Glenn Youngkin Built a Path for a Post-Trump Republican Party

Youngkin's upset win in a state that went big for Clinton and Biden offers lessons for the Republican Party.

If you roll back the clock to early August, the Virginia gubernatorial contest was a pretty subdued race. The RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average at that time showed Republican Glenn Youngkin trailing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by almost six points.

Many observers assumed that Virginia would be an easy win for the Democrats. The state had been getting consistently bluer in recent presidential elections, with Hillary Clinton winning it by around five points and Joe Biden capturing it by ten points. The last gubernatorial election that took place in 2017 ended up being an easy win for Democrat Ralph Northam, who trounced Republican Ed Gillespie by more than eight points.

Virginia, the conventional wisdom went, is now a reliably blue state where Republicans are basically uncompetitive statewide. There was a lot of reason to believe this was true. Northern Virginia, in particular, has been a real growth spot for Democrats, as people from around the country and around the world flock there for the jobs that are produced by the powerful Metro D.C. economic engine. As education polarization continues to define our politics, college-educated folks in the suburbs have proved to be a reliable base for the Democrats.

One example of this is Fairfax County, one of the most prosperous regions of Virginia. Fairfax narrowly went for Republican Bob McDonnell in the 2009 governor’s race. By 2017’s race, almost 68 percent of the county voted for Democrat Ralph Northam. Fairfax and an armada of Northern Virginia voters have kept the state in the firmly blue column since.

A few weeks ago, it became clear that something was going to be different this year. You can see the polling trajectory in the RCP polling average:

At the time of this writing, Youngkin appears on track for a shocking upset win.

President Biden’s poor approval ratings surely played a role in Youngkin’s surprising performance. But the Republican candidate’s earlier surge appeared to be timed with events that were local to the Virginia race. It’s worth reviewing Youngkin’s strategy and the lessons it provides for the Republican Party going forward.

Using school wars to his advantage

The shift in the race can be traced to late September. That month, McAuliffe and Youngkin dueled in a gubernatorial debate over the topic of legislation that the former vetoed during his first term as governor (in Virginia, governors can serve only one term at a time but are free to run again after sitting it out for a cycle).

That legislation would’ve alerted parents about sexually explicit material offered to students as part of instructional material. Parents who objected to this material could then request alternative materials from the school.

In the back and forth over the bills, McAuliffe suggested that the legislation would’ve allowed parents to ban books from school (the Washington Post, no fan of Youngkin, acknowledged that this is not in fact what the legislation would’ve done). That’s when he uttered the line that came to define the race.

“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said in the debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Youngkin’s campaign quick cut McAuliffe’s words into an ad:

In the last month of the campaign, Youngkin and conservative media hammered McAuliffe nonstop on education issues. Meanwhile, the Daily Wire broke a story about how a man who was arrested during a school board meeting in Virginia’s Loudoun County over the summer was actually there because he was upset about the sexual assault of his daughter. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) actually cited that father’s case as evidence that school boards needed federal intervention to protect them from angry parents when it wrote a letter to the Department of Justice. (The NSBA was subject to its own national backlash for that.)

Youngkin made the case a centerpiece of his demand for greater transparency and accountability from schools, adding it to his earlier pledge to prohibit state sponsorship of critical race theory-inspired (CRT) ideas in public education. At the same time, he continue to campaign on boosting teacher salaries, putting him in alignment with the concerns of many Democratic-leaning voters.

The Republican nominee’s emphasis on education appeared to turn the race in his favor. I spoke to Elizabeth Schultz, who served on the Fairfax County School Board for eight years and voted for Youngkin this year.

She described a political environment in Northern Virginia where parents were frustrated at school policies that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I told the Youngkin campaign at the beginning of June that this…was going to come down to education and it was going to come down to education in Northern Virginia,” she told me. “I understood how angry how parents were about what happened over the course of the pandemic and the schools not being opened, the collusion that was exposed between the teachers’ unions and the CDC in keeping schools closed and them architecting the messaging to keep schools closed.”

Indeed, while it went little-noticed in national news, there was a steep decline in scores on what are called the 2020-2021 Standards of Learning tests in Northern Virginia. Recall that this is the most prosperous part of the state. If this is what happened there, just imagine what happened in the rest of Virginia.

As Youngkin started to soar in the polls, surveys showed that the percentage of Virginia voters who said education was “the most important issue” in their choice for governor increased from 15 percent to 24 percent in the Washington Post-Schar poll. The same poll suggested that education-focused voters used to favor the Democrat by large margins but later came to favor the GOP:

Meanwhile, parents polarized, with Youngkin walking away with a significant advantage among those with kids in school:

Some would suggest that the McAuliffe-Youngkin debate and the barrage of attack ads that followed created the controversy, but another way to interpret it is that the gubernatorial campaign elevated debates about education that were already ongoing. Youngkin didn’t invent these controversies, he simply tapped into them.

As I reported earlier this year for Tablet Magazine, Northern Virginia has been engulfed by heated debates over the school system. Those debate revolve around a range of issues — from the impact of school closures to whether selective high schools should use testing for admission to whether the new racialism is appropriate for curriculum.

While McAuliffe sought to frame Youngkin’s complaints about the education system as little more than racial dog whistles, anyone who is familiar with what’s been happening in Northern Virginia would know that the truth is a lot more complicated.

For one, many of the parents who are opposed to CRT-infused curriculum and doing away with testing in order to change the racial demography of selective schools are themselves from ethnic minority groups. The mother I interviewed in the Tablet piece linked above, worried sick that the quality of her son’s education would plummet if admissions standards were changed, was the daughter of dirt-poor Indians. One opponent of the NSBA’s heavy-handed letter was a Chinese American woman who grew up under the Cultural Revolution.

It would be easy to pretend that Youngkin was doing nothing more than rallying Virginia’s far-right, as this Arlington School Board member-elect did (the man pictured on the right is segregationist Harry Byrd):

But it happened to not be true. Almost all Republicans, many Independents, and even a few Democrats happened to agree with Youngkin’s view on education, and McAuliffe treating them all as the resurrection of the White Citizens’ Council failed to blunt the momentum because it simply wasn’t based in reality.

Toning down the libertarianism and sounding populist notes

There’s no doubt that Youngkin was the more economically conservative of the two candidates. McAuliffe campaigned on a $15 minimum wage; Youngkin frequently mentioned his desire to cut taxes.

But unlike many other GOP candidates across the country, Youngkin wasn’t afraid to occasionally lean into populism.

His embrace of the aforementioned teacher salary hike is one example. Another would be his pledge to eliminate the state’s grocery tax. As a Virginia resident, this was one of his ads I would get:

Unlike many tax cuts that Republicans propose, this one aligns with progressive-populist thought. The left-of-center Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has called for cutting or eliminating grocery taxes.

The area where Youngkin most clearly outflanked McAuliffe on populist issues was his counter-attack against Dominion Energy, a monopoly that has long been close to the former Democratic governor. Dominion was caught funding an outside group that attacked Youngkin for not being pro-gun enough, a clear attempt to suppress the conservative vote. The exposure pushed Dominion to ask for its money back (its not clear whether they got it).

Rather than simply ignore corporate support for his opponent (which seems to be the default Republican play in these situations), Youngkin went on the offensive, positioning himself as on the side of Virginians who have for years been ripped off by Dominion:

Lastly, Youngkin was able to strategically use populism without alienating any large segment of Virginia voters. That’s a big difference between him and Ed Gillespie, the 2017 GOP gubernatorial candidate, whose campaign was basically about how MS-13 was going to kill us all. Fear tactics often backfire. Just ask the Lincoln Project.

Keeping a healthy distance from Trump

One of the biggest differences between the McAuliffe and Youngkin campaigns was that the former embraced national surrogates and the latter mostly went it alone.

In the final weeks of the race, McAuliffe campaigned alongside Barack Obama, President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and an all-star cast of Democratic bigwigs. He frequently compared Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, so much so that even CNN was a bit taken aback when he at one point claimed the campaign was “not about Trump.” McAuliffe’s goal was to nationalize the campaign. After all, Trump lost the state twice, right?

Youngkin didn’t take the bait. He campaigned almost entirely with local politicians on local issues. He paid lip service to the former president during the gubernatorial primary, but barely mentioned him after that. He didn’t go as far as some blue state Republicans and angrily denounce Trump, but that would’ve been foolish in a state where he had to turn out a substantial number of Republicans in order to win. Voters appeared receptive to Youngkin’s attempt to make a distinction:

Youngkin basically cracked the Trump formula for Republicans. You need to distance yourself from Trump — focus on local issues and campaign with local politicians — but also make sure that it’s a healthy distance. Trump never visited Virginia to campaign for Youngkin, but he did encourage Republicans to vote for him. Youngkin turned Trump into a normal party elder: someone who will help you but not go out of his way to make everything about himself.

This must’ve been a real disappointment for McAuliffe. On his Twitter account, Youngkin’s campaign mentioned Trump only three times between winning the primary and election day — each time to make fun of how much McAuliffe talks about him. In the same time period, McAuliffe tweeted about Trump dozens of times. But ultimately, Youngkin’s discipline allowed him to keep the healthy distance he needed.

A new path for Republicans

Youngkin’s surprising performance in Virginia has laid out a path for other Republicans that holds three components.

First, Republicans succeed when they lean into social-cultural issues that their base cares about. Youngkin didn’t invent opposition to controversial K-12 policies in Virginia, he merely acknowledged the preexisting concerns and championed parents’ protests against the system.

Second, populism isn’t a dirty word. Republicans don’t have to stop talking about cutting taxes or deregulation, but at a time when more and more Americans are skeptical of big business and the American family faces social and economic pressures, demonstrating that you can stand up for workers and consumers is an asset. Youngkin’s pledge to eliminate the grocery tax, boost teacher salaries, and fight Dominion Energy were all important to help a guy whose background is in private equity assure working families that he wouldn’t completely ignore their interests.

Lastly, Republicans need to learn how to manage a healthy relationship with Trump. Completely embracing him will lead to huge general election losses in swing states while denouncing him will deflate the Republican base you need to win elections in the same places. Paying lip service to him — acknowledging the reality that most Republican voters appreciated his presidency — is essential while also making sure that he isn’t a major part of your campaign.

There’s no doubt that Trump is a larger than life personality who continues to play a major role in American politics. It’s entirely possible that he will once again be the Republican Party’s nominee in 2024. But the Virginia race shows that it’s entirely possible to run a vigorous, base-motivating Republican campaign without making the former president front and center.

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