Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/Photos Getty Images A week before the Virginia governor’s race, President Joe Biden came to Arlington to rally for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. He dutifully ticked through McAuliffe’s record, mentioned McAuliffe’s campaign promises, and then did what he really came to do: talk about Donald Trump.
“Just remember this,” Biden told the crowd. “I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.”
Biden spoke at length about GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin’s veiled embrace of the ex-president. And he reminded everyone of Trump’s greatest hits, from fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to his tendency to speak ill of deceased critics like John McCain and Colin Powell.
By the time Biden closed—saying extremism could come from a rage-driven mob or “a smile and a fleece vest,” a clear reference to Youngkin’s personal campaign uniform—the president had mentioned Trump as many times as he had mentioned McAuliffe.
The moment reflected a culmination of a clear strategy for Democrats in Virginia: rev up a burnt out electorate in a state Biden had just won by 10 points by connecting a fresh face to Trump.
But on Election Day, the guy that Democrats dubbed “Trumpkin” bested McAuliffe by more than two points to become the first Republican elected Virginia governor in 12 years.
The finger-pointing flowed freely and instantly among Democrats. But many fished out of the rubble a quick lesson as they wobble into the 2022 midterm elections: think twice about making everything about Trump, even where he is unpopular, and focus on making Democrats more popular.
“As long as Donald Trump is a former president, I think Democrats have a responsibility to look more to the future,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), who flipped a suburban Minneapolis district in 2018.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who represents a solidly Democratic area of northern Virginia, said his takeaway from Tuesday’s results was that Trump talk “is not enough.”