Perhaps it was inevitable that the post-Virginia punditry would eventually circle back to Donald Trump.
There’s been no shortage of verbiage about culture wars and schools and book banning and parental choice as the key elements in Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory over Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race.
Nor did the TV guys, at their magic walls, fail to point out that this neophyte Republican candidate ran ahead of Trump, who lost the commonwealth by 10 points last year, in one key rural or suburban county after another.
The governor-elect was so little known that when he announced his candidacy back in January, The Washington Post headline had to explain who he was, a “Former Carlyle Executive”:
“Glenn Youngkin, a Great Falls businessman, and political newcomer, will formally enter this year’s race for Virginia governor on Wednesday, bringing the number of Republican contenders to five.”
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Now come those who think the previously obscure Youngkin has cracked the code. Yes, it’s just one state race, but they believe he figured out how to hold onto the MAGA base while attracting Republicans who might have agreed with Trump’s policies but disliked his persona.
That, to say the least, was a challenge. Trump kept issuing statements about the Virginia contest, and claimed substantial credit after the win. But it’s no accident that Youngkin never agreed to campaign with him in person, and distanced himself from a last-minute video event headlined by the former president. The continuing Twitter ban also muffled the voice of the man who’d had more than 80 million followers.
Well, it didn’t take long for some conservatives to start fantasizing about a Trump-free 2024.
Let me stop right here and acknowledge the obvious: If Trump wants to run for his old job again, the nomination is practically his for the asking. Leaving aside health issues or other unforeseen complications, it’s hard to imagine another Republican beating him – and most of his former allies, like Nikki Haley, won’t even try.
But National Review, never a huge fan of Trump going back to 2016, is seizing the moment.
“The stakes simply will be too high in 2024 for Republicans to defer to Trump and allow him to use the election as an extended ego trip to air his grievances about 2020,” the magazine says.
It’s true, as National Review says, that some prominent Republicans are privately hoping that Trump doesn’t run again. But the risk remains, writes online editor Philip Klein: “It would be helpful for everybody to adopt the default assumption that he is going to run rather than hope that he isn’t.”
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The headline is a call to arms, that a “Credible Conservative Need to Challenge Trump in 2024.”
Ross Douthat, the NeverTrump conservative at The New York Times, says Youngkin proved “you don’t actually need a Trump-like figure at the top of the ticket to mobilize Donald Trump’s core voters” – and still win over suburbanites.
The problem, he writes, “is that the core Trumpian constituency still wants Trump to lead the party, on pure own-the-liberals grounds, if nothing else. But maybe, just maybe, the solution is for the party’s less-Trumpy constituencies to rally around an alternative whose electoral lib-owning just put Trump’s 2020 showing to shame.”
Douthat doesn’t say who that might be, and even he admits: “Yes, that’s probably a fantasy.”
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What’s implicit in these scenarios is that Trump has so much baggage, especially after Jan. 6, that he’d lose a general election. But what if that’s wrong? He’d either be running against a politically weakened, 82-year-old Joe Biden, uneven campaigner Kamala Harris or someone else.
Those floating scenarios to end-run Trump are a clear minority in the GOP. But after five years of utter Trumpian dominance, Youngkin’s path has given them a glimpse of an alternative future.