The Surprising Strategy Behind Youngkin’s Stunner

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Sometimes you want to hear from the strategists rather than the candidate.

With all due respect to Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin — who, for a first-timer from the world of high finance, proved to be remarkably disciplined on the stump (few verbal missteps) and surprisingly motivational to Republicans (record turnout) — he's not all that interesting.

What is interesting is how he won.

How did his campaign win a state by two points one year after his party lost it by 10 points? How did his strategists view Fox News and Twitter, where a funhouse mirror version of the race often played out? What are the real lessons from the campaign for Republicans and Democrats, especially when it comes to issues like critical race theory and parental control of public education? How would the Youngkin campaign brain trust have advised Terry McAuliffe if they had been working for him? How did they keep the easily-offended Donald Trump out of the state?

On Wednesday afternoon, I put those questions and many more to top Youngkin strategists Jeff Roe and Kristin Davison. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of their conversation, which took place Wednesday afternoon; the night before, we were all up late waiting for the race to be called at Youngkin's election night celebration in Chantilly, Virginia.

First of all, thank you, Kristin and Jeff for doing this, especially after a pretty long night for you guys. Let's just start by introducing yourselves and telling us what your involvement was with the campaign.

Kristin Davison: Well, my name is Kristin Davison. I was one of the consultants on the race. I was more minute-to-minute, day-to-day here in Virginia, working with Jeff and the Youngkin campaign.

Jeff Roe: And I did everything that Kristin told me to do. … The strategy and the narrative of the campaign is probably the most important thing that I focused on. A lot of times, the tyranny of the immediate can get in the way of the narrative and strategy. So I tried to stay out of the weeds.

I want to get back to the narrative, but let's just give the overview right now of the takeaways. Why do you think your candidate won on Tuesday?

Davison: First, I think it was a textbook example of the theory that candidate quality matters. We started with a once-in-a-generation talent in Glenn. He — you know, what you see is what you get. He's a genuine guy with a positive, upbeat attitude all the time who really wanted to focus on a positive, unifying campaign. So when you have that foundation, I think [that's] an advantage to start.

Then, the strategy: From day one, we didn't run to win a convention and lose a general election. We started very early to reach out to different voting groups that haven't been Republican ever or haven't been Republican in a long time; starting different coalitions back in February — African-American Virginians, Asians, Hispanics, women — and then focusing the race on Virginia and what families were talking about at their kitchen tables, not what the talking heads were talking about on TV.

I think the third takeaway that helped drive this home: We had an opponent who focused on every political talking point the DNC probably gave him. And Glenn stayed focused on things like cost of living, education and safety — [which] were on the forefront of conversations that families were having every day.

Roe: In line with what Kristin said, I believe that there's a governing philosophy of Democrats right now that the Republicans have actually had for the last decade and which drove suburban voters away from the party — and that is a commitment to the base, to the idealism of their party.

We still have very worthy conversations about ideological issues in our party. But we wage them in campaign cycles and in times when the voters don't care about those issues where they might not agree. But even if they do agree with us on some of those fundamental issues, they don't like to hear about them and they don't think it matters to them personally.

The Republicans have been revolutionaries for most of the 2000s. And then they lost mightily because of it. A lot of people blamed President Trump for that. It's not because of him; it was because of the construct of our party. Democrats now are the revolutionaries. It just took them 10 months what took us 10 years, and they're going to hollow out their version of the suburbs.

When we talk about this race, I'll just round off some of the math: About 27 percent of the vote was nonwhite, [and] about 27 percent of the vote is rural. Now you've got a wash. Now we're fighting over the suburbs.

And we won the suburbs — big gains over 2017 and 2020, and it's because they [Democrats] are now the revolutionaries. They're talking past the voters, talking to their own base, [talking] into their own microphones and their own Twitter accounts about "defund the police"; taking away the power of police officers with qualified immunity, which is kind of a technical issue, but it's important; forced unionization; [eliminating] school resource officers; higher taxes — you know, "tax the rich," "soak the rich," and suburban voters might even agree to tax a billionaire or to raise the debt and spend trillions of dollars in D.C., but it doesn't impact them, it doesn't help them, and it certainly doesn't apply to them when you say parents shouldn't be involved in their children's education. And so these — "critical race theory," or pick your poison — all the issues we ran on play into an actual daily voter's life. And most political issues don't.

The Democrats have talked so far past their own voters and their own swing voters that they've become radicals and revolutionaries. And Terry McAuliffe — because he's a national Democrat, and actually, frankly, I don't even mean that as a critique — he's operated at the highest levels of government for 43 years. He's a political boss. If you constructed what a political boss looks like, it would be him. So when you get him on the ballot, he's going to default to "political boss" activities, and you wake up one day and you've found out that you spent $25 million trying to convince somebody to vote on issues that don't apply to them. That, and running against a candidate who's not on the ballot.

I'm curious how you think the tension between the national conversation and the local conversation affected the race. The conventional wisdom nowadays is that all of these races have been nationalized, and that cable news drives campaigns. You guys focused on a lot of local issues. And you mentioned two of them: critical race theory and education. There’s been an enormous amount of drama around CRT and how you guys used that issue. Explain from your perspective how those issues affected this campaign, and if there are any lessons going forward for other Republican candidates.

Roe: Well, I'll tell you this real quick: There's a lot of [misconceptions] about it.

One of our first advertising pieces in the general election — and one of the first things we hammered on — was that the Thomas Jefferson School in Northern Virginia had lowered their academic standards. It was then literally the first stop — May 13, I think, was the day. So we were running on education, on cost of living and jobs and economic opportunity. That was our campaign plan from the beginning.

The education piece is what has gotten the national conversation. And we never gave two s—- about what the national conversation was. On MSNBC and CNN and Fox News, at the height of any day, there are about 9 million people watching in prime time. And of those, about 600,000 to 700,000 people in Virginia [are] watching those programs. There's no undecided voters there — zero point zero.

So they're all locked in? They knew who they were voting for, because they're watching political news.

Roe: You do it for money; that's why you go on your own favorite networks — to say your website three times and raise $35,000. It's not for eyeballs; use local [media] for eyeballs, that's where you drive your content.

But in education: some people get animated about CRT [critical race theory]; some people get animated about school choice; some people get animated about advanced math; some people get animated about school resource officers. People get animated about different features of education depending on where you are physically, geographically, and the age of your kids. And it also depends on your demographic makeup.

If you're an Asian-American family going to Thomas Jefferson School and they lower the standards to let in more kids who aren't in accelerated math into the best school in the country, that's pretty important to you. Advanced math is a big dang thing. But it also is to the Republicans: Why would you not help and want your children to succeed and achieve? So we were having a hard time; those people don't fit in the same rooms together. You know, having school-choice people in the same room with a CRT person with an advanced math [person] along with people who want school resource officers in every school — that's a pretty eclectic group of people.

Terry McAuliffe said it better than we ever could have: He wanted to restrict the parents' involvement in their children's education. When he said that, then we could say, "Parents matter. Terry wants the government in between you and your child's life." And then it spoke to everybody. We didn't have to explain it to anyone, because they heard what they wanted to hear in that message.

He said what he believes — and by the way, it's not just what he believes on education; it's what he believes on everything: big government. He wants to, like, force you to join a union; he wants to force you to get a shot in your arm or you get laid off; if you get laid off, he doesn't want you to get unemployment. It's like this entire crust of the modern Democrat[ic] Party, which he's the godfather of, is about government involvement and growing big government.

So those disparate groups that you had trouble unifying, he helped you put the school choice folks and the CRT folks and the advanced-math folks together, because everyone cares about education, so suddenly it was whatever you ascribe to that message and it was no longer just the kind of "culture war" issue that the national media played it as?

Roe: Yeah, they picked up that one part. But Kristin was dogged on this: We were going to be playing defense on this if we weren't playing offense. That's why our first event as the nominee was at Thomas Jefferson School. We had to find a place to play offense on education, or you're playing defense. Because even though we were going to raise education budget by a billion bucks and spend more money on education than anybody had ever spent, we know that Democrats [will] lie and they're just going to say that we're going to cut education, we're going to cut teacher pay. That's typically what they do on education, because it makes you a "far-right" figure and makes you "uncaring" and those types of things.

So we wanted to play offense. But there was a cost to that. You can't have too many messages, or you don't have any. On Election Day, Terry had 11 commercials running. We had three. We did a very simple-to-deliver message.

Kristin, I'm curious how the sort of Fox News-driven "culture war" element of the education issue helped. Was that something you had to navigate, or was it all upside?

Davison: I think what you're seeing on Fox News — when there's someone with a bit of fire coming out of their ears over CRT — we weren't seeing that as much on the ground, and we weren't adjusting what we were doing on the ground when we would see that on TV.

What we were seeing was real parents [concerned about education] — and not just the parents that go to the Republican “Lincoln Day” dinner every year. These were parents who probably haven't voted in years, [and] Democrats and independents in the bluest parts of the state — Arlington and Alexandria. And it's because the fight on the ground wasn't about CRT or this "culture war."

You had two choices. Glenn and our message was that we believe parents should be involved and have a say — and not just on school safety, but on standards, not just on one specific issue. Terry and Democrats had framed it so that teachers unions and political agendas would have a bigger role in your child's education than you do. And that's a powerful message, and it's very different and deeper than just a CRT message.

But to Jeff's point, that was the piece that tied it all together. So when you had those parents at a rally or at a farmer's market or at a breakfast, you had the parent upset about CRT, the parent upset about advanced math, the parent upset that there are no more school resource officers in the hallway. And the angst there was that Terry and Democrats did not want them to know what was going on in their kids' school.

That's the fight that we saw on the ground. That was the message that we were pushing. That's why immediately — I think within three hours of the debate where Terry said "I don't think parents should be involved in what the school should be teaching" — we had a video out hitting this because it tapped into just parents not knowing. And *that* was the fight. It wasn't just CRT. That's an easier issue to talk about on TV. That's not what we focused on here; it was more "parents matter." Launching that message took the education discussion to a different level.

If you had been advising McAuliffe, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, what's the one thing you would have advised the McAuliffe campaign to do that would have been difficult for you guys?

Roe: [Long pause] So the debate happens, he says what he says, no media tweet about it. He goes first for the spin room, nobody asked him a single question about it. Everybody's sitting there like a bump on a log. We come back to the campaign office, we know we have this moment, and we have an ad up three hours later because we thought for sure he would be on "Morning Joe" walking it back. And we thought he'd for sure be on "New Day" on CNN attacking us for lying about it.

That debate was on September 28, and the debate was over at 9:00, and we had a digital spot up by midnight, and the next spot up [and sent to TV] stations at 10 o'clock in the morning, because we thought he was going to walk it back.

On October 18, he trafficked a spot that said, "Of course Dorothy and I were involved in our kids' educations, and we value parental involvement, and X, Y and Z." And yet even then — after 20 long days — he said "Glenn Youngkin took my words out of context," which then let us go back in and rerun the legs off of it again. So he never understood — or [AFT President] Randi Weingarten wouldn't let him say it, I don't know exactly what happened — but that was a mistake that he made that we cannot believe.

Davison: I would have hit us on education first a lot harder than they did. That's actually what I was afraid of for most of the time, annoying everyone about it. But Terry focused so much on Trump and made his campaign so much about Trump, then abortion, and then I think climate change was in there for a minute. It's like they literally took the Rolodex of all the base issues and tried to hit us as being extreme on them.

And what they should have done instead was go towards the typical: Democrats are very good at painting Republicans as being bad on education, saying we're going to fire teachers and cut pay. Having been governor before, he had a record there. He should have hit us first and disqualified the issue. I mean, the education issue was bubbling in Virginia since school board meetings in January — it was about going back to school five days a week then, but you can see something moving. And they didn't take advantage of that. They could have done effective hits before we were able to get out in front of it.

In any poll, when you ask "who do you trust more" on an issue, Democrats usually dominate education. And in this race, we were winning [on] education by 9 points, which is really unheard of for a Republican candidate.

Let's talk about the two national figures who mattered in the race: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And let's start with Trump. How did your campaign approach this sort of monumental figure in Republican politics that your opponent wanted to sort of define you guys with? And Jeff, I should point out: you, of course, worked for Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries in 2016 and ran against Trump, so you're familiar with this guy.

Roe: Well, 44 percent of [Virginia voters] care about who [Trump] supports or opposes, [and] will act based on his endorsement — pro or con. That number was over 43, but never 45 — it was 44, start to finish. Similar numbers on Biden, by the way — a little bit less, like 35 percent cared about what Biden was going to do.

Every day that [McAuliffe] was talking about Trump was a day that he was not hitting us on something that would be meaningful. If this is a Senate race, absolutely: Stick him to the guy and run until their backs break. I mean, that's what you do. And —

Why is that different, the gubernatorial race and Senate race, it really does make a difference?

Roe: Oh, the [difference in the] prism is huge. In fact, Kristin and I will probably in a couple of days be doing this on another campaign. You know, the exact thing that we're saying not to do now — "Terry's biggest mistake" — we will be doing it in a Senate race. It's coming to you soon, Democrats. And we'll be nationalized in that race because we're in a state where it's probably R+5 and we can run the wheels off Biden and we'll be running [ads about] planes taking off in Afghanistan until it finally breaks their spirit. I mean, that's what you do.

But in a governor's race, if you knock on a door and say, "I'm running for governor," they're going to say, "Oh, hi. Are you Republican or Democrat?" You tell them. And they say, "What do you think about education? What do you think about jobs? What do you think about roads and bridges and …” That sort of thing. It's all local stuff.

If you're running for Senate, they're like, "Did you see Biden fell asleep in the climate change conference?" Or they'll say, "Did you see Donald Trump play golf yesterday?" "What about reconciliation?" It's all national stuff; all these people are like mini pundits about national issues.

Congress and Senate [races], it's ideological, politics is not local; it's all national. But governor? It's profile, it's vision, it's leadership, it's intrinsic qualities. We even poll it differently. We ask people: Do they care about people like me? What are their right priorities? We approach it differently. It's a complete brand. You don't have to brand yourself with the party; [you can] brand yourself on your own personality traits, not policy positions.

So if you have your own brand, like Glenn did — and [that's] hard; it helps to have about a half-billion dollars in the bank and be able to put about $20 million in the campaign and raise another $40 million so you can have your own brand in a very expensive media market, create your own culture, create your own kind of winning-team mentality, have a fleece vest and a hat for everybody who comes across the Potomac and wants to get on the campaign team and join a winning operation — that's all good. When you create that kind of culture, and that opportunity and that vision of what the state can be like, then endorsements don't matter as much anyway.

I mean, we're spending $130 million between the two of us. What Biden's going to do and what Trump's going to do are just not that big a deal. Biden was more popular than Terry anyway, because Terry, three-fourths of his ads were negative. Three fourths of our ads were positive.

Are you saying that his negative ads dragged his popularity down?

Roe: Well, we didn't hit him hard enough to hardly do it ourselves. I mean, I just don't think he ever gave anybody a reason to vote for him. I don't think it really dragged him down. I just don't think he ever gave anybody a positive vision — literally, he never answered the question of why he was running for governor. The only reason he would ever give was because he wanted to stop us. Well, s—, he got in the race six months before we did. He certainly didn't know who Glenn Youngkin was then — except he let Glenn invest his money and make millions of bucks for him while he was at Carlyle.

He just never gave that reason. So [when it comes to] handling Trump or handling Biden, obviously the [political] environment matters. Obviously, the environment's a crucial part in a candidate-money message. But the environment mattered less here. … Terry McAuliffe was less popular than Biden was here. Now, if Biden was super popular, he probably could have ridden that to a victory.

It was never going to be part of our culture to associate our brand with any other Republican. When we were creating our own brand for Glenn, it was not in the image of anyone else. When he got in, our advice was: You don't have to choose to be a Huckabee Republican or a Cruz Republican or Rand Paul Republican or a Trump Republican or Romney Republican. You don't have to make that choice. You're a Youngkin Republican. Plant your guidepost, and go be your own guy. Otherwise, the media and all the pundits will try and place you in some camp — and definitely McAuliffe will.

On Trump, how hard was it to maintain that discipline? I know there were some tensions between the Trump world and Youngkin world. How hard was it to keep him out of the race, and to keep your candidate defined on his own and not as a Trump Republican?

Davison: You know, it actually wasn't as hard as I think the question suggests. We started defining Glenn's brand very early on and planting the stakes in the ground of the issues that we were going to focus on — cost of living, education and safety. And part of our strategy, part of Glenn's culture from day one, was this big-tent approach. So he would frequently say on the trail, "I want Never-Trumpers [and] forever-Trumpers all under here." And it really goes back to candidate quality — that helped a little bit. It really resonated with people on the ground because we didn't nationalize the race. Because we kept it focused on Virginia and what was happening here, it did not come up as often.

In terms of, you know, keeping anyone "out" of the race or this or that, it just wasn't a primal focus of what we were doing because we were so focused on what was going on on the ground.

Roe: I've not heard there was tension. I worked with [Trump adviser] Susie Wiles the whole way through. She was awesome. Probably 90 percent of our votes are [from] people who supported the president — 95, maybe. I mean, no tension there.

So I don't know if there's tension somewhere else, but from our [point of view], we needed every single vote. We love everybody. And so there was no tension from us. I mean, you're looking at two of the three or four people that made a lot of decisions — there wasn't any [tension] on our part.

On Biden: A lot of the time, we interpret these off-year races as a rejection of the incumbent president. But it sounds like what you're saying is maybe that helped create a favorable environment for your candidate, but you didn't really run an anti-Biden campaign. Let's unpack how Biden played into the race.

Davison: Well, for sure once Biden's favorability numbers started falling, it helped just from an environment standpoint. But if we had only focused on Biden and the national environment, you know, [if] you win by it, you die by it. So we needed to have that strategy on the ground focusing on Virginia, which allowed us to take advantage of a favorable environment.

We did not run — Jeff can fact-check me on this if my memory is bad — but we didn't put [out] one TV ad that focused on Biden or Afghanistan. And Glenn rarely ever talked about Biden on the trail. Rarely. It would depend on the crowd or the event or what we were talking about, but it was not a battle cry on the ground.

If anything, it may have discouraged the number of base Democrats from turning out just because they had elected Biden and now things were going bad and they're having events and 200 people show up to see the vice president [Kamala Harris]. A thousand people show up to see [the] former president [Barack Obama] on their side. There was just no energy there. So I think it might have depressed them a little bit, but it really wasn't a focal point in this race. We didn't talk about it.

Let's talk about the exit polls a little bit. The numbers that really jumped out at me were non-college whites — there were big, big surges compared to last year — and rural voters, there was I think more than a 10-point gain compared to Trump last year, according to the exits I saw. What explains that surge among rural voters and non-college white voters in Virginia?

Roe: Was it a surge on turnout or surge in percentage [of the electorate]?

On margin, not their makeup of the electorate.

Roe: Yeah, I mean, I've just never seen an exit poll that I would ever utilize. And I've not seen the numbers on this one.

First of all, we advertised to them. We advertised a lot. We needed to get 75 percent [of the rural vote]. So it's good to hear we got 76 percent.

We had our vote model: we needed to win 50 percent plus one at the [Virginia Beach] DMA [designated market area]. We needed to win Richmond by 50 percent plus one. We needed to get 65 percent in the Roanoke media market, 75 percent in the balance media markets, and we needed to get 43 percent in D.C. And we literally got every single one of those a little bit kind of scared.

To get 75 percent of the [rural] vote, I mean, those are kind of Saddam Hussein-type of numbers, [2.6s] right? To get that kind of vote, it's going to require a couple of things. One, you've got to do a pretty good job yourself — but that only gets you so far. Terry McAuliffe did not compete for those votes at all. And then, of your $40 million of direct voter contact that you have at your disposal, if you're Terry McAuliffe, spend half of that accusing us of being too conservative and just like Trump — [and in rural Virginia,] he of course, did very, very well.

And so it's really pretty simply explained: [McAuliffe] didn't show up. He didn't give them a single reason to vote for him. Literally not a single reason. And he spent the whole entire campaign — half his voter contact money — telling everybody how much we were like Trump and we were really conservative and we were really pro-life, really pro-gun. He kind of ran our state campaign for us.

Davison: Glenn really showed up in these parts of the state that a lot of candidates and electeds haven't in a long time. When you're lugging out to Lee County, which is the furthest western county in the state, I can't remember the last time an elected has traveled there and we had 200 people show up to come see him. I mean, Glenn is a machine in terms of how many events and the hours a day he can work. But we spent a lot of time going through Southwest Virginia and south-side Virginia. And he really connected with the folks out there. We weren't just dropping by and taking a picture at a coffee stand and leaving; he was staying, doing four events a day in these places — and then, to Jeff's point, boosting that, amplifying that with voter contact. He's the only one that has showed up for them in a long time.

Final question: Is this race just about one particular candidate in one particular moment? Or do you think there are lessons for Republicans going forward, at least in the short term, going into next year and maybe even into the presidential election in 2024?

Davison: Again, I think it comes down to being your own brand, focusing on the quality of [the] candidate, establishing that brand early and using [it] to connect to the top one or two life issues. Not just the sugar-high issues that we see come through each cycle — there's going to be a new CRT of 2022 and 2024; we don't know what it is yet, but it'll be something — but to really find something that connects with the voter, to let them know that you do care about them.

We're talking through all these big, broad issues that we did, but what we're not talking about is that we also send mail, we send digital and texts to Richmond [voters] talking about James River waste, which is a huge issue down there. We geofenced coal plants in Southwest Virginia and sent them mail because Terry was going to shut their plans down if he was elected. We focused on Chesapeake out near Virginia Beach, [where] the crime rate has been catastrophic compared to the rest of the state, focusing on specific issues there. So really localizing your race. And I do think that can apply to both Senate and congressional and presidential [campaigns].

To find something where the voter knows that you care about them and you're listening to them will help kind of weather whatever national headwinds are going on at the same time.

Roe: I'll just add on top: We had 12 different language coalitions. We had bumper stickers in 12 different languages — I've got one here… I still don't know which one this one is.

Davison: It's either Korean or Taiwanese… maybe Taiwanese?

Roe: But anyway, there's 12 of those. They all have different periodicals in their language, so we advertised in those periodicals. Don't assume that votes are off limits. That's one lesson from this. When we first surveyed, non-whites were as movable — even more so than college-educated whites — on issues. So we prescriptively went out to seek those votes.

Glenn is a real success story in life. And so he was going to be in politics. But his ability to communicate with 2,000 people at a time, 200 people at a time or two people at a time is a feat that is rarely encompassed by the same individual in politics. And he can go work a room with two people for a half hour, and walk out with endorsements or checks or whatever the goal of the mission is. He can go work a crowd of 200 and have all or 200 staying in line till it's over to get their picture taken with him because he's talking to them individually. And he can rip-roar a crowd of 2,000 and get them hopped up and stomping and yelling. It's a really rare quality.

But I think that the lesson of this is: Have your own brand. Nobody likes knock-offs, and everyone trying to [be a] knock-off of the previous president is a joke. There's only one Donald Trump. Everybody needs to remember that. These knock-off versions trying to do their own little [impression] of him is a mistake. Be your own person. Don't give up on votes.

And Democrats are given a gift: The lesson in '22 — the environment's good for us, it's obviously on full display in New Jersey as well — is that the Democrats have jumped the shark and they're the revolutionaries, and they are talking like they are in charge with 60-percent majorities. Literally, you're talking about trillions of dollars. I wish they would have passed the reconciliation bill and the spending bill. I wish they would have spent that. There's no way to spend $3 trillion and make people feel good about it. You cannot do that.

They're radicalizing, and they're reacting to their base of their party and it is their base of the base. And because they live on Twitter and on the lightly watched cable news shows at night, they're believing their own press releases and they're putting themselves in their own bunker. And they will not be able to get out of it.

When Jayapal is the speaker-designee and Nancy Pelosi looks like the moderate, the wheels are off. And that's probably a lesson for you for the Democrats — but don't show this to the Democrats, because we need that to continue to happen.

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