic Everyman in an open collar, khakis and a zip-up fleece vest, calmly talking up soccer-mom-friendly kitchen-table issues like tax cuts and education.

“We nominated Atticus Finch,” said Shaun Kenney, an unwavering conservative and former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia who found himself at odds with its growing alt-right movement. On election night, he exclaimed in a Facebook post that the GOP he “worked for and loved … is back.”

In a conversation last week, Shaun likened Tuesday’s win to the 1993 victory that brought a lightly regarded former congressman to a stunning victory over a heavily favored Democrat who was the state attorney general and ended three consecutive Democratic terms in the Executive Mansion.

Last week, I argue, was bigger.

George Allen’s victory in the early 1990s was an important breakthrough in a GOP ascendancy that was already quietly under way with steady gains in the General Assembly. When Allen won, only one other Republican was also elected statewide – Attorney General Jim Gilmore. Democrats retained legislative majorities, albeit by narrower margins.

Youngkin not only won, he brought the whole ticket with him – the first Black woman ever elected lieutenant governor in former Del. Winsome Sears and the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Virginia in attorney general-elect Jason Miyares, the son of a Cuban immigrant. And by flipping seven Democratic House seats, the GOP takes a two-seat majority.

Youngkin ran a superb campaign. He eschewed the slash-and-burn style of the prior president and adopted both a message and persona precisely calibrated to disarm independents and soft Democrats without alienating the GOP’s pro-Trump base.

He calmly deflected Democrats’ ceaseless efforts to tie him to Trump. Yes, Youngkin had flirted with Trumpist “election integrity” rhetoric leading up to his nomination but acknowledged afterward that Biden was legitimately elected. As much as McAuliffe insisted that Youngkin was “Trump in khakis,” the electorate never saw him that way.

As Trump endorsed him and sought to take credit for Youngkin’s rise, Youngkin thanked him and moved on, refocusing his message on proposals to boost school funding and cutting the state’s grocery and gasoline taxes as food and fuel prices spiked, putting off the difficult questions of how to pay for it all.

Secretly videotaped promising to “go on offense” against abortion if elected, Youngkin wisely let the issue exhaust itself over the summer rather than engage and give it legs. Though opposing government vaccination mandates that majorities of Virginians support, he acknowledged the vaccines’ safety and efficacy and urged Virginians to get them.

Then, on Sept. 28 in the second and final debate of a statistically tied race, McAuliffe committed the political equivalent of fumbling on his own 5 yard line. By saying in the live, televised event that parents have no business telling schools what to teach their children, the seasoned political pro handed his neophyte opponent the tool he needed to weaken the Democrats’ firewall in the suburbs and exurbs of Washington.

Exurban Loudoun County had become the avatar for unrest across the nation as parents vented their anger over issues of mask mandates, remote-learning policies, race in school curricula and restroom accommodations for transgender students. Youngkin quickly exploited – and embellished – McAuliffe’s words well beyond what he actually said, linking it to a Justice Department assessment of violent threats against school board members nationally that he mischaracterized as a plot to stifle parents.

In a turnout that exceeded 2017’s previous record gubernatorial vote by 25 percent, Youngkin mustered a massive vote in Republican rural strongholds and held down McAuliffe’s suburban margins. And he did it his way, keeping Trump at arm’s length while tantalizing Trump loyalists and RINOs alike with the prospect of ending a dozen years of GOP futility.

It’s not a formula that can be replicated everywhere, particularly Trump’s Deep South red clay redoubts. But Youngkin proved a workable template for winning in Trump-averse states where Democrats hold a slight demographic edge by minimizing the former president’s presence and focusing instead on Democratic dysfunction and overreach on issues like law enforcement, schools and taxation, all the while projecting a kinder, gentler image.

How widely it gets deployed by Republican Senate and House candidates looking to retake Congress and in governors’ races next year may depend on how well Trump himself tolerates it.

If there’s one thing Trump’s bloated, orange ego can’t abide, it’s being nudged off center stage.

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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]