In two separate elections this week, popular Democratic governors in solid Biden territory saw their political fortunes threatened and eviscerated, respectively.
And as is their wont, the American media have decided to treat a single night’s events as prophetic of their entire political future. The chips, they argue, are down — and Democrats have massively overplayed their hand.
There may be some truth to that. Insofar as they have not delivered on major aspects of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, Democratic congressional leadership has failed to appeal to voters in a way that is either tangible or immediate. And with a limited runway until the 2022 mid-terms, the outcomes of the gubernatorial races likely do portend a difficult fight for Democrats across the country.
But take that view with a healthy grain of salt. In many ways, these races were Republicans’ to lose. The party holding the White House has lost 11 of the last 12 Virginia gubernatorial races, while in New Jersey, Phil Murphy is the first Democratic governor to be reelected since Jimmy Carter was president — albeit in a photo finish.
To be sure, there were patterns at play that will be crucial for the mid-terms and beyond, with none more so than the quandary of Trumpism without Trump. Particularly in Virginia, the election was a test of whether a more polished and conciliatory figure can feed on the same dynamics that Trump so ably co-opted.
Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin did not exactly mimic or tie himself to Trump, but he certainly tapped into similar currents of discontent, particularly on the themes of education and racial politics. On the issue of parents’ rights to influence public education, Youngkin adroitly capitalized on the fears of white suburban voters, the very demographic that Democrats so desperately need to reach.
There is no doubt Trump continues to cast a long shadow, leaving fair-minded Americans unsure where to place their trust. For many, a Republican Party led by Donald Trump is too hard a pill to swallow. At the same time, many of these voters gave their support to President Biden in 2020 and in return have seen only Democratic factionalism and legislative paralysis.
Ultimately, the quandary these independents face is a difficult one: can they turn back to the Republican Party now that Trump has gone? Or is there something more pervasive that has outlasted the former president, poisoning the DNA of other Republican candidates? Perhaps most importantly, will a Republican vote in 2022 contribute to a Trump ballot in 2024?
Democrats have known since the presidential election that Trump’s absence would mean a less motivated pool of voters accessible to them — particularly in the suburbs. President Biden acknowledged as much this week in his response to a journalist who noted that he won Virginia by 10 points. “I know we did,” Biden said, “but we were also running against Donald Trump.”
The lingering question though, is whether Republicans can motivate their voters without Trump — and whether the Trump faithful will turn out for less Trump-y Republican candidates.
Glenn Youngkin’s victory suggests that with the right injection of identity politics, the answer is yes. And for Democrats, the consequence is disastrous: Republicans can invoke the spirit of Trump just enough to rile his base, but without handing Democrats a boogeyman to rally their own. Like the Wizard of Oz, Trump can pull all the strings, disappearing as soon as the curtain is pulled back.
And like the Wizard, Trump will do everything he can to maintain the illusion of his omnipotence, getting involved just enough to turn out his voters without kneecapping candidates in moderate states. Unlike in 2020, he will not demand grovelling fealty to his election fraud, but simply a tacit refusal to publicly contradict any of his claims.
This trend will continue into the midterm elections and beyond. Democrats will disagree whether swift passage of President Biden’s budget bill can make a difference, but ultimately they have a bigger task at hand. After four years of running against Trump the man, Democrats must learn to run against Trump the presence, a much tougher foe. Over time, they may come to miss his bellicose style and unpredictable nature. It made their jobs much easier.