The Democrats’ 2024 Kryptonite

Jeff Roe and Glenn Youngkin
Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty
Tina Nguyen
December 7, 2021

“My victory lap has been way overdone and I’m kind of sick of it,” joked Jeff Roe from the Houston office of Axiom Strategies, his august political consultancy. Roe, after all, was the political guru who managed Glenn Youngkin’s unlikely victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, during which the half-zip wearing former private equity C.E.O. defeated former Democratic governor Terry McAullife in a state that Joe Biden won handily a year ago.

Axiom has run hundreds of races over the years, including Ted Cruz’s 2016 national campaign, but Roe has become synonymous with the Youngkin campaign in large part because the victory articulated a new Trump-friendly, post-Trump Playbook for Never Trump Republicans. After alienating suburban moms and people of color during the Trump years, suburban voters and minorities suddenly turned up to vote Republican in Virginia. And Roe suddenly became the hottest name in political consulting, a phenomenon he attributes to the fact that there was so much press attention on this particular race given its proximity to the swamp. 

A month after the sugar-high of the Youngkin victory, Roe has had some time to reflect on the lessons from Virginia and forecast what comes next. He and I talked about swing voting blocs, hyperinflation, and—naturally—the 2024 draft picks. His biggest takeaway, however, was that Democrats have boxed themselves into an untenable position. “We gave up the suburbs [to the Democrats in 2018] because we nominated and communicated on issues that nobody talked about, nobody cared about,” he said. “The Democrats right now are doing the exact same thing.” (The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Tina Nguyen: What has transpired in the month since Youngkin won? Is there a new defining message that you’ve seen?

Jeff Roe: I think they might have a takeaway that Trump is not the cure-all pill, which is definitely a lesson. But they’re not going to take the lesson about [critical race theory in] schools. Because it’s kind of the final frontier for liberalism: to push their agenda all the way into the schools. And then on the cost of living: Swing voters who participate in elections, they believe that Biden and the Democrats, writ large, are responsible for cost of living increases. Everybody says it. Every focus group, every poll. And they completely—almost 78 to 11—blame Democrats. I don’t know if it’s bad luck. I don’t know what it is. But it is profound.

I’m curious how you view the possible impact of the Supreme Court repealing abortion rights. Many assumed it would mobilize the left, but I keep seeing Democratic strategists thinking that it might not be as effective as previously believed at turning out votes. 

Let’s just say they repeal Roe. That could get the excitement up, for sure. But it’s not going to get excitement up where they need it, which is with non-whites. Hispanics are going to continue to go the other way. I mean, our polling shows that non-white voters are more persuadable than the white voters are right now for Republicans. And for the future demographics of the country, we need that to be the case and we want great people to make the argument. But for the Democrats to be single-issue, that’s gonna hurt them. 

The Youngkin campaign famously made significant inroads with minority voters in Virginia, especially Latinos and Asian-Americans. If you were talking to a donor hoping to flip non-white voters to the Republican party, where would you get the most bang for your buck?

Well, there’s only two subgroups of minorities that consistently vote Republican: Vietnamese and Cubans. And that’s because they both either fled or were evacuated from equality and chose freedom.

Minority groups have a hard time breaking into the middle class. Most of that’s because of geography. When they start going from lower class to middle class, they’ve got to drive further, they can’t afford the rising home prices, and if you start doing any kind of cost increase on prices, they just can’t get there. As they go up the economic ladder, Asians are the first ones there, and they’re the ones hit most dramatically by cost of living increases and they benefit less from government benefits. And so they’re the ones that are going to go right back fastest. I mean, Asian-Americans were not reliable, but were pretty sturdy Republican votes, and they left predominantly [in the past four years] a little bit because of Obama, because he was kind of a post-partisan figure, at least in ‘08. They’re gonna go back to like ’04 numbers. Fast. And they’re much more likely to participate. 

Do you worry about certain culture war issues getting overplayed? Critical Race Theory, public safety?

Gun culture in the United States runs pretty deep [among white voters], and if anybody wants to take them away, we get all pissed off and want to fight about it. Hispanics, less so. Asians, much less. It’s just not part of their kind of natural culture. That’s because they’re reliant, really, on the police. 

And even just the messaging of “defund the police”, and more community policing—well, they’re not in the communities where the middle class voters are going. They’re the ones that feel they’re not living really in the cities. They feel like they’re gonna lose their cops and their police protection in the outer ring suburbs and exurbs. And that’s where middle class voters are congregating, because they can’t get a house in the suburbs, because they’re too expensive in the bigger cities. I mean, it is a terrible narrative for Democrats. 

And they can’t say it. So they try to morph it into community policing and mental health, and try to navigate it that way. But nobody’s really pushing back on this [and saying], “We’ve got to overfund our police and put more investment in law enforcement, because we’ve just got some bad actors.” But Democrats just really can’t get there. They have to use all the other buzzwords of different ways to get funding initiatives into law enforcement, but they can’t say no, we want to fund the police. They don’t say it. So it’s like we got this hammer, and they’re responding with, like, a sponge. It’s not working, because they can’t get as far as they need to get to answer the charge. That’s why it’s a potent issue for them. 

With CRT, the line that Glenn [Youngkin] crafted is: “We’re gonna teach all the history, good and the bad, so we’re not going to repeat it.” That’s just such a good line and such a common sense thing to say, that we’re just not gonna whitewash our history, we’re going to teach all of our history, the good and the bad. And the Democrats can’t do that. They want to teach The 1619 Project, and all this kind of stuff. And it’s not the same as “defund the police,” because a lot of people aren’t positioned in that perspective. But unfortunately, the more radical [elements] in their party have placed themselves at this kind of point in their political rainbow that they have to be more racial in their teaching [and] feel like they have to teach this more white privilege approach. 

So all we have to say is, we’re going to teach all history, the good and the bad. And we’re not going to take out the bad parts of our history. If something is offensive, if a monument’s offensive, put it in a museum. Make it part of our history, but don’t not teach it. And we’re just not going to teach our kids that they’re racist, just because they’re white. That’s divisive. 

It sounds like “election fraud” doesn’t have a spot in your proposed playbook for how G.O.P. candidates should win in 2022. But it’s still such a vocal part of the G.O.P. base right now. How do you run a candidate that somehow steps around that?  

We had the very good fortune of running against a Democrat that was a very forward-leaning, “2000 was stolen” [politician]. We said, probably the only Democrat in America that actually said the election was stolen more than Donald Trump was Terry McAuliffe. That was immensely helpful for us. Other people won’t have that advantage. So yeah, 75 percent of Republicans think that 2020 was stolen, and the moniker of “election integrity”—I don’t know who came up with that moniker, but it’s really hard to be against it. So the angle of it, at least from my standpoint, is: We have to protect our elections. And so we need to show an I.D. 

And if you say that, that’s so common sense. You know, in 2000, 60 percent of Democrats thought that the election was stolen. In 2020, 75 percent of Republicans thought it was stolen. We can’t run elections like that. We have to have faith and belief that the elections are fair and square. And we need to have measures ensuring that people are who they say they are. I mean, that’s kind of all you have to have. It’s just kind of a hat tip, and acknowledgement that we need to have safe and secure elections. Were there irregularities? Yes. Were the rules that were changed because of Covid to [the] benefit Democrats and Democratic states? Yes. But we just have to have faith in our system of elections and right now we don’t. 

If we’re talking about branding, who do you think has a good personal brand going into 24? 

Assuming Trump doesn’t run? If it is open on both sides, we’ve got 50 credible people running between the two parties. And so now you’ve got a couple different measurements. One measurement is: who has the best email list? And you talk about the tiers of people—who’s in tier one, who’s in tier two. And I think there’s really only three tier-one candidates. I think it’s [Ted] Cruz and [Ron] DeSantis and Tim Scott. [Editor’s note: Roe has consulted for Cruz and DeSantis.] And I think there’s three different buckets: who’s the most conservative, who’s the best positioned to carry the Trump banner, and who’s the most electable. And then you run the campaigns and see who runs the best campaign. That’s what really matters.