One lesson a lot of Democrats carried away from Virginia: Terry McAuliffe made the race too much about Donald Trump. When Trump’s not on the ballot, the argument went, it’s impossible to make an election a referendum on him.
But now, some think the “don’t mention Trump” school of thought is an overreaction to a campaign that McAuliffe bungled in other important ways. Trump is a fact of life, they say—and after all, it’s anywhere from possible to near-certain that he’ll be the GOP nominee in 2024. Which makes him kind of hard to avoid.
“There’s no way to not have Trump as part of the story,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, an experienced hand in Virginia politics. “He is necessary but not sufficient to making the case for rehiring our majority.”
Trump is a presence whether Democrats mention him or not, argued Democratic strategist Scott Kozar. “The question, coming out of 2020, was could [Republicans] get Trump people to turn out without Trump, and the answer’s yes,” Kozar said. “So that changes a lot. It changes how you model, how you forecast, who’s going to show up.”
This fact—that Trump motivates Republicans, too—makes Democrats’ calculations complicated. Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who worked for the campaign arm charged with electing Democrats to the House of Representatives, said, “I think we should use Donald Trump with real caution.”
Kelly explained that “yes, he motivates Democrats, and I think he potentially has the ability to remind these suburban voters why they started voting for Democrats over the last several years. So maybe to the extent we need to reconsolidate college-educated suburban voters, I think he could be a useful tool in very targeted ways like that. But you have to remember that he has an equal and opposite motivating force on the Republican side. So you really have to use him with extreme caution.”
The counterargument some Democrats are making goes: Yes, McAuliffe bet a lot on framing Glenn Youngkin as a close Trump ally, and that didn’t take because Youngkin kept his distance from Trump; but Youngkin’s strategy will be hard to replicate elsewhere.
For one thing, some major 2022 contests have contested primaries where Republicans are frantically competing to out-Trump one another. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the candidates include the Trump-backed Sean Parnell and a former ambassador from the Trump administration. Representative Conor Lamb, one of the Democrats competing in his party’s primary there, predicted Trump won’t stay away from the Pennsylvania primary.
“The unfortunate reality for them is that they don’t have the option of keeping Trump at arm’s length in most races because he has so powerfully taken over their party that there really isn’t room for people that resist him,” Lamb said in an interview on Thursday. “So they sort of got lucky that he gave Youngkin a bit of a pass this time. But he won’t be able to resist campaigning in places like Pennsylvania next year. That’s just an important difference.”
At the same time, though, Lamb pushed back on the idea that Trump’s presence in the Senate race would be a boon to Democrats. “I wouldn’t describe it that way,” Lamb said. “I think the political life of Donald Trump is a tragedy, and he is essentially leading the equivalent of an ongoing insurrection against our government and way of life, so I’m never going to talk about him as being a good thing for our politics, because [he] just is not. I think it does give us the opportunity to continue to sharpen and clarify the choice in people’s minds so that it’s not simply a referendum on the Democratic Party brand but also a choice between two candidates, and what they’re actually able to support and believe in. But then, I’ll just add to that that anyone on our side who thinks all you have to do is insult Trump to win is really mistaken. People want these campaigns to be about them and their problems as they perceive them.”
Former Representative Abby Finkenauer, who’s now running for Senate in Iowa against Chuck Grassley, said the key is more for Democrats to start talking about “what would actually happen here if Republicans take control again.”
She said Democrats should be saying, if Republicans “get their way, they’re going to go out of their way to help their buddies in corporations.… Unfortunately, we don’t see a heck of a lot of Democrats talking about that. We see a heck of a lot of Democrats playing defense instead of talking about what could happen if these folks take back control. Because we already know. They showed us. When they had complete control for those two years, they didn’t do anything for working families.… What they did is pass a tax cut that gave folks at the very top huge tax breaks.”
Finkenuaer continued: “You’ve got Senator Grassley here who is literally—literally—the epitome of the Washington elite politician that Trump told all of his supporters to hate and despise over the last six years. That’s who I’m running against.”
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said that to an extent the Virginia race was something of a unicorn. She also noted that McAuliffe improved on the total vote share he got from when he won in the 2014 cycle. “It’s a little harder to elect someone like Youngkin in a Republican primary climate,” Greenberg said. “So I do think Youngkin is part of the formula [for Republicans]. I just don’t know that that’s replicable in other states.”
The snap response to Tuesday’s election results, and Virginia’s in particular, was for Republicans to see them as a blueprint for how to run a winning campaign in a tough state—not running away from Trump but not embracing him, either. Youngkin’s consultants have been taking a victory lap over the past few days, as is always the case with a winning campaign. Democrats, meanwhile, have been worrying that all is lost for 2022. To an extent, that’s warranted. The indicators are that it will be a difficult midterm cycle. But it won’t be worse or better simply based on whether a candidate attacks a Republican opponent on their ties to Trump. The most competitive races will be decided only partially on how Trump is involved. The hard fact is Trump is not going away, but Democrats also need to realize they should make addressing Trump only part of their campaign strategy going into 2022.