Alt: Glenn Youngkin’s victory and the Democratic strategy playbook

Griffin Alt, Op-Ed Contributor

President Joe Biden’s first year in office had some early successes, but his net approval rating has plunged to negative13 points in an average of recent polls amidst a variety of issues. He has failed to shut down the virus, his domestic agenda remains stalled, our adversaries have been invigorated by our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Nasdaq composite just entered correction territory and there is a border crisis at our southern border. There have been Democratic successes — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, record federal judge confirmations and an increasing COVID-19 vaccination rate — but the initial enthusiasm that moderate voters experienced from Biden’s victory has begun to wane in the face of these growing issues. 

Democrats strategically used attacks on Trumpism to win over moderate voters in the 2020 elections and the same play call will likely be in their 2022 midterm playbook. The problem now is that Donald Trump is not running in the upcoming elections. Americans are worried about everyday issues — inflation, healthcare affordability, crime, empty grocery store shelves, social reform, the federal budget deficit and much more. Off-year elections in swing-states are often used as an early indicator of what to expect in the upcoming election cycle.

Enter Glenn Youngkin.

Less than a year ago, many Americans who are not involved in the private equity industry had never heard of Youngkin, who has embodied the American dream by earning a college basketball scholarship to Rice University, attending Harvard Business School, working with nonprofits and reaching the pinnacle of the finance world as co-CEO of The Carlyle Group. Fast forward a year later and he was recently inaugurated as the Republican governor of Virginia — a state that Biden won by a margin of more than 10%. Youngkin, in the face of an onslaught of attempts by Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his allies to link Youngkin to Trump, constructed a path to victory in which he embraced Trumpism without directly affiliating with Trump himself. 

Youngkin knew that to win the Republican primary, he would have to appeal to Trump supporters without alienating moderates. As a result, Youngkin tip-toed his way around questions about the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, instead responding with answers about the need to ensure that future elections are fair and secure. Once he had cleared the Republican field, he shifted closer to the center, recognized Biden as the legitimate president, and set out on a trek to victory. 

Meanwhile, McAuliffe traveled across Virginia and repeatedly attacked Youngkin on nearly every topic, ranging from Youngkin’s business background — which he claimed demonstrated that Youngkin cares more about profits than jobs — to the theory that he knowingly used a strategy to avoid Trump in an effort to gain independent support. As time progressed, McAuliffe grew wary and resorted to bringing in high-profile Democrats, including Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams and Joe Biden, who also spent more time complaining about Youngkin’s agenda, background and political affiliation than they did presenting what McAuliffe would do to improve the lives of Virginians if he was elected again. 

This is where I believe that McAuliffe doomed himself. He was so busy talking about Youngkin that independent voters did not understand what McAuliffe’s plan was to address inflation, crime, COVID-19, school controversies, social reform, the supply chain crisis and other things that directly affect the common voter. Moderate voters flipped Virginia and will be decisive in the midterm election. If Democrats fail to change their strategy and lose either or both of the national majorities, then Biden’s agenda will be dead in the water.

The anti-Trump playbook worked in 2020, but it will pay fewer dividends in 2022. If Republicans, ranging from the local to the national level, can emerge from the shadow that Trump has cast over the Republican Party, then they will reclaim the moderate voters and triumph in the midterms. If Democrats can refine their strategy and prevent the increasing progressive-moderate divide from harming their chances of success, then we will be in for an entertaining election season. Our country is aching and we need smart, respectable officeholders in order for the country to move forward. 

Griffin Alt is a Weinberg Freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.