Republicans have a good model with winning out-year governors races in state like Virginia and New Jersey that hold their elections off the even numbered two year cycle. Bank on the energy of hungry Republicans partisans looking to win and election while presenting themselves to the electorate at large as a salt-of-the-earth problem-solver just looking to lend a hand. (Dems of course have their own version of this playbook.) But the situation in Virginia today shows how the Trump era may pose some problems for that model.
Glenn Youngkin is a former private equity CEO who played hard for Donald Trump’s endorsement to be the Republican nominee for Governor in Virginia. It worked. He got Trump’s endorsement and the nomination. But he’s generally eschewed the Republican label in the general election campaign and certainly not leaned into Trump and all that goes with him.
But Terry McAuliffe, running for a second term as governor after leaving office four years ago, seems to have successful baited Youngkin into insisting on making the campaign about Trump. McAuliffe ran an ad tying Youngkin to Trump and Youngkin responded with an ad insisting that McAuliffe is the true Trump fanboy. No really! They dug up a campaign contribution from Trump to McAuliffe back in 2009 when Trump still gave to Democrats and a 2017 National Governors Association speech where Trump gave McAuliffe a shout out.
The best defense is a good offense and all. But anyone with a pulse knows that a Republican is not going to win a battle over who’s least close to Trummp in a state where Trump remains quite unpopular. It tends to confirm the hunches of those who predicted that Youngkin wasn’t ready for primetime. One self-own doesn’t lose you an election of course. But the dynamic is a critical one for McAuliffe and should be for Democrats across the country going into 2022.
Normally a former President leaves the stage of active politics. Normally a former President hasn’t just tried to overthrow the government, let alone continue to try to do so. Trump of course hasn’t left the stage. He’s also a jealous and unfaithful god. McAuliffe should – and I’m sure he will – be sure to ask Youngkin whether he supports the insurrection as Trump demands? Does he believe the 2020 was stolen? (You may know that the insurrection isn’t terribly popular in North Virginia where many Capitol workers live.)
The normal response to this kind of politicking is to say, hey I’m thinking about the future and Virginia. I’m not focused on the past. But of course Trump isn’t the past. He’s the current head of the party. He’s in the process of deepening his grip on it. He’s at least holding the space of the 2024 presidential nominee – whether or not that actually comes to pass.
That rejoinder simply isn’t available to Youngkin. In America in 2021 the past isn’t dead. Indeed, it’s not even past. And on top of that Youngkin has shown he’s green enough politically not to realize how difficult it will be square this circle. For the moment he’s managed to grab on to a “let’s make the election about Trump” strategy which certainly makes Terry McAuliffe happy.