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The Trailer: After Virginia, Republicans see more ways to beat the left

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In this edition: Republicans see blue skies ahead, the strategy behind Glenn Youngkin's winning ad campaign, and election overtime in Florida and New Jersey.

Thinking of every “Oz” headline pun before some other newsletter uses them, this is The Trailer.

The margins in last week's most closely watched races were small — a few points to win in Virginia, a few points to lose in New Jersey. Republicans ended the week with a little infighting, as 13 GOP members of the House delivered the votes for an infrastructure bill the rest called “socialism.”

But as they've made the rounds at post-election meetings, Republicans are charged up with a confidence that it took them years to get back in prior out-of-power stints. Cheers broke out at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando at the news of Glenn Youngkin winning in Virginia; the anti-Biden chant “Let's go, Brandon” rang out at the Republican Jewish Coalition's summit in Las Vegas, whenever one of the guests was on a roll.

“Everybody knows how bad Joe Biden is,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said with a laugh, nearly a year to the day after Biden easily carried his state. “The word is out.”

Republicans have been locked out of power in Washington before, and quickly reorganized to take it back. But rarely has a defeated movement been so confident of the agenda it will pursue if it wins again, with arguments less about that agenda than about which issues should be emphasized. In Orlando, both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem got familiar applause for their quick reopenings during the height of the pandemic. 

In 2020, it wasn't clear that those policies were election-winners; after the Virginia elections, where a Republican who opposed vaccine and mask mandates beat a Democrat who favored them, the debate was over.

“My people are happy, and they’re happy because they’re free,” said Noem, inviting the RJC audience of around 750 donors, activists and candidates to the “menorah-lighting at Mount Rushmore.” DeSantis described Florida as a bulwark against a “Faucian dystopia in which people's freedoms are curtailed and their lives are destroyed from bureaucratic edicts” and looked ahead to a special legislative session in Tallahassee where Republicans would protect workers who quit over vaccine mandates.

“We as a free people should just say no,” DeSantis said. “No mandates, no restrictions. We are going to take our freedom back.”

A theme at both conferences, one that wouldn't have sounded as true in 2009 and 1993, was that conservatives had begun to replace the discredited gatekeepers of liberalism. At the National Conservatism Conference, speakers like Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance — an increasingly active political donor and a candidate endorsed by him — described the power of new media and new money to make the left irrelevant. 

“I would like us to go back to a country where we have ticker tape parades for single individuals,” Thiel said, one of many ideas at the conference for building power around the individual, instead of a political collective. His nominee for the first such parade: the bitcoin founder, known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who'd given individuals a hedge against a Federal Reserve spending too much money and hobbled by “epistemic closure.” 

Former president Donald Trump did not attend either event, and the question of whether he should run for president in 2024 — and whether Republicans should move on from denying the results of the 2020 election — produced some of the only static at the RJC's conference. (Both Sununu and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie broached the topic, with Christie directly calling on conservatives to stop “wasting time” on 2020.) For most attendees, there were too many victories or potential victories to talk about to keep harping on an election that broke against them, but left an unpopular Democratic president leading their opposition.

“Are we in a new technological era where Republicans can really go around the mainstream media?” former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer asked Sarah Sanders, a successor in that job now running for governor of Arkansas.

“I think Republicans have to go around the mainstream media,” Sanders said. “Whatever you see and think you saw, I can assure you it's much worse.” 

The media based in “Washington, New York and California,” Sanders continued, made up “the propaganda arm of the Democrat Party.” It wasn't very relevant, just like the pandemic restrictions advised by bureaucrats. “In Arkansas, people are just kind of done, and they have decided that they will make decisions about what is best for themselves,” she added. “Exactly how it should operate.”

And at both conferences, Republicans looked at Youngkin's sweep in Virginia, and GOP gains in the New York suburbs, and saw liberal institutions that had never been weaker.  “I took on the teachers union 12 years ago and I've never stopped,” Christie said. “Guess what? Joe Biden has given them oxygen. We have to cut off that oxygen and put control of education back with parents.” Siding with parents over teachers unions, Christie said, would power the party to victories in November 2022.

At times, the trouble was in narrowing down the issues that Republicans could run and win on. At one RJC session, Fleischer regaled the crowd with a joke that took almost four minutes to tell. In it, the Lord returned and asked a new Noah to build him an ark in six months. 

When the time ran out, and the Lord returned, Noah listed every Biden-era policy or standard that had made his job impossible. “I had two of each kind on my ark and I was supposed to have three,” said Fleischer's Noah. Supply chain shortages had cut off his lumber supply. Regulations had decimated his crew of unvaccinated workers. As the litany continued, the skies parted, and the second great flood looked to be averted.

“Noah looked up and he said: ‘Lord, Lord! You mean you're not going to destroy the world?’” Fleischer said. “ ‘No,’ said the Lord. ‘Joe Biden beat me to it.’ ”

Reading list

“Democrats search for political identity amid dismal election results and legislative triumph,” by Matt Viser, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Karina Elwood

Building back, unclear if they party's prospects are getting any better.

“Democrats thought they bottomed out in rural, white America. It wasn’t the bottom,” by Astead W. Herndon and Shane Goldmacher

The issues and attitudes that keep adding to GOP margins outside the suburbs.

“Two Virginia House races appear headed to recounts,” by Antonio Olivo

The final wrestling matches for power in Richmond.

“Thirteen Republicans face backlash to infrastructure vote,” by Kirk A. Bado

Threats and primary challenges for legislators who voted like they said they would.

“Donors threatened to shun the GOP after Jan. 6. Now, Republicans are outraising Democrats,” by Josh Dawsey, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Michael Scherer

Boycott? What boycott?

Ad watch

Before he won last week's race for governor in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin was getting inside Democrats' heads. Independently wealthy, he began running TV ads before the Democrats wrapped up their primary. He talked openly about targeting independents, not the Republican base, with his warm biographical spots. He turned a biography that could have been demonized — two years as co-CEO of the Carlyle Group — into a story of a boy who earned a basketball scholarship and worked his way up.

“You can't run ads telling me you are a regular old hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” former president Barack Obama said at his 11th-hour campaign stop for Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe.

But Youngkin, who'd never run for office before, had done a masterful job introducing himself to voters. By the campaign's end, he was viewed more favorably by voters than McAuliffe, a former Democratic governor who had left office with high approval ratings. To figure out what the campaign did right, The Trailer talked to Tim O'Toole of Richmond-based Poolhouse media, founded by veterans of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, and hired to turn a generally unknown businessman into a governor. A transcript edited for clarity follows, with links to most of the ads we discussed.

“Together”

The Trailer: Both the primary and the general election campaigns started with these biographical spots, showing Youngkin moving through the phases of his life. How'd you develop them?

Tim O'Toole: I tell candidates: “When you have an hour or two, let's talk.” Glenn called in December last year, when I was doing a shoot outside of Pittsburgh, freezing, under heavy covid protocols. We talked for two hours, put it in a Word doc, and we always went back to that to make sure what we were doing was stemming from something real. 

It's surprising that Terry didn't try to define us earlier, so were able to tell Glenn's story in an interesting way. He has three or four distinct chapters of his life: growing up in Richmond, seeing his father lose his job and getting a job flipping eggs, playing basketball, and then his work at Carlyle. 

There are shades of Romney here. They have similar backgrounds, in terms of their work. But Glenn was an unknown, and to tell the story, you have to start from the beginning. There was some thought of leaning into: He's a businessman, he's an outsider. That's a pretty standard political trope. But that would be discounting his story.

“Time for Change”

TT: McAuliffe easily won the primary, and none of the attacks from other Democrats seemed to stick to him. Those attacks are in this ad. How did you decide what to use?

TOT: After winning that primary, we had few weeks to figure out exactly what we wanted to do. I think it was three weeks between our win and Terry's win, and this ran concurrently with positive ads. I think it was effective because, no offense to your industry, but we didn't think people were going help us hold Terry's feet to the fire in terms of where he'd been as a candidate.

TT: McAuliffe's own negative ads usually used b-roll; even the positive ads often used old footage of him over a narration.

TOT: It's just easier to run ads like that. It doesn't require effort, like chopping through a script and getting shoot dates on the calendar and making sure you have the right people there to make it all work. That takes some effort. And clearly they weren't willing to do that, or just were weary of doing that. I think they looked at the data and thought they were smarter than everybody else, and that they could just simply run a campaign that was negative, tying us to Trump. Ultimately, they got caught flat footed.

“Focused

TT: I've seen spots like this before, where a candidate warns that his opponent is going to lie about him, and imagines the most ridiculous thing that he could be attacked over like a love of dogs. How did this one work?

TOT: This is part of getting to know his story, and how much the family loved their dog; there was a push to include his other family members, so to speak. Surprisingly, we had six weeks on the air without McAuliffe doing much of anything. That enabled us to not only think through and launch our introduction spots, but then to start to say: Hey, what's Step 2, what's Step 3? The campaign came up with this one, saying, hey, we really need something to bracket we know will come from Terry. We wanted to have this in the chamber for when he attacked. No surprise, knowing him, the attacks came a few days later, and we were ready with this.

“Terry McAuliffe's Tax Collection Agency”

TT: This was one of two spots about McAuliffe's spending plans, suggesting he could raise taxes by thousands of dollars to pay for them. 

TOT: They ran concurrently. There was a black-and-white one as a way for Glenn to, in a serious nature, explain what these proposals would do. And then there was this. We had some great actors that were helpful in pulling it off, and we had a legitimate call center to work in, so it didn't require a lot of set designs. It was already was pretty much ready to go. We created our own logo, we called it the Terry McAuliffe Collection Agency, and we made shirts, signs, everything. We used, like, three different printers in Richmond to get everything printed by shoot day.

“A New Day”/"Our Moment

TT: You had an original ad and a sequel here, both portraying Youngkin walking through a field of generic guys in suits, the second time joined by average Virginians. I guess you planned that expecting McAuliffe to win the primary?

TOT: Well, they pay us as consultants to try to figure out what's going to happen.

TT: Fair enough. So what were you trying to say with the ads?

TOT: That there's a pathway for Virginia, but there was also a sort of a mediocrity that was sort of brewing in the state. We could sort of bust through that, and Glenn was the guy to do that. So that's kind of where it came from back in May. From that first ad to the finale, that was sketched out in our message arc. I give a lot of credit to Glenn for sticking with us and believing in what we were trying to do from May to November. In campaigns, you don't always end where you started. It's tough to pull off. And it's tough to tell a hundred people “action” and get that shot.

Poll watch

“Would you say Joe Biden has had the right priorities, or that he hasn't paid enough attention to the country's most important problems?” (CNN/SSRS, 1,004 adults)

Has had the right priorities: 42% (-11 since April)
Hasn't paid enough attention to the most important problems: 58% (-15)

CNN’s house pollster gives the president the best overall approval rating he’s had in any recent survey. It also finds significant slippage on a question that always cut against Trump. By this point in his presidency, voters were only slightly more likely than this to say that Trump had focused on the wrong problems. The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure package is crucial to the administration's fightback, which will stretch into a signing ceremony next week. But voters, while not critical of the new funding, are not connecting it to the problems they want solved.

Do you approve or disapprove of the job (Suffolk, 1,000 adults)

Joe Biden is doing as president
Approve: 38%
Disapprove: 59%

Kamala D. Harris is doing as vice president
Approve: 28%
Disapprove: 51%

Congress is doing
Approve: 12%
Disapprove: 75%

The toplines in Suffolk's national poll are much worse for Democrats than the toplines in CNN's — the SSRS poll found a small lead for Democrats on a generic ballot test, while this one shows a rare, outside-the-margin-of-error lead for Republicans. Some of this is Democratic base dismay, with just 38 percent of all voters saying they expect the party to deliver on its campaign promises. But at the same time, 60 percent of voters say they support the infrastructure package, and just 44 percent oppose what's described as “the $1.85 trillion reconciliation bill before Congress to fund clean energy programs, prekindergarten, health care initiatives, and other soft infrastructure.” The administration's unpopularity isn't turned around even when it's identified with a popular policy.

On the trail

In Florida's 20th Congressional District, a race between two Democrats headed to a recount because it came down to a handful of votes. In the race for governor of New Jersey, the winner's been known for days — but the Republican challenging Gov. Phil Murphy is waiting to see if he can sue for a recount.

The Florida race won't be settled for days, at least, after a recount ended with home care executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick leading Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness by just five votes out of more than 49,000 cast. Both candidates attended manual and machine recounts Friday, which confirmed a lead for Cherfilus-McCormick — but with a margin that will be tested again when provisional and military ballots come in.

“I pray that my team is right and this lead will hold,” Cherfilus-McCormick tweeted Friday, looking ahead to Nov. 12 as the day when she and Holness will know who won.

Turnout was low in the special election to replace the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Holness mentor who, according to the candidate, endorsed Holness before he died. Holness dominated the crowded field of candidates in Broward County, running around 2,800 votes ahead of Cherfilus-McCormick, who had run and lost two primary challenges against Hastings. 

Cherfilus-McCormick made up for that with a solid lead in Palm Beach County, which cast fewer votes overall, but where no candidate had a strong political base, helping her heavy TV and billboard advertising count for more. There weren't many ideological differences between the two of them on most issues, but Cherfilus-McCormick emphasized her People's Prosperity Plan, including a $1,000 monthly universal basic income. 

On Nov. 12, election boards in both counties will record the final totals, adding in the final late-arriving ballots. If the race is tied, the nominee will be decided, literally, by a coin toss; that nominee is overwhelmingly favored to beat Republican Jason Mariner, a former felon who talked openly about his criminal history but didn't complete a formal review process to restore his rights — including the right to run for office. (That process may be unconstitutional but has not been tested in court.)

In New Jersey, where Murphy declared victory last week, Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli has declined to concede the race until, as he put it in a video Friday, “every legal vote” is counted. On Monday morning, Murphy's campaign called on the Republican to admit defeat, and Murphy campaign manager Mollie Binotto accused Ciattarelli of an “assault on the integrity of our elections” as the governor's lead continued to grow.

“The race is over,” Binotto wrote in the memo, accompanied by the campaign's own math about the 70,000-odd ballots still left to count. “Assemblyman Ciattarelli is mathematically eliminated, and he must accept the results and concede.”

Since Tuesday, Murphy's lead has expanded from a few thousand votes to more than 67,000 out of more than 2.5 million cast. What had looked on election night like a razor-thin margin, so close that Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray apologized for missing it, was a 2.7-point Democratic lead Tuesday morning. That's a little narrower than the margin Chris Christie won by in 2009, a little larger than the margins Christine Todd Whitman won by in her 1993 and 1997 gubernatorial races — and a lot larger than the 1981 race that initially loomed over Murphy's prospects.

Unlike in Florida, where margins of less than 0.5 percent of the vote automatically force recounts, New Jersey has no standardized recount threshold. On a Monday call with reporters, Ciattarelli legal counsel Mark Sheridan said that the campaign was waiting until tens of thousands more ballots were cast, and that it was unlikely that the Republican would take the lead even if he captured every single one of them.

Instead, Sheridan said that the campaign might pursue a recount, which would involve bringing a lawsuit and being ready to assume hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, if the final ballots shrunk the margin below 1 percent. Within a few days, as provisional ballots were cured and counted, the campaign would learn whether that was possible. If not, it would call it quits.

“I'm not looking to be Rudy Giuliani, standing in front of a mulch pile,” Sheridan said, mocking the fruitless legal battles waged by Trump's legal team after the 2020 election.

As Democrats urged Ciattarelli to hang it up, the president of the state Senate, Steve Sweeney (D), was still refusing to concede defeat to Edward Durr, a Republican activist and truck driver who had beaten him last week by roughly the same margin Murphy now holds over Ciattarelli. In a statement Tuesday, Durr called himself “senator-elect” but also said that he would not “declare victory” until the end of the ballot count, same as his party's nominee for governor. 

In the states

New Hampshire. Until the second he said “no,” Republicans hoped that Gov. Chris Sununu (R) would announce a run for U.S. Senate. The three-term Republican spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition's meeting right after Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman who had been working to recruit him. Reelected in a landslide last year, Sununu said he'd win whether he challenged Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) or sought reelection.

On Tuesday, he opted to seek reelection, in a speech that repeatedly characterized the Senate as a place where big plans go to die, and the governor's office as a place you could make “20 tough decisions a day” and see the impact.

“You debate and talk. Nothing gets done,” Sununu said of the Senate. “Sometimes that's considered a win, doing nothing. I can't. That's not the world I live in, and I think the citizens deserve a lot more.”

Plugged-in Republicans had expected Sununu to make the jump, and Democrats considered him the strongest possible candidate against Hassan. The governor's decision prompted speculation about well-known alternative candidates, like former senator Kelly Ayotte, who lost in 2016 to Hassan, and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who lost by single digits in a 2014 race after relocating to New Hampshire's seacoast. Shortly after Sununu bowed out, WMUR's John DiStaso reported that Ayotte would not run; Ayotte suggested that she wouldn't, either.

The best-known Republican in the race, who did not plan to step aside if Sununu got in, is Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who's echoed Trump in saying there was a “tremendous amount of fraud” in the 2020 election. 

Utah. Ben McAdams, the last Utah Democrat to win a seat in Congress, endorsed Republican-turned-independent Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate. In an op-ed co-written with a 2020 primary opponent, Jonia Broderick, they called for “principled Democrats, independents and Republicans join together in this movement.” McMullin's strategy, as he told The Trailer last month, includes consolidating Democratic votes in a state where Democrats have not waged a competitive Senate campaign since 1978.

Colorado. Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan abandoned her bid against freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert (R), the latest reaction to a map drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission that shored up the state's Republican delegation. Donovan had raised more than $1.9 million for the race, keeping pace with Boebert. But redistricting ensured that Donovan's home was not in the new district, and altered it from marginally competitive to more solidly Republican.

“The congressional maps failed to recognize the complexity of rural Colorado and instead divided communities, protected incumbents and ignored Coloradans’ voices,” Donovan said in a statement, explaining why she backed out.

Democratic activist Sol Sandoval remained in the race, and had raised a bit over $300,000 since launching her campaign.

Texas. Powered by People, the organization founded by former congressman Beto O'Rourke after the end of his 2020 presidential campaign, hinted at O'Rourke's decision about a 2022 run for governor with a message to supporters, promising “something big” very soon.

Countdown

… 63 days until the election in Florida’s 20th Congressional District 
… 112 days until the first 2022 primaries

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