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Republicans may have landed on an effective political strategy post Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Republican who won the Virginia governor's race this week did so in what had been seen as an increasingly blue state. Virginia voted for Joe Biden by a solid 10 points last year. One year later, Glenn Youngkin carried it with at least some votes by Republicans who opposed Donald Trump in 2020. So how does one of those voters see his choice?

Gregg Nunziata is on the line. He is a Republican lawyer who's worked in the past for lawmakers, including Marco Rubio. He also openly opposed Trump and appeared a couple of times on this program. He is now a Virginia resident who voted for Youngkin. Mr. Nunziata, welcome back.

GREGG NUNZIATA: Thanks, Steve - good to be back.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note you're not a rank-and-file voter, exactly. You've been inside the system. But that meant you took some professional risk to oppose Donald Trump. Now you voted for Youngkin, a Republican, for governor. Was this vote a hard decision for you?

NUNZIATA: No, it was an easy one and a welcome one. It felt good voting for a Republican again. I mean, I think that my problems with Trump but I think a lot of the problems that people like me had with President Trump weren't primarily about his programs or his policies. It was about his fitness for office and his insistence on sowing division, demonstrating contempt for the rule of law, undermining faith in our institutions. I think those are things that all conservatives should have been concerned about. I think they're dangerous. And we saw how dangerous they are on January 6. And they're also bad politics.

It's why Trump ran so far behind a Youngkin this year, running a kind of a traditional Republican campaign. That's why Trump ran behind a number of senators running last year in states across the country. There are - we're not as big in the Republican Party as the factor that are - faction that's enthusiastic about Trump. But there is a significant block in the broader kind of center-right coalition the Republicans need to appeal to and hold together who were unsettled by President Trump. But not...

INSKEEP: Youngkin, definitely - if I might, Youngkin definitely had a different tone, a different look, wore a red vest, seemed friendly and approachable. But was he substantively that different from Donald Trump? Is this a new direction for the party, really?

NUNZIATA: I think it's largely a return to where the - a normal Republican Party was and what it looked like before Trump. I mean, if you - people will seize on some of the culture war issues, suggest that this was a divisive campaign. It wasn't. If you listen to his speeches, he constantly talked optimistically about the future of Virginia and the country. He talked in unifying tones about bringing the state together. He talked about affordability, about job growth, about public safety - very traditional Republican messages that you could easily imagine the year before Donald Trump rode down that escalator.

INSKEEP: Although there was also this talk of critical race theory in schools, and there's a debate about how much critical race theory is really even there, it did seem to be something that deliberately and openly energized people on culture war, racial issues.

NUNZIATA: So, you know, I think there is a role for responsible cultural populism in the Republican Party. I think it's always been there. And there's a distrust of some elites and elites in the educational system telling families how their children ought be raised. And that was reflected in - sorry - Terry McAuliffe's famous gaffe about how, you know, parents should not have influence. And this is a very core kind of vote - core kind of message about parental responsibility for their families and influence in education that I think cut across racial lines. And Youngkin's message on schools was not just critical race theory. That was a tiny piece of it. He was talking about safety in schools, about results in schools, about keeping them open, most importantly. And I think a lot of voters, from the right to the left, of all ethnic backgrounds were concerned about these issues.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mention this. Our education reporter Anya Kamenetz has come up with some reporting suggesting that people are concerned about schools - not solely about how race is taught or how history is taught, but just the fact that schools were closed, that kids are wearing masks, that people were traumatized in many ways by the difficulty of the pandemic.

Let me ask, though, about your party. And let me just put out frankly something that a lot of Democrats say about the Republican Party at this point. They see the Republican Party as becoming more anti-democratic - small-d democratic. Trump tried to overturn the election, obviously. His supporters used violence, obviously. A lot of voters are still with Trump after all of that. A lot of officials have since tried to change the election rules based on imagined voter fraud. Do you see a party that is turning against democracy in some way?

NUNZIATA: I don't see a party that's turning away from democracy. But I certainly see elements within the party that are too enthusiastic to follow what I think are really dangerous messages from the former president. And I would just hope that this week, not just in Virginia, but in New Jersey and other parts of this country, we demonstrated that Republicans who turn away from that kind of stuff can run 10, 15 points ahead of where Donald Trump could run. So even if we can never maybe agree on the pluses and minuses of the Trump presidency within the post-Trump Republican Party, hopefully we could agree on winning elections. And we need to do that together. And I think that means turning away from that kind of language, which again, I think is destructive on the merits, but also bad politics.

INSKEEP: Trump seems to have supported Youngkin - didn't appear with him publicly, but that was apparently Youngkin's choice. And Trump did talk to him privately on the phone a number of times, according to The Washington Post. Are you hopeful, though, that this result would help to turn the party away from Trump, who you oppose?

NUNZIATA: I hope it will help turn the party away from Trump, or maybe better to say past Trump. Trump existed. And he inspired millions of people. One of - part of the results this week weren't just people like me, but it was people who Trump brought in the party staying with the party. So we're never going to have a direct rejection of Trump. But I hope we can build a broad coalition, and that includes people with different perspectives on that chapter in American history, which I hope is closed.

INSKEEP: Gregg Nunziata, Republican lawyer - always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

NUNZIATA: Thanks, Steve - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.