The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin just handed Republicans their 2022 blueprint

Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin makes a stop at Rocky Run Middle School on Nov. 2 in Chantilly, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The degree to which any election predicts future results is often overstated. Much like polling, it merely represents a snapshot of the moment. But if the question is whether association with Donald Trump is a fatal blow to Republican candidates, the answer provided by the governor’s race in Virginia — a blue-leaning state won by President Biden by 10 points — is a clear “no,” at least if GOP hopefuls follow Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin’s blueprint.

Youngkin’s upset victory on Tuesday over Democrat Terry McAuliffe should give Democratic Party leaders sleepless nights and prompt a reassessment of Biden’s agenda. They’d be wise to start that reassessment immediately, before Democrats in Congress pass his Build Back Better package, even in its reduced form.

Youngkin made the campaign a referendum on parental rights, while McAuliffe did his best to try to tether Youngkin to Trump. The former president may be persona non grata for many voters, but some polls now show him with a higher approval rating than Biden’s — a combination of Trump rebounding and Biden sinking. But that doesn’t mean Trump wields significant influence outside his devoted base, and Youngkin knew as much.

While Trump backed Youngkin — an endorsement Youngkin happily accepted — and participated remotely in campaign events, Youngkin never invited the former president to the state, avoiding personal appearances with him. By contrast, McAuliffe had Biden at his side, even though he acknowledged during a video conference call that “the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia.”

Despite their efforts to tag each other with extremist labels, neither candidate was on his party’s far fringes. Youngkin is, by and large, a conventional conservative, and McAuliffe is, for the most part, a traditional liberal. But the standard left-right issues weren’t what mattered most.

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Instead, the governor’s race morphed into a school board campaign. Youngkin accused McAuliffe of promoting critical race theory in schools, and blasted the former governor’s veto of a bill that would have given parents the ability to exempt their children from being assigned to read sexually explicit books. In particular, Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” about the brutality of slavery, was targeted.

McAuliffe accused Youngkin of using “a racist dog whistle” in the book fight, but found himself countering the perception that he thinks parents should have no involvement in their children’s education.

“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said during a late-September debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The moment was a political gift; it was probably all Youngkin could do not to rush offstage immediately to buy more ad time.

The fact that parental rights in education became a central campaign issue shows that populism is still a potent element in U.S. politics. And in the Republican Party, even with Trump out of the White House, populism — not conservatism — remains the GOP’s principal identity. The movement is driven by previously apathetic citizens who are suddenly examining every jot or tittle of every decision, resolution or bill — whether at local school boards or in Congress.

Trump is to credit or blame, whichever you prefer, for Americans nationwide being recently sparked into action, like a sports car going from zero to 60 in under five seconds — which can be impressive but dangerous, particularly with new drivers behind the wheel.

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Tuesday’s result provides more evidence that Biden’s win last year had more to do with Trump fatigue than a rejection of Trumpian policies. Exit polling on Tuesday found that Trump remains unpopular. A recent Post-Schar School poll found that 7 in 10 likely voters said Youngkin’s ideas and policies were similar to Trump’s. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Youngkin. It is Trump who’s unpopular, not his policies.

Exit polling also found that slightly more Virginians said they voted to oppose Biden than to support him. If Democrats are wise enough to engage in some deep introspection about their future following Tuesday’s results, they might ask Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to lead the discussion, while sending Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) out for sandwiches.

In future elections, not every Republican will be lucky enough to have an opponent say aloud that parents should stay out of decisions involving their children’s education. Instead, Republicans will have to rely on the rest of the Youngkin blueprint, which is particularly applicable in swing states: Embrace Trump’s populism and many of his programs, while keeping the man himself in the background.

Whether Trump’s ego allows that to happen beyond Virginia is an entirely different question.

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