“You don’t have to denounce Trump,” Russ Schriefer, a strategist who has advised the campaigns of Mitt Romney, Chris Christie and other Republican luminaries, told me. “But you do have to create your own identity.”
He noted that when Larry Elder, a Republican, failed in his recall bid against California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, he failed to do that, “which gave Democrats a bit of a false positive,” making them think “that if we just say Trump, Trump, Trump, the Republican will start dropping like a stone.” Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, shouted Trump, Trump, Trump until he was hoarse, but, Schriefer said, “there was a very artful dance that Youngkin was successfully able to execute.”
That dance, though, hinged on a factor that got inadequate attention in the final weeks and days of his campaign: Trump allowed it. The former president was uncharacteristically even-tempered and restrained. Instead of taking offense at the distance that Youngkin kept from him, instead of taking the bait when journalists pointed that out, he professed to be unbothered. He claimed amity and mutual respect between the two of them.
He saw that Youngkin had a chance to win, undoubtedly wanted to be associated with that victory and apparently understood the upside of giving Youngkin a pass on flamboyant Trump idolatry. For Republicans accustomed to needier behavior from the monarch of Mar-a-Loco, that was one of the most encouraging developments of all.
Trump wasn’t the only variable in play. He probably wasn’t the main one, to the frustration of McAuliffe, who was as adamant about mentioning Trump as Youngkin wasn’t. That’s where the Trump-related lessons of Virginia have limits. The takeaway here is as much about Democrats — who, after all, have control of the White House and Congress — as it is about Republicans. Or, rather, it’s about Republicans’ ability to pin the constipation in Congress, the perpetuation of pandemic-related restrictions and a range of economic setbacks on Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. Being out of power has its perks, and chief among them is the ease of grousing versus governing.
“Gas prices have gone up, there’s inflation across the board, there are turkey shortages for Thanksgiving and predictions of delayed Christmas presents, and the Democrats’ response is, ‘Don’t worry, we’re close to banning methane,’” Corry Bliss, a prominent Republican strategist who lives in Virginia, said when I spoke with him on Tuesday. “There’s a tremendous disconnect.”
Bliss’s comments were a preview of Republicans’ talking points for the midterms, and my conversation with him was just as telling in another way: Every time I brought Trump into the discussion, he ushered Trump out of it, but never with a hint of disrespect or scintilla of disdain.