CHANTILLY, VIRGINIA – NOVEMBER 02: Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The future of American democracy might have gotten just a wee bit brighter thanks to political news out of Virginia this week.
Yes, Democrats got whipped soundly, losing a critical governor’s race in a state that Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points just a year ago. That’s particularly ominous for Democrats in states such as Georgia, which is thought to be roughly a decade behind Virginia in its transition from red state to blue state. The victory of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin suggests that demographics might not be destiny, that the inevitable might not be inevitable after all.
So what do I find encouraging?
Well, Youngkin won the election by quietly banishing Donald Trump from the political spotlight. No, he didn’t repudiate the disgraced president; to the contrary, he was careful not to antagonize Trump or his cult-like followers. But Youngkin also didn’t invite Trump to campaign with him, nor did he embrace Trump’s crazed insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
Basically, Youngkin put Baby in a corner, where Baby belongs. His victory should reassure Republicans that they have pathways to success in swing states that don’t require groveling before Trump, that in fact require that you do not do so.
Democrats, too, have some lessons to learn. If Virginia Republicans weren’t going to make Trump the focus of the 2021 election, their Democratic counterparts thought they could cast Trump as their main villain anyway. They tried to depict Youngkin as a mini-Trump, as a Trump puppet, but it just didn’t work. It turns out that an anti-Trump campaign works for Democrats only as long as Republicans cooperate in making Trump the central issue, and in Virginia they simply didn’t take the bait.
Instead, by focusing on someone who wasn’t on the ballot and who never even visited the state, Democrats squandered the time, messaging, money and attention needed to address issues that Virginia voters thought more relevant.
Now, learning such lessons is one thing; applying them elsewhere in other races is much more difficult. In Virginia, Youngkin was able to win the Republican nomination without a bloody primary that would have forced him to more explicitly and enthusiastically embrace Trump, thus giving himself some freedom to maneuver in the general election. Most Republican candidates in other states just aren’t going to be that lucky.
Here in Georgia, for example, Trump still looms over the state Republican Party like a jealous spouse, attentive to the slightest hint of disloyalty. He has hand-selected the party’s apparent candidate for U.S. Senate, Herschel Walker, and GOP nominations for lieutenant governor and secretary of state will probably be won by the candidates who are most abject in their worship of the Orange Baal.
Even more ominously, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, another Trump cultist, last week made it known that he is seriously considering a GOP primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp. That’s not about policies; that’s not about issues. It’s all about service to Trump.
Everybody who follows Georgia politics knows that Trump has never forgiven Kemp for refusing to violate state law, federal law and the U.S. Constitution and overturn the 2020 election. The sole rationale for a Perdue challenge to Kemp would be to wreak vengeance on Trump’s behalf. Perdue would be the knife in Kemp’s back, the poison in his chalice, and it’s remarkable that he would even consider playing such a role.
In Virginia, we saw how Republicans can begin to gently push Trump off stage and into history, and we saw that Democratic efforts to keep Trump in the spotlight aren’t going to work without Republican cooperation. These are potentially healthy signs of a better future, but if Georgia Republicans nominate an entire slate of Trump puppets, that future is still a long way off.
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