Talking Points

Ignoring Trump worked for Youngkin. It won't work for the GOP in 2024.

Glenn Youngkin is the toast of the Republican Party. His upset victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election a year after President Biden won the state is going to be used as a model for future GOP candidates, sometimes to excess.

One thing is clear: Youngkin navigated the question of Donald Trump skillfully. He proved that a Republican candidate's choices aren't limited to emulating Liz Cheney or Matt Gaetz. You can give a couple of mildly pro-Trump quotes, even at the risk of giving the Democrats bulletin-board material (the couple things Youngkin did say along these lines were used by Democrat Terry McAuliffe in countless campaign ads). If a Republican does not appear to voters to be particularly Trumpy, talking about Trump instead of local issues or concerns with the current administration will not work. 

But in 2024, unless he decides to remain on the golf course, there will be no way to finesse Trump — or ignore him. He will either run or he won't. He will either be the nominee or he won't. And every Republican will be forced to take a position on whether that is a good thing for the party. And Trump is not a person by temperament who will want to make these calculations easy. He nearly upset Youngkin's careful messaging by threatening to parachute into Virginia at the last minute. The entire Republican presidential race will be dictated by such threats (or promises) and the field will be set in part by the fear of crossing Trump. Nikki Haley, for example, briefly struck out against Trump. Now she has said she will not run in 2024 if Trump does.

It's also going to be the case that a large number of Republicans will win in red states during the midterm elections after embracing Trump during their campaigns. Many people will conclude this strategy will work better than what Youngkin did this year. Republicans such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker got elected in states far bluer than Virginia, yet nobody views them as a model for the national party. Some might conclude that Josh Mandel or J.D. Vance are good models for the GOP if they prevail in the former swing state of Ohio.

The midterm elections give quality Republican candidates the freedom to punt on Trump. The presidential race likely won't.