In Virginia, GOP finds new playbook — not easily replicated

Election 2021 Virginia Governor

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe prepares to speak at an election night party in McLean, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Voters are deciding between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In a stunning victory in Virginia and a strong showing in New Jersey, the Republican Party has fashioned a playbook that could repair the GOP’s tarnished image in swing states and suburban districts across the nation.

But it is a formula that may be difficult to replicate on a broad scale in next year’s midterm elections.

Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, virtually unknown a year ago, won the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday by running away from the national Republican Party and its most prominent leaders — especially Donald Trump.

The Virginia Republican spent the closing months of his campaign avoiding the divisive issues that most animate Trump’s base, including the baseless prospect of election fraud. And Youngkin benefited from running against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a political insider with a muddled message.

“Candidates matter,” Youngkin chief strategist Jeff Roe said. “We weren’t defined by Obama, we weren’t defined by Trump, we were defined by Glenn.”

With a clear enthusiasm advantage on the right, Democrats should worry that the Republican victory in Virginia and a closer-than-expected governor’s race in New Jersey — which remained too close to call early Wednesday — could signal an anti-Democrat wave in 2022.

Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate the year after Republican Bob McDonnell won the Virginia governor’s race in 2009, the last Republican to win a statewide contest. This year, President Joe Biden’s sagging numbers and Democratic dysfunction on Capitol Hill have added to the traditional prevailing winds that plague the party in the White House.

But to take advantage of such a climate Tuesday, Republicans in Virginia — and New Jersey, to some extent — followed a strategy that relied on placating Trump’s base while avoiding Trump and his brand of politics. And in a surprise move, Trump cooperated by keeping a low profile, participating only in remote call-in appearances and sending emails late in the race to his supporters.

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