Democrats, stop counting on Trump to win elections for you
Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the Giant Center in 2019. (Evan El-Amin /

Democrats may need an intervention to end their Donald Trump addiction, if Tuesday's election results didn't already send that message.

Take Gov. Phil Murphy's campaign. From his campaign flyers — every one I received had Trump as its main image — to the “Stop the Trump Team" signs that lined Route 3 in the days before Election Day, a casual voter may have assumed Murphy's challenger was the former president, not Jack Ciattarelli.

It was much the same, perhaps worse, in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe could barely utter a sentence about his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, without mentioning Trump. Youngkin defeated McAuliffe Tuesday after voters all over that very Democratic state lurched right.

Murphy is probably going to defeat Ciattarelli, despite the Election Day scare the Republican gave the incumbent (the Associated Press called the race for Murphy Wednesday night). But if Murphy ekes out a victory here, he should blame his meager margin — and his party's loss of winnable seats around the state — in part on his campaign's insistence on using Trump as a boogeyman to scare Democrats and independent voters into voting for him.

There are plenty of reasons why the Ciattarelli campaign was able to eat into Murphy's margin. Republicans loathe Murphy for his COVID restrictions — his recent mandate that even toddlers should wear masks in school is a particular sore point — and they believe the governor got a pass for the thousands of nursing home deaths in the early months of the pandemic. Biden's anemic job approval ratings didn't help.

But the Murphy camp's Trump fixation probably cost them the votes of persuadable Democrats and independent voters who either sat Tuesday out or voted for Ciattarelli because the Republican was talking about New Jersey, not the former president. And dwelling on Trump probably energized GOP voters instead of reminding them their most recent president is an embarrassment.

I talked to Mike DuHaime, a longtime strategist for Chris Christie, who told me Democrats should have known raising the specter of Trump would not have the same effect in November 2021 that it did while Trump was president. Despite how “irresistible" Democratic operatives find Trump, he said, voters want to look forward, not backward.

DuHaime finds all this reminiscent of 2009, when then-Gov. Jon Corzine “spent millions" tying Christie to George W. Bush to help sink Christie's gubernatorial campaign. Bush's approval was still mired in the mid-30s back then, but Corzine's attempts to highlight Christie's ties to the former president failed to resonate enough to prevent Christie from unseating Corzine. Voters were more interested in New Jersey's problems than Christie's previous work for W.

“You don't have to look that far back in history to learn the exact lesson we just learned," DuHaime said.

I am no fan of Trump. I think he's personally odious. His apparent hijacking of the federal government to try to derail Joe Biden's election win, plus his instigation of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot, is a travesty. And it was fair to ding Ciattarelli for appearing at a “stop the steal" rally and then making up a laughable story that he didn't know the true purpose of the event.

But, at the risk of getting very Frank Capra here, voters — not Democratic foot soldiers, but voters who worry about rising gas prices and COVID-19 and stubbornly high property taxes — want to hear about solutions to those problems, not four months of threats that a vote for [fill in the blank] is really a vote for Donald Trump.

Tuesday's results, especially in Virginia but also in parts of New Jersey, bear that out. Democrats lost legislative races in South and Central Jersey, handed myriad other seats around the state to the GOP — Republicans may win Passaic County commissioner seats! — and put the governorship in jeopardy because instead of arguing they deserve to run Trenton, they thought Trump would do the work for them.

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