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Since the 2020 election results came in, I’ve been convinced that the biggest question hanging over the future of the Republican party – and one of the biggest hanging over American politics – was whether the GOP could foster what you could call Trump-ism without Trump that produced political winners.

That is, could Republicans find a strategies and candidates that (1) embraced the policies pursued by the former President capitalize on their popularity with a broad group of voters that includes conservatives, many independents and moderates, and growing numbers of African Americans and Hispanics, while rejecting the kinds of behavior that clearly turned or outright disgusted so many voters outside Trump loyalist ranks, but (2) conveyed enough of the anti-establishmentarianism and overall combativeness that appealed to the loyalists and inspired them to vote robustly?

Since this year’s Virginia governor’s race unexpectedly turned competitive this fall, it became clear that Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin was pursuing a Trump-ism without Trump strategy – to the point of successfully discouraging the former President from campaigning personally in the state for him. He also seemed likely to pass any personality tests required by gettable voters outside the Trump diehards’ ranks.

But I wasn’t convinced that he could generate the kind of diehard turnout he’d also need to carry an increasingly but still not entirely blue state like Virginia – and that could translate into Republican wins in other battleground states.

After looking at the details of Youngkin’s upset victory last night, I’m now pretty convinced that he accomplished exactly that goal. The evidence? His actual turnout numbers in the southwestern part of the state, whose largely rural and semi-rural counties aren’t especially populous, but whose voters gave Trump overwhelming triumphs both in 2016 and last year.

My methodology: I looked at the Youngkin vote last night, the Trump votes both last year and in 2016, and for losing Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in 2017, for 22 counties west of the city of Roanoke (and including Roanoke County). My source: Politico.com‘s county-by-county tallies for the four years in question, found here, here, here, and here.

These elections of course aren’t strictly comparable – chiefly because presidential election turnout is usually greater than voting in state-wide and local races. The issues dominating each contest weren’t identical, either – because things change.

But what the numbers make emphatically clear is that this big slice of the Trump loyalist vote in Virginia decreased much less between last year’s presidential election and this year’s gubernatorial race than it did between the 2016 White House contest and the 2017 gubernatorial race. That is, Youngkin kept Trump base voters considerably more energized than Gillespie.

Specifically, between 2020 and 2021, the Republican vote in these counties fell by 11.05 percent. But between 2016 and 2017, it plunged by 40.85 percent. Also important, and potentially a sign of Trump fatigue: The former President won 6.21 percent fewer votes in these counties in 2020 than in 2016 – even though total Virginia turnout in 2020 was 12.60 percent higher than four years before.

Youngkin’s success by no means guarantees Republican victories anywhere in the upcoming mid-term elections, much less in the 2024 campaigns for the White House and Congress. Too much can happen between now and both of those “thens,” and regarding the next presidential race, there’s no telling who the Democratic nominee will be. Moreover, of Trump’s hot button issues, one understandably didn’t come up at all in the Virginia election (trade) and Youngkin pretty much ignored another (immigration). Finally, though the state’s gubernatorial race wasn’t generally expected to be even competitive, Youngkin didn’t exactly win in a landslide.

Not very surprisingly, Trump has rejected the idea that Virginia represents evidence of his expendability. In fact, he appears to be taking credit for the results. But if you look closely at his phrasing, his emphasis on the Make America Great Again movement rather than his own actions could signal a recognition that his lasting impact on American politics might wind up being much more ideological than personal.