MANASSAS, Va. — If there was any doubt about former President Donald Trump’s grip on his party following the near-unanimous show of hands from his rivals at this week’s debate that they’d support him if he was convicted of felonies, consider this scene from the other campaign trail this year — the one for the Virginia legislature.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, stumping for a state senate candidate, had just finished remarks in a diner about his turnaround job in once Democratic-dominated Richmond. Youngkin is hoping to help his party claim full control of the legislature and then may make a late entry into the presidential race. Still wearing an apron from a brief stint cracking eggs in the kitchen, the governor argued that this November’s battle for control of the General Assembly represents “the single most consequential election” in the country because “everybody’s watching us.”
It was a characteristically energetic pitch from the ever-sunny wealthy financier. His upbeat presentation and fundraising prowess are why Virginia Democrats are increasingly alarmed about this year’s election — more on that below — and why so many of Youngkin’s fellow donor class swells are swooning over his hoped-for 2024 candidacy.
That’s not the campaign many in the GOP rank-and-file are thinking of, however. They already have a candidate for next year.
“I don’t know how you don’t go for Trump,” Rick Weland told me after Youngkin’s pitch in the Washington exurbs, the sort of place that has doomed Republicans since the former president’s initial victory.
The landlord of the strip mall that’s home to the Juke Box Diner, Weland had no doubt about Trump’s viability against President Biden because the felony charges the former president is facing “are bullshit” and explained that Trump “is the only play for the Republican Party” because he’s “a proven commodity.”
Kenny Loveless, who works at a tailoring shop in the strip mall and sat across the table from Weland, added that Trump’s “base is still solid and firmly all behind him.”
What we need, interjected Weland, “is someone like a DeSantis or a Youngkin or a Nikki Haley or a Rick Scott to run beside him and take over after he’s done in one term and carry that whole support system that he’s got into the next round of elections.”
Eight summers after Trump emerged as the man to beat in the 2016 GOP primary, the same yawning gap persists today as when he mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam and then said in the first debate that “our politicians are stupid” and he may not support the party’s eventual nominee.
It’s the difference between what so many of those politicians, and their contributors, want their party to be and what it is.
Trump horrified GOP leaders with his attacks and refusal to commit to backing the party standard bearer, but the voters were unbothered. Today, most all of Trump’s opponents vow to support him as the nominee, even as a convicted felon, because they’re worried if they don’t, those same voters will very much be bothered.
The former president may not have been on stage for the first debate this week, but he had a representative who brought important clarity.
Say this about Vivek Ramaswamy, he’s offering an important public service by exposing the 2024 race as a Potemkin primary, making clear that he is effectively running as a down-payment on a future race, at which point he hopes to gather support from Trump’s base.
What Ramaswamy lacks in subtlety he makes up for by illuminating the fundamental state of the party. The only question now is what exactly he’ll extract from Trump, and if he gets it in writing, as part of his campaign to fashion a new meaning of “Rino” — running in name only.
This is not to say that the race for the Republican nomination is a fait accompli, that Trump is a lock to be the nominee. Because there’s also the matter of, forgive me, his being locked up.
There’s essentially three groups of non-Trump candidates in this year’s GOP race, with some overlap.
There are those, like Ramaswamy, who are in the campaign almost entirely as an investment for future prospects and earnings. Then there are those nearing the end of their careers as mainstream elected officials — looking at you, former and soon to be former governors — who believe their resumes should matter with voters more than every bit of evidence suggests is the case. And lastly are the hopefuls who aren’t wholly blinded by vanity and believe it’s worth running just in case primary voters come to realize the risk of nominating Trump, perhaps after some of those indictments become convictions.
Yet the outcome of any such trial may not be known before he seals the nomination early next year.
The more immediate challenge for those actually hoping to claim the nomination next year is coalescing the anti-Trump vote around themselves. But that the needed coalescence around one Trump alternative isn’t in every candidate’s interest. Do you think Ramaswamy, just to take one name from the headlines, wants to wait until 2032 to run again if one of his non-Trump rivals secures eight years in office? Having Trump as the nominee, win or lose, at least ensures an open primary four years from now.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis clearly is in the race to win, but he’s bumping up against not only his own shortcomings but the inherent challenge of running in what’s really two parties under the same roof. DeSantis refuses to hug Trump a la Ramaswamy but also has no appetite to frontally attack him in a way some donors want for fear of alienating GOP voters, who recoil from such critiques because that’s the language of the other tribe. Just listen to the boos in the crowd at former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or the routine invoking of the blue team’s cable networks after such attacks on Trump.
So DeSantis is left to run on a mix of his biography, criticisms of Biden and attacks on Trump’s right flank that depend on the dubious salience of matters such as, say, the former president’s deference to Anthony Fauci on Covid policy more than three years ago. It’s the sort of strategy that can get overwhelmed on a debate stage when others clearly are making a choice about how to run vis a vis Trump.
More ominous, it’s also a strategy that won’t quiet longings for Youngkin to enter the race.
With his attempt to make suburbia safe for Republicans again this fall and nudge his own party to embrace early voting — which he has deemed “securing the vote” in a bow to the post-Trump GOP — the Virginia governor is hoping to show the way to the GOP on two problems that plagued them under the former president.
If he can do that, he’d have an anti-Trump message, one with the benefit of being both potent and implicit, and would emerge from this year’s off-year elections as one of the biggest winners. He would also have something to offer beyond having won a single campaign for Virginia’s one-and-done governorship.
“This is where political Washington will look, what happens in Virginia,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told me this week.
Warner knows what sort of bounce Youngkin, who’s already receiving fawning coverage in the Rupert Murdoch press, would get from rich men north of Richmond by holding the House of Delegates and winning a majority in the senate of Virginia, a state that hasn’t been carried by a GOP presidential nominee for nearly two decades.
“I just don’t get why this isn’t a higher priority for the DNC and the White House,” said the senator of this fall’s legislative races in the Old Dominion.
Warner told me that he and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) have both telephoned Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s top political aide, and asked for additional DNC money for Virginia. The White House has signed off on some and, I’m told, there will be more dollars sent to Richmond this fall.
“We just need a sense of urgency,” said Warner, who has also spoken to White House chief of staff Jeff Zients, adding that it’s not only Biden but also national progressive groups committed to the environment, gun control and voting rights who also must tune in to otherwise local races with candidates they don’t know running in jurisdictions they can’t pronounce.
This is personal for Warner, up for re-election in 2026, who suffered a near-death political experience the last time there was a second-term Democrat in the White House and has no appetite to run against an emboldened and just-departed governor.
For his part, Youngkin has had no problem raising dollars from his own out-of-state allies this year, in part because he can tease them with the prospect of using the legislative races as his springboard to run for president and deliver those contributors from Trumpism.
Whether or not he’d actually run or just pocket those pleas and reemerge, relatively unsullied, as the 2028 Republican savior is an open question.
Those who know Youngkin say it’s only a matter of when, that he ran for governor to run for president.
As he made his way around the neon-lit and Elvis-appointed Jukebox Diner, though, even his biggest admirers didn’t think that time was now.
Linda Catir, who threw her arms around Youngkin’s torso three times to show her gratitude, said she didn’t want him to run “until he fixes Virginia,” where he’s only been governor for just over a year-and-a-half.
And did Catir have a favorite in this year’s race?
“Oh yeah, Trump,” she said. “I love Trump.”
Benjamin Johansen contributed to this report.
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