Nov 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

New GOP brand: Trump Light

Illustration of a beer can that reads "Trump Light" and features an image of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Win or lose in today's Virginia governor's race, Glenn Youngkin has created a new template for Republican candidates running in competitive races in the Trump era.

Why it matters: Republicans, with swing states set to dictate Senate control in 2022, are scrambling to strike a balance — when Full Trump is too hot in swing states like Virginia, but Never Trump is too cold for the former president's rabid fans.

GOP strategists tell us Youngkin has shown five ways to navigate this squeeze:

  1. Embrace Trump tactics: Youngkin and his team were ruthless in torturing Democrat Terry McAuliffe with the words he most regrets: "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." That sentence, part of an answer about removing books from schools, is less controversial when you watch the whole clip, including McAuliffe's declaration: "I love teachers!" But top Democrats tell Axios McAuliffe was too slow to clean it up. Even this Sunday, McAuliffe told Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press": "[E]verybody clapped when I said it."
  2. Softly embrace Trump himself: Steer clear of criticizing him, but also steer clear of standing next to him or running as a knock-off. As Peggy Noonan put it in a Wall Street Journal column: "Don't insult Donald Trump but do everything to keep him away." Youngkin nailed this. He shunned the T-word, pro or con.
  3. Turn your opponent into a liberal Trump: Find words, actions, votes that paint Democrats — not your own party — as the wild, anti-democracy, close-minded ones. Youngkin found fertile ground in culture wars — mask requirements, transgender bathrooms and teaching on race — unfolding in Loudoun County, the exurban bellwether beyond D.C.'s Beltway.
  4. Use their power against them: Youngkin turned Biden's all-party control of Washington into a weapon. Youngkin fueled perceptions that Democrats have gone too far left for suburban parents and are captives of progressive elites.
  5. Don't say crazy things: This is another prong of Peggy Noonan's formula. Youngkin mostly avoided saying things independents — and suburban women — would find incendiary or insulting.

The bottom line: It's rare in politics that the state of the art — best practices for the way to win — changes notably. So the Virginia race will have big echoes in the '22 midterms and the '24 presidential race.

Go deeper