01:49 - Source: CNN
Republican candidate can't answer if he wants Trump campaigning in his state
Burke, Virginia CNN  — 

One Republican is trying his hand at lifting the curse that Donald Trump has inflicted on his party in America’s suburbs – by just pretending he doesn’t exist.

But even as Virginia gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin sprinted into the final two weeks of the campaign, talking about local issues like parents’ pandemic-related angst over their kids’ interrupted schooling, he who shall not be named was rearing his head.

Trump on Tuesday lashed out at former Secretary of State Colin Powell – one of America’s true military heroes and one of Virginia’s most famous residents, who died on Monday – and for the millionth time made some of his fellow Republicans cringe.

“It’s because of stuff like this,” GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, who has faced his own tough races in suburban Omaha, told CNN about the kind of rhetoric that sent suburban voters fleeing the GOP under Trump.

It’s not clear that Trump’s latest comments – coming on a day when Congress was moving to tighten the screws on the ex-President’s onetime chief strategist in search of accountability for Trump’s attempted January 6 coup – would have any effect in Virginia, where early voting has been open for weeks.

Youngkin has kept the race too close for comfort for former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. And his approach toward Trump has potential to shock Democrats in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 points just a year ago – and provide a template for his party to woo back suburban voters that Trump drove away.

“This is no longer a campaign, this is a movement. This is a movement led by parents all over Virginia, all over America … we are at a crossroads,” Youngkin declared at a rousing rally in a suburb outside Washington, DC, where he must cut deep into the Democratic vote.

He has focused squarely on education and lowering taxes and has avoided criticizing Trump while at the same time making some coded statements that appeal to his voters – like mentioning “election integrity.”

On Tuesday night, Youngkin didn’t mention the dominant figure in his party at all – no doubt frustrating McAuliffe, whose core strategy has been to paint the two men as clones.

But any Republican hoping to borrow Youngkin’s blueprint in midterm elections next year is likely to be out of luck. Because as America knows by now, the ex-President will not tolerate being ignored.

‘It lacked class’

Trump’s bad taste assault on the former secretary of state stood out among an avalanche of tributes from both sides of the aisle. But it recalled Trump’s vicious attacks on the late Vietnam War hero, Sen. John McCain, and offered a reminder of his extreme, self-obsessed and base-pleasing antics that alienated suburban voters and women when Republicans lost the House in 2018 and then the Senate and the presidency in 2020.

“He was a classic RINO, if even that, always being the first to attack other Republicans,” Trump wrote in a statement about Powell.

Trump’s blast underscored how, at any second, any Republican campaign can find itself overshadowed by the ex-President, who was back at the center of attention on Tuesday. And the problem is likely to be far worse in the 2022 midterm elections, which Trump is using to launch his next presidential campaign and wants to turn into a single-issue event based on his false claims the 2020 race was stolen. That may succeed in ruby red districts where Trump remains wildly popular. But it could be disastrous for Republicans wooing more moderate voters in the suburbs in Senate races in Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania and House seats across the nation that could make Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California the next speaker.

“The man just died two days ago,” Bacon said of Powell. “It lacked class and it was graceless to do it,” the retired Air Force brigadier general, who represents a district Biden won, added of Trump’s critical statement.

Trump’s behavior, specifically his obsession with his election lies, were also on the mind of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is eyeing control of the chamber after the midterms.

“Well I do think we need to be talking about the future and not the past,” the Kentucky Republican said on Tuesday when asked whether he was concerned that Republicans, like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, were embracing the ex-President despite his role in inciting the Capitol insurrection on January 6.

“I think the American people are focusing on this administration, what it’s doing to the country, and it’s my hope that the ’22 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020,” McConnell said.

McAuliffe plays his Trump card

McAuliffe might have expected a far easier ride in this election, given that Democrats have turned the commonwealth into a blue bastion since President Barack Obama broke through in 2008.

He’s running the opposite strategy to his rival. While Youngkin rarely mentions Trump, McAuliffe can’t stop talking about him – especially on days, more often than not, when he dominates the news. McAuliffe hopes that Virginians will be so spooked by Trump’s refusal to leave the scene, they won’t trust Youngkin.

In an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan Tuesday, the Democrat mentioned Trump and his opponent in the same breath multiple times. “Donald Trump has endorsed Youngkin six times. Youngkin has said the reason he’s running is so much because of Donald Trump,” McAuliffe said. Later, the former governor told CNN: “They are running together … Donald Trump wants to use this election to get him off the mat to get him ready for 2024.”

His comment revealed the core battle heading into the midterm election year. Democrats desperately hope that the specter of Trump will drive suburban voters back into their arms and stave off the kind of first-term disaster that often afflicts new presidents in congressional elections.

Republicans are betting that without Trump on the ballot, despite his ubiquity, they can turn purple seats red – relentlessly targeting issues like education and taxes being pushed by Youngkin as the economic and national recovery from a summer Covid-19 surge dampens national morale.

McAuliffe has found himself caught in a dip of Democratic enthusiasm that his party fears could be replicated on a national stage next year. Notwithstanding signs of progress on Tuesday after intense talks between Biden and feuding progressive and moderate lawmakers, the Democrats have given the impression for weeks they don’t know how to use their narrow congressional mandates with the President’s agenda stalled.

In another possible foreshadowing of next year’s fight, Youngkin is seizing on the fact that Democrats – in Virginia, as in Washington – have a monopoly on power and can therefore be held responsible for pandemic-imposed frustrations.

A recent poll by Fox News had McAuliffe up 51% to 46% among likely voters, but turnout is likely to be crucial – and nearly half a million Virginians have already cast their ballots.

Youngkin vows to hike schools budget

Youngkin is running a double play strategy, seeking to tap into frustration among parents over what he calls “unquantifiable” lost learning. He hopes to connect with Trump devotees worried about mask and vaccine mandates and the way history is taught in class, as conservative news channels pulsate with stories about “critical race theory” and parental choice.

But Youngkin is also seeking a hearing with moderate, suburban voters who fill the affluent suburbs around Washington who recoil at Trumpist rhetoric but have not been immune from the chaos and closures in public schools.

“We will have the largest education budget in Virginia’s history. We will raise teacher pay and we will rebuild our crumbling schools,” he said Tuesday. His vow to lift the “burden of low expectations” mirrors the “soft bigotry of low expectations” catchphrase of another conservative gubernatorial candidate who rode a focus on education to the pinnacle of politics – George W. Bush.

He is centering his closing argument on a comment by McAuliffe in one of their debates when the Democrat said: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The former Virginia governor was actually talking about a bill he vetoed during his first spell as governor that would have allowed parents to withdraw kids from studying literature that included sexual content. But, even taken out of context, it’s a gift for Youngkin and one of those throwaway lines that could doom a campaign.

Youngkin on Tuesday promised action following parental outrage over two recent alleged assaults in public schools in the state’s Loudoun County. He praised “righteous anger” among parents. He was introduced by Brandon Michon, a Virginia dad who caused a nationwide stir in January by standing up at a school board meeting and blasting officials as “a bunch of cowards” for not reopening classes. And his loudest cheer came when, in one of those coded nods to Trump supporters he needs to turn out in massive numbers, Youngkin declared, “Let me be clear, I will ban critical race theory in our schools.”

Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society but has become politicized by conservatives who slam it as a Marxist philosophy that teaches that America is a wicked and racist nation.

Youngkin’s climb is still a tough one. The firehouse where he spoke, and then went to rally an overflow crowd, sits in a county that Biden won by 42 points last year. Still, if he can make inroads in the Democratic vote here, of all places, almost nowhere will be safe for Democrats next year.

Melanie Zanona, Dan Merica, and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.