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CLARENCE PAGE: For Democrats, being ‘anti-Trump’ isn’t enough

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Often a master of metaphors, progressive CNN commentator Van Jones almost outdid himself by calling Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia’s governor’s race “the delta variant of Trumpism.”

Almost. Jones’ novel description of Republican Youngkin’s ability to break through Democratic defenses is clever but not quite accurate. By the numbers, Youngkin’s surprisingly large and broad-based victory came in spite of Donald Trump as much as because of him.

That’s an important distinction to note as national Democrats try to get past their shock over a loss that was larger and more decisive than the polls — which had them neck-and-neck — had predicted.

And the shock was enhanced further by this year’s only other statewide race. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy beat Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in a nail-biter that also ended much closer than polls had predicted.

Both results amounted to the sort of off-year political earthquake that President George W. Bush called a “thumpin’ ” in 2006 and President Barack Obama called a “shellacking” in 2010.

What went wrong for the Dems and so right for the Grand Old Party?

Some observers speculated that voters were simply exhausted after the pandemic and political turmoil around last year’s elections. But turnout overall was higher than any other election since 1997, officials said. Voters were energized, but not enough for Terry McAuliffe.

Still, the great night for Youngkin turned out to be a questionable night for Trump. Despite his resilient popularity among Republicans, his efforts to be a political kingmaker took a hit when Youngkin managed to do just fine without Trump’s visible help.

Yes, Republican Youngkin won Trump’s coveted endorsement, but wisely avoided appearing anywhere in public with the big Orange Ego. Even in a dial-in “tele-rally” on the election’s eve, the former president praised Youngkin as “a fantastic guy,” even though Youngkin was nowhere to be seen.

McAuliffe’s frustration over Trump’s invisibility showed itself in his closing campaign speech that evening. He claimed falsely that Youngkin was “doing an event with Donald Trump here in Virginia.” Not true.

If anything, McAuliffe’s lashing of Trump’s endorsement probably backfired by reassuring Trump’s base that Youngkin was OK without scaring other voters away.

And with that comes a cautionary note for Democrats: Being anti-Trump is not enough, especially when Trump isn’t on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group private equity fund with no prior experience in political office, stuck close to home and campaigned on issues of particular importance to Virginians: the economy, inflation, pandemic restrictions and the widely publicized hot-button issue of how much say parents can have in their children’s education.

That education issue has been covered mainly as a debate over “critical race theory,” a body of legal scholarship that is not taught officially in the state’s public schools.

Yet the mere possibility that some CRT might somehow sneak into the classrooms through teacher diversity training or some other means still feeds arguments nationwide, including a recent wave of raucous and disrupted school board meetings.

In this CRT issue, which I call a distorted debate and McAuliffe called a “dog whistle” for racism, I can hear why Jones compared Youngkin to Trump. But dog whistle campaigns didn’t begin with Trump (Does anybody remember the 1988 “Willie Horton ads” against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for his state’s weekend prison furlough program?) and, as much as I might wish otherwise, they aren’t likely to end now.

Besides, McAuliffe helped to cook his own goose with what may be the biggest political gaffe of the year, his declaration during a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Predictably, you could almost hear McAuliffe’s poll numbers take a nose-dive every time Youngkin’s attack ads featuring that sound bite ran — and they ran a lot.

The lesson from Youngkin’s success with the CRT issue, promising to ban such teaching as some other states have with mostly Republican support, is what it says about the bigger question that parents and other voters are asking: “Are you listening to us?”

It’s a bit of a cliche to call off-year surprises like this a “wake-up call” to Washington Democrats, who’ve spent more time debating each other than getting things done for their voters. But cliches endure when they contain a hard nugget of truth.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.