Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Tuesday’s election is offering Republicans a roadmap for escaping former President Donald Trump‘s glare and forcing Democrats to rethink their strategy of running against the de facto leader of the GOP in the midterm elections.
Mr. Youngkin‘s win marked a 12-point swing from Mr. Trump‘s loss there a year ago and came after the political newcomer was able to put some daylight between himself and the former president.
“The Trump factor is that he wasn’t the factor and that was the No. 1 thing to happen for Republicans to win here again,” said J. Tucker Martin, a Virginia-based GOP strategist who served in former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. “Trump had to exit stage right. He was still in the theater, but he wasn’t center stage.”
Mr. Trump has been the center of gravity in the GOP since his stunning rise in 2016. Republican candidates across the country have mimicked him and fought to prove they are the Trumpiest of all.
Mr. Youngkin did not do that.
He did pay deference to Mr. Trump, making “election integrity” an issue before winning the nomination and then the former president’s endorsement.
Since then, he acknowledged Mr. Biden won the election and was careful about not getting too close to the former president.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump claimed credit for delivering Mr. Youngkin’s victory.
For his part, Mr. Youngkin didn’t mention Mr. Trump in his election night victory speech. Instead, he delivered a message focused on his “Day One” promises.
“I think it sort of distills how Glenn Youngkin won,” Mr. Martin said of the election night reactions. “He ran as his own person and his own candidate. He wasn’t a proxy for anyone, and wasn’t seen as a proxy for anybody else.”
The jury is out on whether the Youngkin model will work in drawn-out GOP primary races next year where Trumpism could have a larger presence. Some political analysts and party insiders believe that securing the nomination through a party convention helped Mr. Youngkin avoid a competitive fight for Trump voters.
Whatever the case, Mr. Youngkin’s approach stymied the plans of Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In an unrelenting fashion, Mr. McAuliffe fought to make the race a referendum on Mr. Trump, warning Mr. Youngkin was a Trump wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Democrats were left to wrestle with what went wrong and where to go from here.
“Between President Biden’s declining poll numbers (his approval ratings have fallen from 53-36% at the beginning of his administration to 43-51% now) and last night’s election results, Republicans have the wind at their backs again for the first time since 2014,” John Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics & Polling, said in his post-election analysis.
The reality was settling in on Capitol Hill, where the results of the election added a new sense of urgency to the negotiations over infrastructure and social safety net spending that have divided Democrats.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said the lack of action on Mr. Biden’s agenda hurt Mr. McAuliffe and said it is time for action.
“He could have had a really great wind at his back if Democrats had been willing to get the deal done,” Mr. Kaine said. “I hope my colleagues absorb this notion that when you’re the majority, the ‘D’ in Democrats should stand for ‘doer,’ not delay, dithering, do-nothing division.”
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, said the loss could give House members running in swing districts cold feet on spending bills.
“If you are a Democrat on Capitol Hill and you are from a swing district in suburban areas, are you rethinking tonight your vote on this reconciliation package,” Mr. Axelrod said on CNN. “Are you thinking, ‘Maybe it is best you shouldn’t do it?’”
Mr. Biden also blamed the upset in Virginia lawmakers’ failure to pass his agenda, but he had a hard time seeing beyond Mr. Trump’s long shadow.
“I’m not sure what I would have been able to change the very conservative folks who turned out in the very red districts that are Trump voters,” he told reporters at White House.
Mr. Trump had for years been the perfect foil for Democrats. He helped energize their base of the party and attract independents and anti-Trump Republicans.
In Virginia, his bombastic brand of politics proved toxic, particularly in the suburbs.
Mr. Trump lost the state in back-to-back presidential races. And he led the GOP over a four-year period in which Democrats flipped control of the state legislature in Richmond and all three levers of government in Washington.
Moderate Republicans running in races across the country struggled to distance themselves from the Trump brand, forced to either align themselves with or against a sitting president.
But with Mr. Trump no longer in the Oval Office, Mr. Youngkin had more room to run, and the freedom to forgo the Trump loyalty tests that had become a staple of races across the country.
Mr. Youngkin ran on traditional conservative issues, vowing to cut taxes, reduce regulations and protect gun rights.
On the stump, he came off as less bombastic and less self-aggrandizing than the former president, helping him to win back voters that ditched the party.
Mr. Youngkin also found an issue, education, that helped him tap into the growing frustration parents had with school closures and remote learning.
The issue also scored him points with activists up in arms over critical race theory and “woke” books in public schools.
“He is giving the Republican Party a blueprint on who to talk to the suburban voters again, and giving the Republican Party a reminder about how we used to run campaigns based on issues that voters care about,” GOP strategist Scott Jennings said on CNN.
Exit polls showed that Mr. Youngkin won 17% of voters that had an unfavorable view of Mr. Trump.
“I don’t think this race has anything to do with Donald Trump,” former Gov. Jim Gilmore told The Washington Times at Mr. Youngkin’s election night party. “I think this has to do with Glenn Youngkin, his candidacy and the issues he spoke to — period.”
• Kerry Picket contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat.