Youngkin’s Dance With Trump Was Pivotal. But Is It Repeatable?

Since he burst onto the national political scene in 2015, Donald J. Trump has strong-armed one Republican after another into submission. But in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin did something new: He managed to keep the former president at a politically safe remove without alienating him or his allies.

Mr. Youngkin’s success in the Virginia governor’s race speaks not only to his own deft handling of his party’s volatile and unpredictable standard-bearer but also to Mr. Trump’s apparent willingness to place himself on the sidelines during a campaign that received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.

What is not known is whether Mr. Youngkin’s formula is repeatable elsewhere, particularly in the 2022 midterm elections. Mr. Trump has little track record of ceding the spotlight or allowing other Republicans to take credit for any political success, and there is little reason to expect that to change.

Early on in his own campaign, Mr. Youngkin, a former private equity executive, recognized Mr. Trump’s usefulness to his political prospects. In the spring, during the Republican nominating contest in Virginia, Mr. Youngkin echoed Mr. Trump’s false claims of election fraud. After winning the G.O.P. nomination at a party convention in May, Mr. Trump endorsed him and Mr. Youngkin told a conservative radio host that he was honored.

“President Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” Mr. Youngkin said at the time.

But thereafter, Mr. Youngkin mainly kept quiet about the former president. Mr. Trump, in turn, made no public demands of fealty and encouraged his Virginia supporters to flood the polls, something he refused to do ahead of the January special elections in Georgia that gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Mr. Youngkin focused his campaign on education policy, eliminating taxes on groceries and gasoline, and other local issues that were hardly Trump priorities. He insisted that he planned to run his own race, staying away from two rallies that Mr. Trump called into. And he rarely spoke about the issues that used to motivate the Republican base, such as gun rights or opposing abortion.

But embedded in his education policy was a pitch to the same white grievance politics that fueled Mr. Trump’s campaign — an attack on critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that has become a stand-in for a debate over what to teach about race and racism in American schools. In Virginia, it served as a catchall rallying cry akin to the states’ rights battles of generations past.

And the Democrats seemed to help Mr. Youngkin more than Mr. Trump did.

Mr. Youngkin did not need to remind Mr. Trump’s supporters that the former president had backed him. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, turned much of his campaign, and his closing argument above all, into a message tethering Mr. Trump and Mr. Youngkin together, a gambit designed to energize the Democratic base — which it did in Northern Virginia.

Even President Biden joined in the Trump-bashing, speaking far more about his predecessor than his own agenda during a rally for Mr. McAuliffe last week in Arlington.

“The reason I mentioned Trump,” the president told reporters on Wednesday, was because issues that Mr. Trump supports, even while out of office, were “affecting their lives every day and they’re having a negative impact on their lives.”

Mr. Youngkin successfully fused the Republican Party’s past and present, building a coalition of Trump partisans and moderates who disengaged with the G.O.P. during the former president’s White House tenure.

The Republican turnout on Tuesday — aided by an expansion of the mail-in and early-voting laws denounced by Mr. Trump — swamped what otherwise would have been a respectable showing by Mr. McAuliffe, whose total, while still being counted, showed he won at least 500,000 more votes than he received during his winning 2013 campaign.

But Mr. Youngkin did a notch better, with his pro-Trump and anti-Trump coalition, a theme he hewed to during his victory remarks.

“Together, together, together, together, we can build a new day,” he said.

Mr. Youngkin’s triumph may inspire copycat Republicans eager to win the allegiance of Mr. Trump’s supporters without a sustained public embrace of the former president. The tricky part will be doing so without alienating elements of the party critical to winning in competitive contests.

As results poured in showing Mr. Youngkin ahead on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump issued three separate self-congratulatory statements. Then on Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump told John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and the chairman of his 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia, that Mr. Youngkin would have been crushed without his support.

“Without MAGA, he would have lost by 15 points or more,” Mr. Trump said.

Former President Donald J. Trump said Mr. Youngkin would not have won the election in Virginia without the support of his MAGA supporters.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

Mr. Youngkin spent $20 million of his own money to subsidize television ads portraying him as a from-the-bootstraps business success, clad in a campaign-logo fleece vest that cemented his image as a suburban dad. Weeks later, Mr. McAuliffe began airing his own ads attacking Mr. Youngkin as a Trump acolyte.

Takeaways From the 2021 Elections

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A G.O.P. pathway in Virginia. The win by Glenn Youngkin, who campaigned heavily in the governor’s race on education and who evaded the shadow of Donald Trump, could serve as a blueprint for Republicans in the midterms.

A rightward shift emerges. Mr. Youngkin outperformed Mr. Trump’s 2020 results across Virginia, while a surprisingly strong showing in the New Jersey governor’s race by the G.O.P. candidate is unsettling Democrats.

Democratic panic is rising. Less than a year after taking power in Washington, the party faces a grim immediate future as it struggles to energize voters and continues to lose messaging wars to Republicans.

A new direction in N.Y.C. Eric Adams will be the second Black mayor in the city’s history. The win for the former police captain sets in motion a more center-left Democratic leadership.

Mixed results for Democrats in cities. Voters in Minneapolis rejected an amendment to replace the Police Department while progressives scored a victory in Boston’s mayoral race.

“The win is a credit to Glenn being a uniter and not a divider,” said Barbara Comstock, a “Never-Trump” Republican in Northern Virginia and former congresswoman who backed Mr. Youngkin. “He understands politics is about addition while Trump is about subtraction and division.”

Yet while Mr. Youngkin’s top political aide, Jeff Roe, maintained a line of communication to Mr. Trump’s top political aide, Susie Wiles, the former president kept the Virginia campaign on edge in the weeks before Election Day.

The two sides worked to arrange Mr. Trump’s “tele-rally” on the eve of the election, according to an aide to Mr. Youngkin, but there was no coordination on what the former president would say. Mr. Trump managed not to undermine Mr. Youngkin’s campaign themes.

Mr. Fredericks, the radio host who is friendly with both Mr. Youngkin and Mr. Trump, credited Mr. Youngkin with refraining from adopting a combative Trump style while embracing issues critical to the Trump base, including some white voters’ concerns over how the racial history of America is taught in schools.

“If you look at Youngkin’s campaign issues, they very much mirrored what is critical to America First voters and to the Trump voters’ agenda,” Mr. Fredericks said in an interview on Wednesday. “He did everything he could to embrace Trump voters, but we also understood he had a different style and a different tone.”

Republican voters came out in force not only across Virginia, where Mr. Youngkin’s margins exceeded Mr. Trump’s in every city and county in the state, but also in scores of other contests where the former president did not engage, including in New Jersey and on Long Island. Even in liberal Seattle, a Republican has a wide lead in the election for city attorney in a contest in which the Democrat ran on a platform of abolishing the police.

Virginia’s Republicans attributed their success less to Mr. Trump’s sideline cheerleading for Mr. Youngkin and more to an environment fueled by disenchantment with the Biden administration, anger that the coronavirus pandemic shows few signs of receding and an economy that has seen rising prices for gasoline, among other household staples.

It resulted in a Republican turnout that the party had spent years trying and failing to build when Mr. Trump was in the White House.

“We spent a lot of money and time and effort trying to turn out Trump disengagers — people who voted for Trump in ’16 and then didn’t show up after that,” said John Whitbeck, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “They didn’t vote in 2017, 2018 or 2019, but suddenly in the red areas, they showed up enthusiastically for 2021.”

Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.

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