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Why Republican campaigns in the Second and Third Congressional Districts may look a lot like Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 campaign for Virginia governor

Youngkin distanced himself from Trump, while appealing to voters’ fear and anger over education issues.

NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer: “In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe.”
NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer: “In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe.”
MinnPost photo by Ashley Hackett

A week after the 2021 election, officeholders and political hopefuls around the country are using the victories and losses in their respective parties to create a game plan for the 2022 midterm elections.

Some of the major issues in this year’s election — public safety, what’s taught in schools, COVID safety rules, abortion rights and connection to Trump — will likely continue to be big pressure points in 2022, especially in swing districts.

In Minnesota, the National Republican Congressional Committee has already marked two districts — the second and third — as targets for Republican takeover next year. And the two representatives currently in the spotlight, Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, already face Republican candidates vying for their spots.

Minnesota Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer is chairman of the NRCC, and as such will play a major role in the national Republican party as it attempts to win back the House next year.

“In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe,” Emmer said after the results came in last week. “Voters are rejecting Democrat[ic] policies that have caused massive price increases, opened our borders, and spurred a nationwide crime wave.”

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The Youngkin playbook

Perhaps the most telling result for the 2022 election — even for Minnesota — came out of the Virginia governor’s race.

Until last Tuesday, Democrats had enjoyed a string of victories in Virginia. President Joe Biden had won by 10 points there a year ago, and Democrats had control of the statehouse. But last week, Republican Glenn Youngkin beat former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, flipping the state from blue to red. Some see in Youngkin’s victory a template for future Republican campaigns.

Republican strategist Jean Card, who is co-chair of the RightNOW Women PAC, points to an essential part of Youngkin’s campaign, and a place where McAuliffe struggled: McAuliffe tried to win by casting Youngkin as Trump 2.0, but Youngkin distanced himself from the former president. And while McAuliffe tried to focus the race on national issues, Youngkin was much more narrow, concentrating on local issues like getting rid of the state’s grocery tax and gas tax, and claiming that he would jump-start Virginia’s economy.

“There was this tension throughout the whole campaign of, you know, would [Youngkin] accept Trump’s endorsement,”  Card said. “And he did it very differently. He did not embrace Trump, he did not accept his endorsement. And he won. And then if you’re a Republican like me, who didn’t vote for Trump, you say ‘Hallelujah. There’s a new way. There’s a new way for Republicans to win and not be Trumpy.’”

Glenn Youngkin speaking during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Glenn Youngkin speaking during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Virginia.

But perhaps Youngkin’s most effective move was appealing to voters’ fear and anger over education. He appealed to conservative voters who were wrapped up in discourse around critical race theory — which isn’t taught in Virginia schools — and pledged to end mask mandates and COVID-related shutdowns in schools.

“He knew what people were concerned about, particularly parents,” Card said. “It’s been a very rough almost two years to be a parent. And people were ready for change in the schools. And he really appealed to those issues that hit close to home.”

Card said that Youngkin’s strategy could be replicated by Republicans around the country, particularly those who are attempting to win over swing districts — places like Minnesota’s Second and Third Districts.

“If there’s a district that is purple, that could go either way…I think the Republican candidates are going to go with the ‘Youngkin playbook’ in those situations,” Card said.

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Minnesota’s swing districts

The NRCC and other Republicans have already been trying to tie Craig and Phillips to concepts like critical race theory and “Defund the Police.”

Craig has been fighting off any connection to the latter for months, particularly by condemning an amendment to the Minneapolis charter that would have replaced the Minneapolis police department with a department of public safety, saying she was “strongly opposed” to the amendment.

Rep. Angie Craig
Rep. Angie Craig
Craig already has one Republican challenger, a former Marine from Prior Lake named Tyler Kistner, whose campaign website mentions his stance against “defunding the police” on its home page. Kistner ran against Craig in 2020, losing by approximately 2 percentage points. (The race also featured a candidate for the Legal Marijuana Now Party, Adam Charles Weeks, who drew six percent of the vote despite having died a month before Election Day.)

As for Phillips, on Tuesday the NRCC published a press update quoting Fox News’ report criticizing the Third District congressman for not condemning critical race theory in schools. The report also condemns the endorsement on Phillips’ campaign website of the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Phillips has maintained that critical race theory isn’t taught in Minnesota schools, and that it’s a culture war tactic used to hurt Democrats.

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“Dean Phillips should stop using his campaign website to promote a racist ideology that judges people based on the color of their skin instead of the quality of their character. He should also stop lying to Minnesota parents about what is being taught to their children,” NRCC Spokesman Mike Berg said in a statement attached to the release.

Rep. Dean Phillips
Rep. Dean Phillips
Phillips also has a declared Republican challenger — a Navy veteran and Eden Prairie native Tom Weiler.

It remains to be seen whether Weiler and Kistner will adopt Youngkin’s approach in their campaigns (In 2020, Kistner vocally supported Trump and received the president’s endorsement). But for Jean Card, the Republican strategist, it’s the obvious approach.

“Republicans will be in a stronger position, because they just found a new way to win,” Card said. “So, you know, what are the Democrats thinking right now? What’s their new way to win if they can’t rely on the success that they saw last week?”