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Before the coronavirus pandemic, Gavin Newsom was a plausible Democratic candidate for the White House. When the California governor broke his own lockdown rules last year, provoking the recall election that flopped on Tuesday, a soaring trajectory seemed over.
How telling, then, that his “victory” speech — the result will not be certified for weeks — was national in its scope. He warned that Trumpism was “not over” in the US, and likened democracy to an “antique vase” in its frailty. A cynic might sense an attempt to revive his old man-of-destiny aura.
In reality, Newsom’s line is one that Democrats are pushing elsewhere. The party is increasingly sure that most voters, whatever their grievances with the Joe Biden presidency, want no return to either the style or content of the Trump years. Tying Republicans to the semi-retired demagogue is the plan for next year’s midterm elections and beyond.
It is rash to infer much from an election in one of the very bluest states. But it is worth looking, too, at what is going on in more competitive corners of the republic. In his race to recover the Virginia governorship, the Democrats’ Terry McAuliffe is daring Donald Trump to campaign for the Republican candidate. Cheekily, he has offered to cover the petrol costs of his visit. Seeking re-election in New Jersey — run by a Republican, Chris Christie, until 2018 — governor Phil Murphy is trying to do something similar to his own rightwing opponent. Democrats are confident that, outside his core supporters, Trump is a winner — for them. He motivates liberals to vote (turnout was crucial in California) and puts suburban moderates off the Republican brand.
This leaves Republicans in a political fix that only some of them are willing to admit out loud. Distance themselves from the former president, and the party base seethes. Embrace him, and voters who are otherwise persuadable flinch. Christie himself, with some knowledge of what it takes to win as a conservative outside red states, recently warned the party not to “tie our future to a pile of lies”. Complicit in the rise of Trump, he is a less than ideal messenger. But the message is sound.
Because Trump’s breakthrough in 2016 caught so many unawares, his overall electoral record can be obscured. He never won the popular vote in a presidential race. He oversaw the loss of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. He was the first one-term president in a generation, and did not have George HW Bush’s excuse of a vote-splitting third candidate such as Ross Perot. As president, his approval rating never hit 50 per cent in the Gallup survey. He is still to be reckoned with, both as a presidential contender in three years’ time and as a stirrer of mobs today. As he limbers up to declare his intentions for 2024, though, the evidence suggests that Trump and the populism he stands for constitute a net drag on the party.
California was a case in point. If Newsom’s victory was not a surprise, the handsome margin of it was. Had the Republicans summoned a candidate as moderate as 2003’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, the incumbent might have been in more trouble. As it was, the party put forward Larry Elder, a radio shock jock, among a wider gallery of eccentrics. Disgruntled voters could not risk such a change at the best of times, never mind amid a pandemic. Biden, for whom Newsom’s win is a relief after a tough summer, described Elder as a “clone” of Trump. Republicans should expect that line to hound them in other states until they renounce the man himself.