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When Virginia turned red on Tuesday and defeated Democrat candidate Terry McAuliffe gave a speech to disheartened supporters, he didn’t mention Trump once.
It was the first time in weeks that he’d failed to do so. Throughout the campaign, he repeatedly tried to pin the former president to his Republican opponent, Glen Youngkin.
Youngkin, in turn, did Matrix-style bullet-dodging. He somehow managed to pull off accepting Trump’s endorsement and keeping his base on board while at the same time keeping the ex-president at arm’s length and, crucially, away from Virginia.
The same thing happened in New Jersey, where Democrat Governor Phil Murphy repeatedly tried to drape the MAGA cloak around his opponent, only to run into an incredibly tight race which he looks set to only just edge to victory.
We all know politics is cyclical and the party occupying the White House often struggles in an off-year election — but just 10 months after Joe Biden cruised to a comfortable popular-vote victory, these results have caused alarm in the party. And there is an even bigger worry going into the 2022 midterms: Without Trump, there’s no Democrat election playbook.
The Biden campaign’s solid-gold 2020 strategy of “This guy isn’t Trump” just doesn’t play when voters say: “Well, neither is this other guy.”
Activists on the left stepped on rakes to try to bring back the old magic from when Trump made it all so easy. In the final days of the Virginia campaign, five people carrying tiki-torches stood outside Glenn Youngkin’s campaign bus, harking back to the disturbing scenes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where one woman died. It quickly became clear that these new torch-holders weren’t, in fact, the real deal — and some claimed they recognized them as local left-wing activists. The Lincoln Project stepped in a few hours later to take the blame, but the whole episode felt like an old rock band playing the classics while everyone else moves on.
Twitter and Facebook’s silencing of a sitting president by closing his accounts was received with jubilation by Democrats in January — but it could have been the worst thing that’s ever happened to the party. With his magic megaphone, Donald Trump could insert himself into the national conversation at will. It turned off many suburban voters, and his brash style and endless drama likely cost him as many voters as his Covid strategy.
Imagine the final days of this race if Trump still had access to his Twitter account; every day’s news cycle filled with his exhausting stream of consciousness, Republicans forced to twist themselves into knots to support whatever off-color remark he’d made that morning, Democrat candidates being able to hold up their iPhones and say simply: “Hey voters — want more of this?”
On Twitter, among many on the right, there was a feeling that Tuesday night may have marked the moment that the page was turned on the Trump era. Candidates did well without the need to bend the knee to the man in the golden tower. Trump wasn’t needed to energize the base. Policy issues were in foreground rather than Trump’s latest spat with his newest C-list adversary. Youngkin fought Virginia with a laser-focus on education, a usually unglamorous topic for a high-profile race. Some critics are already saying it’s all part of a white backlash against ginned-up fears surrounding critical race theory in schools — and a Youngkin campaign ad which seemed to support a mother asking her local school to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved certainly does point to that — but it’s hard to fully square with the same voters electing the first Black woman to the office of lieutenant governor on the very same night. This race and this state has nuance.
The roaring fire that was Trump has been reduced to an ember. The Republican Party would be smart to keep it that way. But a gust of wind can reignite the tiniest spark.
Smart Republicans should pray that the tech oligarchs stay resolute in their desire to keep the GOP frontrunner muzzled. Smart Democrats would be wise to hope for his social media reinstatement.