By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections were unmistakably a clear Republican triumph. The GOP swept statewide races in blueish Virginia and nearly upset New Jersey Democrat incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy.

Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s decisive victory over former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe was artful in how he did it while not ceding all of the oxygen in the room to Donald Trump. Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement, but kept the former president at arm’s length, passed on any joint appearances which will prompt much research among Republicans running in suburban districts. 

While congressional Democrats formed the classic circular firing squad and wallowed in its vast social spending agenda that drew comparisons to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, Republicans concentrated on inflation, rising gas and grocery prices, crime rates and parental involvement in school boards and exploited President Biden’s premature “mission accomplished” on the pandemic in July that unraveled by the COVID spike in August and September. Never mind that the spike was fueled by a recalcitrant pool of largely Republican voters refusing the vaccine. This nation is exhausted by the pandemic and now the gathering inflation and empty store shelves are sapping its morale.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley noted, “Performing well in the suburbs, where Trump struggled, is key to unlocking Virginia, and Youngkin made serious inroads in those parts of the state. Youngkin did significantly better than Trump among white women with ‘some college or less,’ per the exit polls; he carried that group 75% to 25%, greatly improving on Trump’s 56-44% performance with them.”

GOP consultant Mike Murphy (the one from Los Angeles) explained, “Lots to look at in Virginia but the biggest story is return of the suburbs to GOP. Youngkin’s ‘friendly Dad tone’ worked as did hiding from Trump poison in general. Also the hard lesson (yet again, will they ever learn?) for the D’s is the party’s woke obsession is a big dud.”

There were two snippets of intriguing information that emerged on Tuesday. The first was an MSNBC video clip of a reporter asking a Youngkin supporter why he was voting for the Republican. The middle-aged man suggested critical race theory was a key factor. The reporter noted that Virginia school curriculum didn’t teach CRT and asked the man for what his perception of the issue was. He begged off, not knowing any details.

Veteran analyst Jeff Greenfield writing in Politico observed: “The state has been stirred by a wave of local unrest, with protests at school board after school board, a very local version of a big national argument stirred up by right-wing media and grassroots groups. And that suggests the real lesson for Republicans on Tuesday. One of their most powerful political assets is alive and well; the power of cultural issues over policies.”

Greenfield noted that Democrats have struggled with cultural issues for half a century: “Only when Bill Clinton directly repudiated his party’s orthodoxy on crime and welfare did the political tide turn. It was Clinton who promised to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ And his ‘blue wall’ wasn’t a passel of declining industrial states, but the ranks of uniformed cops who stood behind him as he pledged support for the death penalty. Clinton had a Rotary Club cliché for his strategy: ‘Voters won’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.’ Call it cynical, but what Clinton understood was a root reality of politics: ‘Culture trumps policy.’”

Lis Smith, who was communication director for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, observed, “I don’t think that CRT as interpreted by some in the media is the same as CRT as interpreted by voters. The communications disconnect is a problem.”

Ball State Prof. Michael Hicks explained on Wednesday, “A competent political party would try to change the subject tomorrow, with a unanimous House vote to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill. We just don’t have competent parties anymore.”

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman added, “Tonight’s results are consistent with a political environment in which Republicans would comfortably take back both the House and Senate in 2022.”

This is why Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who is preparing for a 2024 U.S. Senate or gubernatorial race has embraced the CRT issue, while filing an array of multi-state challenges to Biden’s vaccine, education and abortion policies. It’s why U.S. Sen. Mike Braun had a press availability challenging Biden’s vaccine testing mandate on Wednesday. “Remember when we were trying to help through the CARES Act we were trying to save employee jobs. Now the way this place works we’ve lowered that treshhold to one hundred. Axios did a poll recently,  ‘What do you think if you’re forced to take the vaccine, and if you don’t, you’re fired.’ Fourteen percent, meaning two/thirds of Democrats, think that’s a bad idea. This could be the biggest wallop of the whole journey.”

It’s why after General Assembly Republicans and Gov. Eric Holcomb sought to remove “politics” by creating an unelected cabinet education post in 2017, the party is now moving toward creating partisan school board races.

Former Republican superintendent of public instruction Jennifer McCormick said on an Indiana Democrat Small Town tour earlier this week, “The school board controversy that’s brought up is being organized nationally, not in Indiana. We don’t teach CRT in K-12, but Indiana Republicans want that rhetoric to continue. It’s made-up disruption.”

“It’s showing that we’re not just gonna win it back in 2022. We’re gonna win it back by a long shot,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, who heads the Republican Study Committee. “The more the Democrats hug that radical socialist agenda and go out of their way to endorse anti-Americanism, Critical Race Theory, and some of the more radical cultural issues, the more voters are gonna vote Republican a year from now. We’re gonna win back the majority in 2022 in the House, the Senate is all of the sudden in play. I think we’re gonna win back the White House in 2024,” he said.

The second snippet came in an NPR/PBS/Marist poll on Monday with implications for both 2022 and 2024 cycles. Many in President Biden’s own party don’t want him to run again in 2024; just 36% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents thought they would have a better chance in 2024 with an 81-year-old Biden on the ballot as opposed to someone else.

Gallup put Biden’s approval rating at 42%, which is lower than any other modern first-year president’s at a similar point in time, with the key exception of Donald Trump (whose approval averaged 37% in fall 2017). FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politic’s polling composite has Biden’s approval at 43%.

Democrats faced the 2021 elections hoping that policy would deliver Election Day dividends. Instead, the Biden infrastructure bill was consumed by the drama surrounding Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema supporting a $1.75 trillion spending package (down from an earlier $6 trillion).

While the Dow closed on Monday above 36,000 for the first time ever, an NBC Meet The Press poll released Sunday revealed Republicans held a 13% to 28% advantage on the issues of border security, inflation, crime, national security, the economy and “getting things done.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz observed on Wednesday, “If prices keep rising and shortages continue to worsen, things will get even worse for the Democratic Party. On the issues that matter, Republicans now have a clear advantage. The question is whether Democrats learn any lessons from tonight and apply them in 2022. I’m doubtful.”

Luntz added, “Republicans are continuing to do better in blue-collar communities. This is their roadmap to victory: Win the suburbs narrowly; win rural communities by 2:1; win 45% in blue-collar communities. That’s how Trump won in 2016 and how Republicans won in 1994 and 2010. A winning strategy for Republicans is to attract more voters instead of insisting that the system is ‘rigged and their votes won’t be counted.”

The Biden White House believes that the end of the pandemic as we know it, passage of the infrastructure package, the child tax credit, and the Senate coming to a deal on prescription drug prices will usher in a new era of prosperity, prompting voters over the next two election cycles to vote their pocketbooks.

Openings for Democrats

Republicans might want to keep the champagne iced down for the next year. While Democrats have been ham-handed on handling the social agenda, events and trends could be heading their way:

1. The pandemic appears to be winding down. This has the potential of removing a huge psychological millstone.

2. If the Dow continues to rise (remember, this was President Trump’s constant measuring stick), this could reduce headwinds facing Democrats.

3. The House Jan. 6 select committee and media reports like HBO’s documentary on the U.S. Capitol insurrection will continue to haunt the GOP. That’s why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Study Committee Chairman Banks have tried to block the release of call logs and subpoenas of Trump’s inner circle. That’s why Donald Trump is seeking to prevent former aides from testifying despite subpoenas.

4. While Trump has held a significant segment of the Republican Party in his pocket, the facts are he still polls at historically low levels, even below where President Biden is now. If Republicans nominate Trump for a third time after he failed to win the popular vote twice, they will be playing with this historic fire.

5. Trump is still focused on the rearview mirror. He is obsessed with the “stolen” 2020 election, while many Republicans are hoping, wishing, (praying) that he moves on and concentrates on the Biden record.

6. Republican focus on the Biden record would be wise, but the president may not be on the ballot in 2024. President Biden won’t say so, because he’d be a beleaguered lame duck immediately, but the notion of an 81-year-old president seeking reelection after his 2020 “basement campaign” risks returning the White House to Republicans. But Trump will be 78 years old in 2024. If the notion of transitioning to a new generation of leadership between now and the winter of 2024 becomes vogue, that could impact both major parties.

7. If Biden doesn’t run, then who? Vice President Kamala Harris is perceived as weak at this point. Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg will get a second look, though his taking family leave while the supply chain issue exploded during that time frame will resurface. Tuesday night may have provided both parties with national caliber leadership. For Republicans, Glenn Youngkin seemed to thread the needle between Trumpism and social issues that galvanized the GOP base. Democrats have New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams (who could dent the GOP’s defund-the-police social issue) and Boston Mayor-elect Michelle Wu as potential new blood that could reinstate the Barack Obama coalition.