The Virginia Results Aren’t the Victory Trump Thinks They Are

Glenn Youngkin won without going full MAGA—and showed the possibility of a party that isn’t Trump’s any longer.

A black and white photo of Donald Trump
Brandon Bell / Getty

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

Last night’s elections were fantastic news for the Republican Party, disastrous for the Democratic Party—and a mixed verdict for Donald Trump.

In winning the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Glenn Youngkin—and other successful GOP candidates in the Old Dominion and elsewhere—nodded toward the kinds of themes that the former president has accentuated. After all, it’s his party now. But in winning while keeping Trump at arm’s length, Youngkin also showed the possibility of a party that isn’t Trump’s any longer.

Perhaps that’s why Trump’s initial Election Night comments on the race were muted, at least by his standards. “I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin,” he said in a statement. “Without you, he would not have been close to winning. The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before.”

He seemed to have a lot more fun roasting the Democratic candidate. “It is looking like Terry McAuliffe's campaign against a certain person named ‘Trump’ has very much helped Glenn Youngkin. All McAuliffe did was talk Trump, Trump, Trump and he lost!” he wrote in a second statement. “I didn’t even have to go rally for Youngkin, because McAuliffe did it for me. ”

In fact, this cuts both ways. Trump is right that McAuliffe tried to motivate voters with the bogeyman of the former president, and face-planted. The flip side is that Youngkin was not eager to have Trump rally for him. Youngkin managed a nuanced act of not snubbing Trump voters while also modulating his message in a way that would win over suburban moderates, as I wrote yesterday. When Steve Bannon hosted a rally for Republican candidates, to which Trump called in, Youngkin made sure he was elsewhere. The Washington Post reports today that Youngkin and Trump spoke on the phone repeatedly during the campaign, but tellingly, no one leaked that information until the votes were in.

Other factors proved more decisive than Trump. Voter turnout was high—McAuliffe won more votes than outgoing Governor Ralph Northam in 2017, but Youngkin got even more than that.

President Joe Biden is very unpopular, and that seems to have dragged Democrats down. In a state he won by 10 points in 2020, CNN’s exit poll found that 44 percent of voters approved of his performance, versus 54 who disapproved. That’s barely different from Trump’s 42 percent favorable, 54 percent unfavorable rating in the same exit poll.

Perhaps the factor that could prove most consequential in future elections is the suburban vote. In 2020, CNN’s exit poll found Biden won the suburbs 53–45. Pundits focused on the flight of suburban voters—once country-club Republicans—to the Democratic Party as one of the most important dynamics in politics, and a place Democrats could make up for white working-class voters who had defected to the GOP. But this year, the exit poll found that Youngkin won the suburbs 53–47, roughly the mirror image. “We’re finding out that Democrats were renting those voters, not buying them,” a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association told Politico.

The reasonable question here is whether a mixed outcome for Trump personally matters when Republicans are winning—after all, he is the dominant figure in the party and the favorite for the 2024 presidential nomination.

One potential conflict point is that Trump seems determined to be a kingmaker in some primary races, endorsing candidates who have been loyal to him but could struggle in a general election. But Youngkin was not that kind of candidate. Though Trump did not endorse in the primary, Youngkin resembles the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, more than Trump, and in the primary he defeated a Trumpier candidate, Pete Snyder. Pushing more extreme candidates could put Trump’s interests at odds with his party’s. If Republicans can win even in Virginia, however, “bad” general-election candidates might be able to beat Democrats in 2022 anyway.

A hint will come in how Youngkin governs. If he behaves in office like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has courted Trump comparisons, that will suggest the former president maintains his grip on the party. But Youngkin could also govern more moderately, suggesting that he could appeal to Trump voters without being in thrall to them. That would be more in keeping with his political persona before this election, and perhaps prudent, given Virginia’s blue lean, though its one-term gubernatorial limit means he won’t have to face voters again in 2025.

The bigger indication will be what becomes of those suburban voters. If it is true that Democrats were merely renting them in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, 2018 midterms, and 2020 presidential race, what remains to be seen is whether they belong to the Republican Party or if they’re still available for lease. The political direction of the country could hinge on how they behave in 2024 if Trump is back on the ballot. Will he still be toxic enough to push them away, or will they have forgiven and forgotten by then?