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.”
“I wouldn’t say don’t do it,” Connolly told The Daily Beast. “But if you’re counting on that to be 100 percent effective and dispositive, then last night tells you otherwise.”
In the aftermath of the “off-year” elections—and a year out from the 2022 midterms—Democrats seem to agree that the anti-Trump playbook that propelled them to control of Congress and the White House may no longer work. Certainly, Youngkin had little trouble dodging that familiar Democratic messaging.
The former venture capital CEO avoided alienating the ex-president but also avoided him in general, making Democratic attempts to paint him and Trump as one and the same seem like a reach.
Democrats largely relied on one quote from early in the campaign, in which Youngkin vaguely praised Trump for inspiring him to run as a first-time candidate, as the main connective tissue. And at one point, Virginia Democrats paid for a mailer reminding voters that Youngkin was endorsed by Trump—which may have ended up doing some of Youngkin’s work with the GOP base for him.
Ultimately, Democrats did vote in large numbers, with liberal strongholds posting higher turnout totals for McAuliffe’s defeat than they did for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s win in 2017. But deep-red pockets of the state turned out for Youngkin in historic numbers, and McAuliffe lost ground with independent voters in the suburban areas that turned against Trump in 2018 and 2020.
Democrats can’t assume anymore that Republican voters will only show up when Trump is on the ballot, or that mere mention of him will turn independents off, said Sean McElwee, who heads up Data For Progress, the progressive polling firm.
“Trump is a uniquely unpopular and polarizing figure, and I think it's a playbook that worked for a long time,” McElwee said. “But last night shows there are ways for Republicans to inoculate themselves against it.”
Democrats working to keep Congress in 2022 adopted a Trump-heavy playbook from the get-go. In February, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the new chair of House Democrats’ official campaign arm, stated a goal of tying Republicans to the far right. “They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters,” Maloney said.
And Senate Democratic operatives have already identified Trump as a foil in key races, where his all-important endorsement could produce far fewer Glenn Youngkins and many more hardcore MAGA partisans who won primaries by espousing toxic ideas like the stolen 2020 election conspiracy.
But one former DCCC staffer told The Daily Beast that Democrats run a real risk if they continue just tying every Republican to Trump.
“We have a massive credibility gap with voters, and we’re screwed if we don’t get it right,” this former DCCC staffer said. “Voters think we’re elitist and out of touch. They find it offensive that we paper this over with endless ads about how some old school country club Republican is a Trump twin.”
This former staffer added that voters just weren’t buying it, and that Trump wasn’t a “get out of jail free card.”
Still, the prospect of a wave of actual Trump acolytes running in 2022 is part of the reason why many Democrats believe that this playbook should be employed strategically—and believe that Trump’s negative force may remain strong enough to sustain the party’s political coalition.
“Donald Trump will still motivate Democratic voters,” especially in congressional races, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a former chair of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.
But many strategists working to protect Democrats’ paper-thin majorities in 2022 argue that a balance will need to be struck.
Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist from Virginia, argued “you can’t not talk about” Trump because too many voters see him as too risky to the country’s institutions and economy.
“The right message isn’t about choosing between a positive story about ourselves or a negative story about Trump,” Ferguson said. “The right story shows the contrast between how we’re delivering for people and how letting them take power would put everything at risk.” The current problem for Democrats—and, for some, a reason behind McAuliffe’s reliance on the Trump playbook—is that they have not yet delivered most of the policy achievements they intend to run on in 2022.
Democrats’ agenda, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $1.75 trillion social spending package, is inching through Congress. On Wednesday, Virginia’s Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, blamed McAuliffe’s loss not on strategic missteps but on Congress’ failure to enact the infrastructure bill, which they said would have demonstrated Democratic leadership.
Still, McAuliffe served as governor for four years and had a solid record on which to run. And in Washington, Democrats could still point to their $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill from March, ambitious legislation in its own right that contained a monthly per-child tax benefit for most families, stimulus checks, and other benefits.
McAuliffe and his allies emphasized those topics, but many Democrats believe they could have emphasized them far more on the campaign trail in Virginia.
“It’s very clear there are suburban voters who don’t like Trump but voted for Youngkin,” McElwee said. “That’s because Democrats need to have a message showing that the problems Americans are facing, we’re taking concrete actions to solve them.”
American Bridge, the Democratic PAC that runs advertisements in key races, did an experiment in Virginia over the summer that showed the upside of such an approach. They bankrolled spots, targeted at suburban women in Richmond, talking up Biden and Democrats’ economic agenda. They found that those ads backed up McAuliffe’s standing and raised Biden’s approval rating in key demographics.
Jessica Floyd, American Bridge’s president, told The Daily Beast that the ads showed Democrats can “remind people who is delivering the policies that are actually impacting their day-to-day, rather than some unconnected policy fight in Washington.”
Asked if Democrats could have benefited from more of that approach in the home stretch of the race, Floyd said she would not second-guess strategy. But she said it was a “false choice” to have Democrats pick between focusing on Trump and focusing on their records.
“It needs to be, ‘both and,’” she said.
An election cycle that has become shorthand for Trump backlash, 2018’s so-called “Blue Wave,” was a lesson in striking this balance.
Cole Leiter, a campaign manager at political firm Purple Strategies who worked for House Democrats’ campaign arm in 2018, said that many of the 40 Democrats who flipped seats that year didn’t explicitly run against Trump. “They ran on health care and kitchen table economic issues—things that impact folks' daily lives,” he said.
Democrats running in 2022 should follow suit, Leiter argued. “When a persuadable voter thinks about your candidate, most of the time, you want them to think first about who you are, what you’re made of and what you’re going to do, not just that you’re against former President Trump,” he said.
Some Democrats have wondered if any strategic shift could have helped McAuliffe overcome stiff headwinds—nearly every jurisdiction in the state shifted right—and if a midterm “shellacking” is in motion, no matter how or when they talk about Trump.
Tuesday’s other election, in New Jersey, may have been proof. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-election was far less watched than Virginia’s race. But Murphy ended up embroiled in a nail-biter with his GOP challenger in a state that is far more solidly Democratic than Virginia.
To many Democrats, Murphy’s razor-thin win is more alarming than McAuliffe’s loss.
Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat who represents a New Jersey district Trump won, said Murphy did not talk much about Trump in his race, preferring instead to focus on his administration’s recovery from the pandemic. Nonetheless, Murphy barely prevailed.
“There are some things that are just kind of constant in this environment,” Kim told The Daily Beast. “There’s clearly something that transcends how these campaigns go.”