The Trump Suburban Squirm

Democratic candidates in this fall’s elections are doing their best to make sure that the former president is still on the ballot.

A collage of Donald Trump, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a ballot, voting booths, and suburban neighborhoods
Chip Somodevilla / Getty; Ron Antonelli / Bloomberg / Getty; Win McNamee / Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Turn down Republican-base enthusiasm by baiting candidates into distancing themselves from Donald Trump. Turn off swing voters by reminding them of candidates’ connections to the former president. The hot move for Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey this fall isn’t the Nae Nae or the Electric Slide. It’s the Trump suburban squirm.

Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chair and Virginia governor who’s now campaigning for a second term, knows that the former president is about as popular as the Delta variant in blue Virginia suburbs. He wants Trump to make an appearance for his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, like Joe Biden did for McAuliffe in July. At that rally, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Trump himself would be on the gubernatorial ballot in Virginia this year. “I ran against Donald Trump and so is Terry—and I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia and so will Terry,” Biden said with a grin. McAuliffe likes to say that he’ll pay for Trump’s gas if the former president decides to come to Virginia. Trump hasn’t accepted McAuliffe’s invitation yet.

The suburbs have always been competitive political territory, but they have taken on a different significance with urban and rural voters spinning further and further away from one another. Last December, a top Democratic operative laid out for me one way of thinking about the party’s future: Had Democrats just rented the suburbs under Trump, or do they own them? The suburbs’ highly educated, middle-class, family-oriented, moderate, predominantly white, and (in terms of actual swing votes) mostly women voters may be ready to stick with the Democratic Party for the long haul. But just in case, McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats are doing their best to make sure that the former president is still a part of this year’s elections.

For first-term presidents, two governor’s races have become bellwethers for the national political mood: Virginia, where McAuliffe is campaigning, and New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy is up for reelection this year. In 2009, both states swung Republican and presaged the 2010 Tea Party wave against Barack Obama. Then in 2017, both swung heavily Democratic and presaged the 2018 anti-Trump wins. This year’s results will reverberate in next year’s midterms, in these states and all around the country: Enough seats went from Republican to Democratic in 2018 in Virginia and New Jersey alone to swing the majority in the tightly divided House.

For the moment, the party’s future is riding on two white businessmen—Bill Clinton’s best buddy (McAuliffe) and a former Goldman Sachs executive (Murphy)—who both happen to be 64 years old. They’ll have to appeal to voters who aren’t caught up in each revelation about how close America came to a coup, who never use the words filibuster reform or reconciliation. These voters instead think about inflation and rising gas prices; students’ absence from school and teachers’ unions pushing back on in-person classes; mask mandates and vaccine holdouts; police brutality and rising crime.

But McAuliffe and Murphy, as much as they discuss those issues, want to keep steering the conversation back to Trump. They know that the former president and his most hard-core followers won’t abide any wavering allegiance. And they know that any mention of the former president in connection with Republican candidates repels many moderates from voting red.

Jennifer Wexton beat a GOP incumbent for a House seat from Northern Virginia in 2018 and hopes McAuliffe will do well in her district, which would suggest that she’s still in good shape for next year’s midterms. She thinks Trump will be central for making the argument against the GOP. “As the Republican Party goes further and further to the right and ends up in this cult of personality, that alienates a lot of voters here in my district,” she told me.

Last month, McAuliffe visited a brewery at the western edge of Wexton’s district to hold a small-business roundtable and talk up the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which Youngkin opposed. He was both performing and acknowledging that he was performing, taking a sip of a pint; pointing out to the crowd that he’d taken a sip of the pint; recording a video about the visit, in which he asked an aide to include that he’d taken a sip of the pint: “I want the camera to show I was drinking at 10 a.m.,” he joked.

McAuliffe sketched himself as part of a new model for Democrats in the Trump era, repeating “We are not going back.” (He and supporters somehow manage to use the line unironically while campaigning to return to an office he held four years ago.) Voters, he told me after touring a new science-skills center built for a local high school, “are so worried about COVID and the long-term effects that they do want someone who has experience, who knows how to run a state government under difficult times.” McAuliffe has real policy proposals: a progressive approach to expanding broadband access and raising teacher pay in response to the inequities highlighted by the pandemic, a $15 minimum wage, new protections for LGBTQ rights. (Do you think he would have been able to lure the new Amazon headquarters to Virginia if the state was seen as anti-gay? he asked the crowd at the brewery.) But between sips of his pint, recounting his record as governor, and boasting about his plans, McAuliffe kept coming back to Trump.

Two hundred miles north, Murphy already has a working model for Democrats. He has implemented one of the most progressive state agendas in the country, passing gun restrictions, expanding access to pre-K, enacting new environmental regulations, expanding free community college, legalizing marijuana, and building new infrastructure. He’s been out ahead of President Joe Biden’s domestic proposals on almost everything. He was one of the only governors to manage an early COVID-19 spike without having his approval ratings tank, being recalled, or having to resign. The state’s budget has survived the COVID-19 hit, its bond ratings were upgraded this month, and Murphy is on track to be easily reelected in November. That would make him the first Democratic governor of New Jersey to win a second term in 44 years.

But even in a state where things seem to be going great for Democrats, the former president looms. Murphy’s wife likes to remind him that although Biden won New Jersey with 57 percent of the vote last November, nearly 1.9 million New Jerseyans turned out to vote for Trump. “Are there some bad apples in there? Sure there are,” Murphy told me. “But in our state, it’s overwhelmingly people screaming out for help and leadership.” He’s hoping that among them are voters who have since been turned off by the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s behavior, and to whom he can appeal by talking up his own approach—and the fact that his opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, has wavered on the former president.

McAuliffe and Murphy are betting that the GOP will have trouble distracting voters in their states from Trumpism—and they insist that critical race theory, the issue many Republicans seem eager to talk about instead, doesn’t resonate outside the cable-news bubble. Murphy told me he’s been asked about critical race theory all of once, in a TV interview. When I asked McAuliffe how many times the topic had come up for him, he made a zero with his fingers, even though critical race theory has become a flash point in Virginia school districts.

Polling from his campaign supports that; when his pollsters asked Virginians which educational issues were extremely important, critical race theory ranked last, behind proposals like expanded workforce training and more pre-K. Asked whether Youngkin’s stance against teaching critical race theory made people more likely to vote for him, 34 percent said yes and 32 percent said no. Another 28 percent said it didn’t make much difference at all. Many Democrats remain concerned about the issue’s potential to seep further into the public consciousness, but McAuliffe and Murphy might like to dismiss it as the latest diversion, another version of the flare-ups over a few less-read Dr. Seuss books and the de-gendering of Mr. Potato Head.

Instead of critical race theory, McAuliffe and Murphy say, the culture war they see playing out is over COVID-19 vaccination. Murphy told me he has no patience for the holdouts and dismissed anti-mask protesters as mostly out-of-state, out-of-touch “knuckleheads.” He noted that Ciattarelli has signaled an openness to pandemic skepticism, whereas he put in place a statewide K–12 mask mandate. McAuliffe, too, is disgusted by the vaccine holdouts. “If people have legitimate health issues or religious issues, I respect all that. But people are thinking they’re putting microchips in their body, and all of this insanity that Trump created,” he said. These days, he’s one of the many vaccinated people annoyed that the Delta spike has forced him to once again wear a mask: “Now our civil liberties are being taken away.” The key word in all that, in case you missed it, was Trump.

Youngkin’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview, and Ciattarelli’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for one. Ciattarelli’s television ads have not included any mention of Trump, focusing on his family’s history in small business and how the lockdowns Murphy ordered have hurt the sector. Youngkin’s ads highlight him as a basketball-playing family man who worked his way up in business, even as his campaign works to tie McAuliffe to Trump.

One Friday evening in July, a truck plastered with digital screens rolled down the residential streets of Arlington playing a looped video of McAuliffe talking up how long he’s known Trump, McAuliffe in a tuxedo toasting Trump at a fancy White House dinner. Youngkin isn’t actually trying to convince suburban voters that McAuliffe is a Trump supporter, but his campaign seems to think that if both candidates are infected with Trump, maybe the Republican candidate won’t seem noticeably worse.

Still, both Youngkin and Citarelli have been uneasy about Trump. Ciattarelli went to a “Stop the Steal” rally last year, and just a few weeks ago, Youngkin went to an “election-integrity rally” at Liberty University—though when pressed, both have since said yes, Biden is the president now. They’ve been caught using strikingly similar language about how they want to govern in a more Trumpian way than their public statements suggest: “When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense” against Planned Parenthood, Youngkin said to a group of Trump supporters in remarks secretly recorded in July. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” A few days later, Ciattarelli made a comparable pitch: “Give me a little wiggle room on how to talk about issues. Because the goal is to win.”

Youngkin has said he’s “honored” to have Trump’s support, and that Trump “represents so much of why I’m running.” But when The New York Times asked if Trump was the leader of the Republican Party (as the former president clearly wants to be), Youngkin said, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a leader of our party.” Ciattarelli, who once said Trump was “not fit to be president,” now says he voted for him last year. (Youngkin’s own dance isn’t going over well with the Trump crowd: Last week, the former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka devoted so much of his radio show to calling Youngkin a “RINO” that one of the candidate’s advisers called in under a pseudonym in his defense, only to be caught and outed.)

As much as the Republican nominees try to modulate their Trumpist appeal, McAuliffe and Murphy are going to keep hammering on their opponents’ connections to the former president. The more the conversation is about Trump, the less it’s about school openings or gas prices or culture wars. And in the suburbs, despite all the other issues wrapped up in these elections, Democrats are betting that “Trump” will be the only thing any swing voter hears.