Could anti-Trump messaging be more effective in 2022 than in 2021?

Federal and statewide dynamics change from year to year

President Joe Biden campaigns with Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a return to the Virginia governor’s mansion, in Arlington, Va., on July 23. (Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images file photo)
President Joe Biden campaigns with Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a return to the Virginia governor’s mansion, in Arlington, Va., on July 23. (Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images file photo)
Posted November 1, 2021 at 9:14am

ANALYSISA wise friend of mine recently observed that if Democrats can’t turn Virginia’s gubernatorial election into a referendum on former President Donald Trump, it’s hard to see how that strategy would work in swing states in 2022.

It’s a very reasonable point, since Trump lost Virginia by 10 points last year. But it got me thinking about a possible rebuttal to the argument, which I make now.

The first and most obvious point is that gubernatorial contests are fundamentally different from federal races.

Incumbent Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Phil Scott of Vermont and Larry Hogan of Maryland were all elected to state office but probably couldn’t win a U.S. Senate election in their states.

The same goes for Democrat Laura Kelly, the sitting governor of Kansas; and former Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, Brad Henry of Oklahoma and Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming.

Voters are more willing to send someone from the state’s minority party to Topeka, Cheyenne or Montpelier than they are to send them to Washington, D.C., where everything is defined by party and where even most “moderates” end up voting with their party most of the time.

Moreover, the description “Vermont Republican” or “Wyoming Democrat” means something to voters in those states, since it conveys the message that this kind of Republican or that kind of Democrat holds values that are close to the state’s (or, more correctly, to voters in those states), not to California’s, New York’s or Mississippi’s.

(By the way, I made a very different argument in a recent column about Virginia, in which I wrote about elections being nationalized in the Trump era.)

Second, the makeup of the electorate should be much more favorable for Democrats next year than it will be this year in Virginia. 

One of the Democrats’ current challenges in Virginia and nationally is energizing the party. But in Virginia, that could stem from the fact that state and local elections take place in off-off-years (that is, elections in the year right after a presidential election). Fewer people are interested, and even though the gubernatorial nominees are advertising on television and there’s plenty of chatter about the candidates, turnout will be down.

In 2017, the most recent Virginia gubernatorial contest, 2.6 million Virginians cast ballots in that race. In the midterms the following year, 3.35 million Virginians voted in the Senate election. Two years later, 4.46 million votes were cast in the commonwealth in the presidential election.

This same trend holds across the country, which means that the electorates of 2022 will be quite different from Virginia’s electorate of 2021.

The fact that control of the House and Senate will be at stake next year also should make the 2022 elections more like a presidential year, and it should improve turnout among Black, Hispanic and younger voters, all of whom generally prefer Democrats.

Third, making the 2022 election “about Trump” might be easier than doing it this year. 

President Joe Biden’s poll numbers currently are poor, which should not be surprising given Democrats’ problems passing an infrastructure bill and an even larger reconciliation package. 

Even cable networks sympathetic to Biden, most notably CNN and MSNBC, spend plenty of time talking about Democrats being in “disarray,” Biden’s failure to deliver on his promises and the president having to accept dramatic cuts to his initial Build Back Better agenda.

The irony, of course, is that the suffocating coverage by CNN, MSNBC and many other media organizations (print and electronic) only contributes to Biden’s problems by reminding voters again and again that he has not yet delivered what he promised. Voters have been watching the sausage-making for months, and they don’t like what they have seen.

One year from now, progressives, who currently are focused on what they are not getting in the reconciliation package, may well be focused on what they did get — and on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Trump. And that could give Democrats a very different opportunity with swing voters and progressive Democrats than they now have.

The economy may also look very different a year from now. 

The current focus, at least for Republican messaging, seems to be on “hyperinflation,” possible tax hikes and significantly slower growth. But a year from now things could look better — or worse. That would change the focus of the 2022 elections.

The midterms could also look very different if Trump decides to take an oversize role in those elections, once again making himself the face of the GOP. That could easily happen if Republican Glenn Youngkin wins the Virginia governorship and Trump believes that he was responsible for the outcome.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has certainly tried to make the Virginia contest about Trump, bombarding TV viewers with Trump-Youngkin television ads. If Youngkin wins, it will certainly suggest that the message failed to move voters — or at least that other issues proved more effective in a state race.

But no matter what happens in Virginia, tying Trump to Republican candidates should be easier to do in 2022 if the former president has more rallies around the country and seems more personally involved in electing “Trumpy” candidates for the House and Senate.