Tonight Is a Test of What Trumpism Could Be Without Trump

If Glenn Youngkin wins, Republicans will have a powerful template for how to run candidates when the former president is not on the ballot.

Glenn Youngkin stands on a platform amid a crowd of supporters.
Zach Gibson / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The fundamental question facing the Republican Party, and by extension the nation, is whether there can be a Trumpism without Donald Trump, and if so, what it would look like. Today’s gubernatorial election in Virginia will offer one of the most important clues about those questions.

The race pits Glenn Youngkin, a Republican businessman, against former Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. Youngkin’s challenge is to win over both a Republican base devoted to Trump and moderate suburban voters who have tended to vote for Democrats, especially in the Trump era. If he is able to pull that off, his campaign will stand as a model for Republicans in other states. If he doesn’t, the search for a post-Trump Trumpism will continue, and so will the GOP’s identity crisis.

McAuliffe entered the race as a weak favorite. He served as governor from 2014 to 2018, leading a surprisingly successful, popular, and scandal-free tenure. (The commonwealth bars consecutive terms for governors.) But McAuliffe’s polling advantage has been whittled down to a statistical tie in recent weeks, and a Fox News poll last week showed Youngkin with a whopping eight-point lead. Independent voters seem to be flocking to the Republican.

Youngkin has brought the race close by managing a difficult balance. On the one hand, he has relied on his background as a typical milquetoast, pro-business Republican to reassure moderates and independents, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, that he’s not an extremist. On the other, he has managed to use culture-war issues to keep pro-Trump Republicans elsewhere energized and in his corner.

For example, take Youngkin’s behavior with regard to the former president’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen. Although during the Republican primary he refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden had been legitimately elected, he has since acknowledged it and has mostly avoided endorsing the Big Lie. But Youngkin has also endorsed adjacent ideas that are popular with Trump and his acolytes, such as an “audit” of voting systems in the 2020 election, and has spoken about “election integrity,” a way of dressing the fraud claims up in respectable clothing. When attendees at a rally for Virginia’s Republican candidates venerated a flag carried during pro-Trump demonstrations on January 6, Youngkin condemned it, but in the weakest terms possible.

Youngkin’s stratagem has been finding a way to leverage culture-war issues in a way that feels local and attracts moderate voters. Virginia has had a wave of Confederate-statue removals, and since a blackface scandal in 2019, Governor Ralph Northam has pursued a series of racial-equity measures, which have created a simmering backlash.

Rather than choose a crude battle such as defending Confederate statues, Youngkin has focused on education policy. Well-to-do suburban school districts have been consumed by arguments over curriculum, especially over anti-racist assignments and the supposed teaching of critical race theory. Democrats have tried to dismiss these disagreements as minor squabbles fomented by agitators, but Youngkin has found in them an issue that can bridge rural Trump voters and white suburban parents. The last days of the campaign even included a surreal dustup over Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved, following the release of a Youngkin ad that features a Northern Virginia mother who campaigned to have the book banned. (She said the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel gave her son, now an attorney for a Republican committee, nightmares.)

Trump, or perhaps his absence, stands in the background of all these maneuvers. The former president has presented a catch-22 for the GOP in recent elections: Without him on the ballot, Republicans don’t turn out to vote, but with him on the ballot, independents and Democrats come out in droves to vote against him. Youngkin isn’t the first Republican to try to overcome this by bringing together a coalition of Trumpists and suburbanites. He’s not even the first Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate to try. Ed Gillespie, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, aimed to do something similar in 2017, and lost to the Democrat Ralph Northam by nearly 14 points. Youngkin has been a more effective candidate than Gillespie, whose reinvention as a Trumpist was particularly dubious. More important, Gillespie was running amid the chaos of Trump’s first year in office, and many Virginians were horrified.

But the same Trump catch-22 applies to Democrats, who haven’t yet proved a way to win without his name on the ballot. McAuliffe and Democrats have sought to thrust Trump into the center of this campaign, hoping to reap the same results they did while he was in the White House. Though Youngkin was widely considered the strongest Republican candidate, and defeated far Trumpier contenders in the primary, McAuliffe has cast his opponent as a Trumpist in a moderate’s fleece and chinos. Democrats have assailed Youngkin’s business record, argued that he’s secretly an extreme abortion-rights opponent, and pointed to his opposition to COVID-19 safety measures. The New York Post noted that President Biden mentioned Trump 24 times during a rally for McAuliffe last week. If McAuliffe pulls off a win, it will be a tribute to these tactics’ success, but the tightness of the race shows that crying “Trump” is not a magical shortcut for Democrats.

Democrats have their own problems to contend with. The sinking popularity of the current president and Democrats’ struggles to move their legislative agenda have dragged McAuliffe down. He has lashed out at congressional Democrats for failing to pass their infrastructure bill, which he believes would boost him, but McAuliffe, a full vested partner in the Democratic establishment, can’t really run away from the party, so he’s mostly embraced it. Big-name surrogates including Biden and Barack Obama stumped for him, but enthusiasm among Democrats still trails Republicans’. Democratic leaders have become worried that a loss would both indicate and encourage a lack of energy going into the 2022 midterms. (In the less likely event that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, loses his reelection bid today, expect full-on panic.)

Historically, Democrats would be expected to face an uphill battle in the race. In the past 45 years, the candidate representing the president’s party has lost the Virginia governor’s race every time—except in 2013, when McAuliffe won. But Virginia has changed. For the past four elections, it’s voted for Democratic presidential candidates, and both of its senators are Democrats. If Youngkin wins, the commonwealth’s long-term trajectory in national elections is unlikely to shift—but a Youngkin win would also suggest just how deep Democrats’ danger is elsewhere in 2022.

Political journalists often stretch to interpret local elections as national events, but this race is one in which the result might actually say more about national politics than it does about Virginia. A McAuliffe win wouldn’t change much, but a loss would further dishearten an already beleaguered Democratic Party. The stakes for the Republican Party, meanwhile, are greater, as Youngkin’s Trump two-step gets a test from voters.