With his victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Glenn Youngkin wrote a new Republican playbook for keeping Donald Trump’s base engaged without alienating the voters who were repelled by the former President in recent elections.
That’s despite running against a rival, Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose closing message — in speeches, debates and television advertisements — was devoted almost entirely to convincing voters that Youngkin was no different than Trump.
Republicans say Youngkin’s win offers the party lessons it can apply across the 2022 midterm election landscape. Youngkin walked a tightrope on the right-wing grievances being fueled by conservative media. He said he favors auditing voting machines regularly, without embracing Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud. He said he would ban critical race theory, but characterized his position as favoring teaching “the good and the bad” of history without pitting children against each other.
Mostly, though, he focused on a broader education message — as well as kitchen-table economic issues such as eliminating the grocery tax and suspending the most recent increase in Virginia’s gas tax — that appealed to voters outside of Trump’s base.
“Youngkin winning shows that ‘Stop the Steal’ isn’t the winning formula for purple states,” a Georgia Republican operative said.
It was a performance that came with the electoral upside that Trump had brought the GOP with its base — without the cost of losing moderates and independents. Youngkin delivered a dominant, Trump-like performance among White voters in rural Virginia. But he also won back a share of the suburbanites who had abandoned Trump and handed Democrats control of the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.
“The biggest thing Youngkin was able to do was bridge the gap between the increasingly populist base and some of the more mild-mannered traditional Republicans voters who blanched at Trump’s style,” said veteran Republican strategist Liam Donovan.
Trump endorsed Youngkin and issued a series of statements praising him. He also held an invite-only tele-rally on the eve of the election that was organized without Youngkin’s involvement. But he did not visit the state, and after his ban from major social media platforms, did not have a significant role in the race.
“Glenn benefited from Trump’s relatively low profile, both in the sense that his absence undermined McAuliffe’s preferred argument, and because his nominal support was still a key signifier for motivating MAGA-minded voters who might otherwise be wary of an establishment-friendly candidate,” Donovan said.
Youngkin led a ticket that swept Republicans into power in a state where President Joe Biden had won by 10 points just one year earlier.
“In Virginia at least, without Trump on the ballot, Republicans are winning back Romney-Clinton voters faster than Democrats are winning back Obama-Trump voters or finding new voters. If that trend holds, there is no math that gives Democrats the House, Senate, or White House,” wrote Dan Pfeiffer, a long-time top aide to former President Barack Obama.
Education’s central role
At the core of Youngkin’s win, many Republicans said, was his message on education.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that as many as 70 House seats would be competitive next year. He said Republicans will unveil a “parental bill of rights” as the GOP seeks to make education and cultural issues a centerpiece of the party’s midterm strategy.
“Youngkin’s success reveals that Republicans can and must become the party of parents. There is real energy from parents that we need to understand,” Rep. Jim Banks, the Indiana Republican who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, wrote in a three-page memo that outlined a series of policies GOP candidates could campaign on in 2022.
“Democrats are attacking our schools in new ways, and conservatives must adjust,” Banks wrote. “Glenn Youngkin understood this. He knew parents weren’t just concerned about traditional education issues, but rather viewed education as an extension of the culture war.”
Youngkin tapped into the grievances of parents with a mixture of education-focused messages: He pledged to end coronavirus-related protocols and keep schools open full-time. He said he would deliver pay raises for teachers and more funding for special education. He committed to a rapid expansion of charter school options. He promised parental involvement in schools’ curriculum, and said he would ban the teaching of critical race theory, which isn’t part of Virginia’s education standards but has nonetheless become a popular target among Republicans.
And then, with a gaffe in their second and final debate, McAuliffe helped Youngkin unite the constituencies for those disparate messages.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said in that debate.
CNN’s exit polls showed that 52% of Virginia voters said parents should have “a lot” of say in what is taught in schools — and Youngkin got the votes of 77% of that group, while McAuliffe won by huge margins among those who said “some” or “not much.”
At Youngkin’s rally in Richmond the day before the election, Anne Taydus, a stay-at-home mother from Chesterfield County who said she got involved in local school board meetings this year, wore a shirt that said: “Children first, common sense second, politics and fear dead last.”
“It’s not just about Virginia, it’s not just about Chesterfield County, it’s everybody, people who have had their hope and their faith in America squashed by the Democrats and the Democratic Party,” she said.
“You don’t mess with the kids,” she said. “You just don’t mess with the children and that’s a national feeling.”
Youngkin’s built-in advantages
Youngkin had several advantages that would be difficult for other candidates to replicate — including personal wealth that allowed him to define himself in television ads before McAuliffe could effectively link him to Trump.
Youngkin also benefitted from Virginia Republicans choosing their gubernatorial nominee at a convention, rather than holding a drawn-out primary in which fealty to Trump would have likely become the defining issue.
A key question facing Republicans next year is whether candidates who can win general elections will survive primary contests against more strident, Trump-aligned figures, and whether the party’s base will rally around them if they do. Otherwise, the party could face losses reminiscent of blown races by hard-line conservatives in 2010 and 2012.
Trump, for his part, has made clear that he intends to insert himself into races and claim credit for GOP victories.
“I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning,” he said in a statement. “The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before.”
Youngkin also brought his own strengths to the table. The former Rice basketball player and chief executive of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group was an unproven commodity as a first-time candidate — and carried the risk of facing attacks similar to those Mitt Romney faced as a presidential candidate in 2012.
“Glenn proved to be a really solid, natural retail pol, which as a first time candidate was not always assured. You can’t teach that,” Donovan said.
Biden’s declining favorability, said one GOP strategist involved in 2022 races who was on hand for Youngkin’s victory party in Chantilly on Tuesday night, gave Youngkin an opening with voters beginning to doubt Democratic policies.
But the strategist said Youngkin also tapped into a series of issues — crime, the economy and education — that will work for Republicans in other states, too. Youngkin drew contrasts with McAuliffe and tapped into economic issues that have emerged during Biden’s presidency without reminding voters of Trump.
Education was a particularly salient issue in Virginia for Youngkin, the strategist said; other issues, such as immigration, might play that role in other states.
“Youngkin had a message, was very disciplined and handled Trump with respect. Virginia punished Biden too,” said Scott Reed, the former chief political strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce.
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.