New GOP candidate consensus: Forget the 2020 election?

AP Photo/Ben Gray

A predictable aftershock from Glenn Youngkin’s momentous upset last week in Virginia. If Youngkin had underperformed in the suburbs, Republicans may have concluded that those voters are lost to them for the foreseeable future and therefore the only way to compete in statewide races is to go all-in on pandering to the base. That means lots of red meat about rigged elections, avenging Trump’s stolen victory, etc.

Instead, Youngkin overperformed. College-educated swing voters are back in play, at least when the GOP candidate doesn’t come off as super Trumpy and consumed with conspiracy theories. Better yet, Youngkin proved that the base will still turn out en masse for candidates like that so long as they’re Trump-friendly and willing to prosecute the culture war, starting with schools. Dodging the subject of the 2020 election was all upside for Youngkin in Virginia and no downside.

So why wouldn’t other Republicans emulate his approach? Particularly since, apart from Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and a handful of other hardcore populists, there’s not a Republican in Congress or in a governor’s seat anywhere in America who actually believes the election was stolen.

This weekend brought a number of “it’s time to move on” statements from prominent GOPers and not just the ones you’d expect. But the most noteworthy example did come from an expected source — Chris Christie, who’s criticized Trump all year for refusing to let go of his “rigged election” propaganda. Christie addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition this weekend and warned again that the topic does Republicans no favors with gettable voters. And he took a barely veiled shot at Trump:

“We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections — no matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over,” Christie said. “Every minute that we spend talking about 2020 — while we’re wasting time doing that, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are laying ruin to this country. We better focus on that and take our eyes off the rearview mirror and start looking through the windshield again.”

He argued that Trump’s stepped-back role allowed gubernatorial candidates like Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Jack Ciattarelli of New Jersey to connect with voters on issues that actually matter to them like parental involvement in education and skyrocketing gas and grocery prices. “People want us to be direct with them. They want someone to fight for them. But they want them to fight in a way that doesn’t hurt their ears,” Christie said. “We have to speak to their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations for the future. If we don’t do that, then we won’t once again win back the votes that we began to win back in Virginia and New Jersey last Tuesday night.”

Forward, not backward:

He wasn’t the only Republican at the RJC event to make that point. “Somebody asked me, ‘Well what about the election in 2020?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about the election. That’s history, man,'” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told the crowd “If you are sitting here talking about 2020, or you are worried about who’s going to run in ’24, you are missing the boat.” Christie was more direct in an interview with CNN after his speech, telling them that he thinks Trump can be an asset in the midterms but only as part of a party-wide effort to “begin talking about the future and tell the truth about the election and move on.” That won’t happen, needless to say; for Trump, “stop the steal” isn’t a messaging strategy, it’s part of his personal psychodrama in coming to grips with how he could have lost a giant personality contest to an underwhelming dinosaur like Joe Biden.

But Christie, who has his eye on 2024, and Sununu know that. I think they’re treating the idea of moving on from the 2020 election as a proxy for the idea that it’s time to move on from Trump. If the base’s hero can’t prioritize the party’s success over ventilating his personal grievances then the right should look elsewhere for leadership.

Christie can get away with that insinuation because he’s no longer beholden to Trump in any way. Rick Scott, a sitting senator and current chair of the NRSC, isn’t as independent. He needs to trod carefully on the subject of 2020 so as not to turn Trump against him. But he’s also nudging Republicans to look towards the future, not the past. “Joe Biden is the president. We went through the constitutional process, he was elected,” he told “Meet the Press” yesterday. Asked about Trump’s influence on the party, he was diplomatic: “You’d be foolish not to want and accept Donald Trump’s endorsement, but you’re going to win not because somebody endorses you.” That’s the Youngkin campaign approach, taking care not to alienate Trump but also building a distinct enough political persona that normie suburban voters can tell themselves you’re not one of *those* kinds of Republicans.

Christie’s view of 2020 was expected, as was Scott’s dodging. What follows came as more of a surprise, though. MAGA all-star and Trump buddy Herschel Walker also wants to move on from last year’s election:

Walker urged the audience to turn out to vote and look to the future.

“I’m tired of hearing about the past. I’m tired of hearing about what happened, you know, the last election. We don’t care what happened in the last election. Let’s worry about what happens in this election, because I’m going to tell you what: I’m going to stay vigilant. I’m going to keep my eyes open. I’m not going to let them do what they did in the past one, because I’m going to pay attention. Guys, I don’t sleep. You’d be shocked. I don’t sleep. I’m staying up.”

He’s playing both sides there. Walker’s still flashing his election-truther cred to MAGA voters — “I’m not going to let them do what they did in the past one” — but clearly he’s not buying Trump’s theory that the reason Republicans lost the Senate runoffs in his home state of Georgia is because Mitch McConnell didn’t back Trump’s call for $2,000 COVID checks. Walker knows why the GOP lost. He’s starting a year early in trying to deprogram MAGA fans from believing that voting doesn’t matter because their state’s elections are rigged.

But does he need to? Remember, two different polls lately have shown that election truthers on the right are *more* motivated to vote than other Republicans are. No GOP politician, including Trump, needs to promote the idea that 2020 was rigged since plenty of conservative media outlets will do it for them. If that media message can get the base excited to vote (paradoxically), and if having Republican candidates stay away from that message can get the normie suburbanites to vote, then the party’s in the Youngkin sweet spot. All it needs to do is figure out a way to keep Trump away from cameras and microphones. Best of luck to them with that.