The Virginia Governor Race Shows That Dems Can’t Count on Running Against Trump

The GOP won Virginia not with a Trump-style reactionary, but a boring old country-club Republican. That spells bad news for a Democratic Party banking on running against Trump-style conservatives.

Democrat and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Glenn Youngkin (right) participate in a debate on September 28, 2021, in Alexandria, Virginia. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race seems to have confirmed Democrats’ worst fears about the fragility of their coalition.

In a state that Joe Biden won by ten points and that hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in over a decade, Youngkin was able to defeat former governor Terry McAuliffe in a close race. What’s more, there are ominous signs that this isn’t a standard midterm reversal. The affluent suburbs that showed huge swings toward the Democrats in 2020, sealing Biden’s victory, swung toward the GOP this time, with Youngkin posting gains in the kinds of counties Democrats had hoped were theirs forever. If the Democrats can’t hold on to those suburbs in next year’s midterms, they have no chance of retaining their congressional majority.

Yet there is some even worse news for Democrats that has gone largely unrecognized in the endless Monday-morning quarterbacking that follows a loss like this: Youngkin’s win is bad news for Donald Trump.

Youngkin ran as a classic country-club Republican candidate. While happily accepting Trump’s endorsement, he never campaigned with Trump, and was careful not to act like the polarizing candidates (remember Todd Akin?) who have cost Republicans wins in the past. Instead, he ran a Mitt Romney–style campaign, casting himself as a responsible conservative beating back liberal overreach.

McAuliffe’s campaign, however, refused to recognize that Youngkin represented something different from Trumpist clowns like Madison Cawthorn. McAuliffe’s campaign focused monomaniacally on associating Youngkin with Trump, placing personality before politics. With Trump largely exiled from the media (at the urging of liberal Democrats), efforts to scare Virginia voters by evoking his specter predictably fell flat.

Many argued that Youngkin’s focus on “critical race theory” in Virginia public schools showed that he was, in fact, a kind of stealth Trumpist, pushing the same racial resentments that brought Trump to office but in slightly more polite tones. Yet this argument reveals just how short Democratic memories have become.

After all, Mitt Romney, square-jawed leader of the anti-Trump insurgency in the GOP, was happy to capitalize on racist birther lunacy during his failed presidential bid, commenting, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Similarly, George H.W. Bush, the grand patriarch of Republican moderation, was the one who ran the infamous “Willie Horton” ad against Michael Dukakis. Trump did not invent Republican race-baiting, much as Democratic efforts to anathematize him imply that he did.

By the same token, liberals have tended to imagine Trump’s hold on the GOP is unshakeable, and that, if he were to run in 2024, he would have the Republican nomination sewn up from day one. Youngkin’s victory, however, suggests otherwise. If the party can win with standard country-club Republicanism, it has no need of Trump. Indeed, given his deep personal unpopularity, Trump is a liability. As 2024 approaches, Trump’s handlers in the party will likely dissuade him from running. They will pull out all the stops to convince him that he will remain most powerful and beloved as the party’s godfather — the man whose ring everyone must kiss, but who also never leaves his compound.

In other words, while never-Trumpers like Liz Cheney are not about to seize the party back, neither is it the case that would-be Trump epigones like Josh Hawley represent the party’s future. Youngkin’s victory shows that the GOP’s business wing is alive and well, and learning that discretion may be the better part of valor when it comes to confronting Trump directly. The story of the GOP since Ronald Reagan has been a series of battles between establishments and insurgents, with the failures of each setting up the advances of their rivals. The results in Virginia suggest that Trump has not interrupted this dynamic as much as become another moment of it.

One might think all this is good news for the Democratic Party leadership, which has insisted since 2015 it wants nothing more than a de-Trumpified GOP. Yet Virginia suggests the party should be careful what it wishes for. For the better part of a decade now, Democrats have grown accustomed to running against Trump personally more than running for anything in particular. McAuliffe thought this strategy would work even with Trump offstage, and found it doesn’t. A year from now, it’s even less likely to resonate with voters.

This is, of course, a tremendous problem for Democrats. With Biden’s originally ambitious social policy agenda being cut back more every week, it is increasingly unlikely that the Democrats will be able to run on any kind of tangible success in improving people’s lives. That leaves them little besides scaremongering about Republican insanity.

Democrats will undoubtedly be engaged in a lot of soul-searching after Tuesday’s defeat. There will probably be asinine arguments about whether the party should defend “critical race theory” more forthrightly or admit that there are indeed some stupid things happening in schools under the guise of education for social justice. But superficial adjustments like these in either direction won’t have much impact on the party’s electoral fortunes. What the party needs is a convincing political vision for how it will improve people’s lives. Little of its recent history gives confidence that it can develop one.