In fact, the candidates who centered their messaging around Trump instead of talking about specific policy issues often saw that strategy backfire. Democratic data guru David Shor found that one of Hillary Clinton’s memorable ads, featuring women watching Trump making misogynistic comments, actually made more voters support Republicans than the other way around. In fact, Shor found, the least successful Clinton ads were the ones that focused on Trump’s personal behavior. Even in last year’s election, Democrats weren’t able to nationalize races against Republicans who kept a little distance from Trump, like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska.
And for all of McAuliffe’s efforts to tie the mild-mannered Youngkin to Trump, the reality is that the comparisons are awfully strained. As a Carlyle Group executive, Youngkin was largely invisible as a political player during the Trump years, donating money to Republican candidates but not the former president. He didn’t attend a recent right-wing rally where Trump called in to endorse his campaign, and called the group’s parading of a flag used during the Jan. 6 insurrection as “weird and wrong.” He’s made nods to election integrity and other culture war staples to excite the Trumpian base, but when you drill down on his actual policy positions, they’re establishment Republican.