Republican optimism soars over Democratic debacle

Democrats were dealt a devastating defeat in the Virginia governor's race, further eroding President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE's political standing and reinforcing former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE's continuing clout.

Republican Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinBiden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll There is a bipartisan path forward on election and voter protections Virginia's new Republican AG urges Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade MORE, a private equity executive, defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeJill Biden adds to communications team in lead-up to midterm elections The Memo: Is Trump the GOP's future or in rearview mirror? The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems barrel towards voting rights vote with no outcome MORE (D) in a state Biden easily carried last year and that Democrats have governed for most of this century. Youngkin basically embraced Trump, who — while staying out of the state — made numerous appeals in the closing days.

In a shocker, the New Jersey gubernatorial race was almost dead even. Even if incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy ekes out a win — much of the remaining votes are in Democratic counties — the race wasn't supposed to be close. Instead, Republicans significantly improved their vote in the suburbs, a promising omen for them in next year's congressional races.

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Overall, the perceived message from yesterday may be that Democrats have moved too aggressively left.

Biden's declining popularity and congressional Democrats’ infighting and inability, so far, to pass promised legislation contributed to McAuliffe's defeat. The Democratic Congress still may pass a big domestic infrastructure and social spending bill. The president, though, has less leverage: Witness that he went all-out for McAuliffe, who had served an earlier term as governor.

The Youngkin victory adds to Republican optimism about next year and to a conviction that any collateral political damage from the lie that the last presidential election was stolen — or from the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol — has dissipated.

The Democrats' efforts to make the election a referendum on Trump, to tar Youngkin with that association, failed. Trump, while not campaigning with Youngkin, loudly proclaimed his support for the Republican candidate, and he ginned up his base in a state where he twice was clobbered. Youngkin ran even better than expected in more rural Republicans areas, while cutting into Democrats’ strength in the suburbs.

Predictably, the ex-president is claiming credit for the outcome.

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The campaign may be a model for Republicans in competitive races: Run as a less incendiary Trump, still identifying with him and his policies.

That was Youngkin — trying to present as a respectable Trump, associating with most of his views, but not his vitriol. Youngkin acknowledged that Biden won the presidency, but called for election audits.

Initially he stressed his success as the former co-CEO of the big private equity firm, Carlyle, although Bloomberg News reported that actually he “flamed out” as co-CEO and was to be replaced as he decided to run for governor.

As the campaign progressed, Youngkin turned more to hot button issues, such as guns, and openly played the race card as he denounced teaching the so-called critical race theory, which actually isn't taught in Virginia public schools. He capitalized on a McAuliffe verbal gaffe that parents shouldn't be “telling schools what they should teach.” He ran a commercial from one supporter who didn't want the school to require her son to read Toni Morrison's acclaimed novel, “Beloved,” about the agonies of a female slave.

Youngkin was caught privately telling a conservative group he would move aggressively to roll back abortion rights — but wouldn't talk about it until after he was elected. He also navigated a delicate line on the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting vaccinations while opposing mandates.

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Vowing to cut taxes and slash regulations, Youngkin promises to be a very pro-business governor. The state already gets high marks for being business friendly.

The implications of this race for next year's midterms are already evident. It fuels the sense that 2022 will be a Republican year; Democrats fear that will affect the recruitment of candidates for open or competitive House seats. The prospect of being in the majority is more attractive.

This still is a prime time in getting new candidates, with the completion of redistricting in most states.

The political climate also might impact retirements: 13 House Democrats have said they won't run for re-election, including several in competitive districts; four of them are seeking higher office; so far, 10 House Republicans plan not to seek another term.

In Virginia, this is the fifth time in the last six elections that the party not in the White House has won the governor's contest the year after the presidential contest. Ironically, the only exception was in 2013 when McAuliffe was first elected.

The record is a little more mixed on serving as a harbinger for the midterm elections. In three of the past five gubernatorial elections, the winning party has also been triumphant in the next congressional races.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.