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Opinion An abnormal Republican Party was treated normally by voters in New Jersey and Virginia

Glenn Youngkin, governor-elect of Virginia, at an event in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 3. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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Tuesday’s election results in New Jersey and Virginia — a big swing away from the party that controls the White House — were fairly normal. And that’s the scary thing.

The president’s party generally struggles in off-year elections for two reasons. First, there is often a turnout gap that favors the party that doesn’t control the White House. Off-year elections have much lower turnout than presidential ones, but typically more people from the party that doesn’t control the presidency are motivated to vote in opposition to whatever the incumbent president is doing. Second, some voters swing away from the president’s party, both because they don’t like his performance and because they want a balance of power in government.

But I hoped that the threat of Trumpism might reverse these patterns, for a simple reason: The post-2020-election Republican Party has gone crazy. Many of the party’s leading figures refuse to acknowledge President Biden’s victory. A wave of GOP-controlled states has passed laws to make it harder to vote and to learn about the United States’ racial history. Numerous GOP leaders have fought policies such as mask-wearing to limit the spread of covid-19.

Less than two months ago in California, that hope was fulfilled. Democrats rightly cast Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder as a dangerous, Trump-like figure — and it worked. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated an attempted recall by about the same margin (about 24 points) that he had won reelection in 2018, when Donald Trump was president.

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But Virginia and New Jersey contradict what happened in California and suggest that many voters aren’t too bothered by a Trump-like Republican Party as long as Trump isn’t in the White House.

Have questions about the elections? Opinions columnists will be available at 12:15 ET on Nov. 4 to answer reader questions.

Both states followed the historic pattern of the president’s party in off-year elections. In heavily Democratic Fairfax County, Va., Biden won about 420,000 votes in 2020, while Trump won about 168,000. In the gubernatorial election this year, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won about 282,000 votes and Republican Glenn Youngkin about 152,000, meaning Youngkin won 90 percent of Trump’s total and McAuliffe won just 67 percent of Biden’s.

Some voters may have switched from Biden to Youngkin, but it’s unlikely the huge McAuliffe shortfall in Fairfax was just about switching. Instead, it’s clear that lots of the people who voted for Biden did not participate in this election, while a smaller percentage of Trump voters sat out. Exit polls suggest that of those who participated, 47 percent voted for Biden and 45 percent voted for Trump. This was not the same electorate that Biden won 54-44.

Similarly, in New Jersey, 2.6 million people voted for Biden, but Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is likely to finish several hundred thousand votes behind that.

There is evidence of switching, too. Exit polls in Virginia suggested that 5 percent of 2020 Biden votes backed Youngkin, while just 2 percent of 2020 Trump voters supported McAuliffe. That only accounts for a few points, but McAuliffe will end up losing by 1-to-3 percentage points, so those small shifts matter.

In some ways, it’s entirely logical that traditional patterns held. Youngkin and New Jersey GOP gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli don’t have a long history of saying racist things. Neither man tried to overturn an election. Victories by Youngkin and Ciattarelli would not be the threat to American democracy posed by Trump in 2020 (and potentially in 2024).

And the fact that Youngkin and Ciattarelli aren’t Trump made it easier for a few Biden voters to back them. After all, some who voted for Republicans such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney still consider themselves conservative but couldn’t stomach Trump. And I have no doubt that there are voters in both states who are either frustrated by the gridlock in Washington and think Biden has been ineffective or are simply wary of parts of the Democratic agenda.

But even though Youngkin isn’t as bad as Trump, he has nonetheless flirted with some of the worst of Trumpism, at one point refusing to acknowledge Biden won the election and throughout the election casting critical race theory as a threat. It would have been great if Virginia decisively rebuked a candidate who traffics in even small amounts of Trumpism.

Perhaps that will come in 2022. It could be the case that in next year’s elections Republicans nominate more candidates like Elder (who had a record of out-there comments) and fewer like Youngkin. Maybe voters think of federal elections differently than state ones. Trump, who largely stayed out of New Jersey and Virginia, could interject himself more next year, making the specter of Trumpism more real.

But at least right now, the results from New Jersey and Virginia suggest a reversion to normal — that the 2022 election will feature a GOP base that is more motivated than the Democratic one, along with a small bloc of voters swinging to the GOP. In normal circumstances, I’d see that as a bad thing, since my policy views are closer to the Democrats. A person with traditional Republican policy views would no doubt disagree. But in our current abnormal circumstance, with U.S. democracy on the precipice because of the extremism of the current GOP, everyone needs to understand that normal could well be catastrophic.

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