Wokeism and progressive overreach helped propel conservative values in the 2021 elections, but cultural issues won’t grip as reliably for Republicans in the midterms.
Virginia exit polls indicated the economy was still the most important issue, but state and municipal politicians can do little more than steal jobs from other jurisdictions with generous incentives and rearrange who pays local taxes—Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin promised to ax the regressive tax on groceries.
The social issues that helped boost his campaign, a near miss for the Republican in New Jersey, and renaissance of reason about public safety in New York and Minneapolis are matters where state and local officials could turn things around—what’s taught and academic standards in public schools, street crime, and funding for the police.
Youngkin’s success was mirrored across the nation in school-board elections.
The going gets tough
Now it gets tough for Republicans in Virginia and conservatives elsewhere. Progressive values are deeply entrenched among school administrators and teachers unions. Just like President Donald Trump in 2016, Youngkin’s team will face a tough struggle altering the values and actions of bureaucrats.
At the national level, congressmen and senators vote on what really matters for economic conditions in their locale.
Congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy and the broader Republican Party must recognize that the courts, at the states’ provocations, will most influence abortion, immigration and election reform until Republicans can win the presidency and Congress together or attain veto-proof majorities in both houses.
In 2022, those are not attainable, and Republican congressional candidates should hew to conservative cultural values but mostly focus on the economy. More specifically, discredit the potentially degrading effects of the Democrats’ efforts to expand the welfare state and offer alternatives.
With small recurring swings Republicans and Democrats run about even among voters on party affiliation but about two-fifths call themselves independent.
Perceptions of economic conditions are irrationally fused to party loyalty. In October 2020, 55% of Republicans thought the economy was improving whereas 67% of Democrats said it was getting worse. As soon as Joe Biden became president, those numbers flipped, and similar patterns go back to the Obama presidency.
According to a University of Michigan survey, Republicans expect inflation to be 6.8% for 2022, while Democrats anticipate 3%—they both can’t be right.
Conditions on the ground
Consequently, conditions on the ground—as perceived by moderate white and minority swing voters—will matter most. This comes down to winning suburban women, Hispanics and Asians that moved markedly toward the Republican camp for Youngkin.
If the election were held today, the Republican Party would be in great shape, because the Delta variant growth, and now Omicron, are slowing the recovery, inflation is ripping and school lunch programs and grocery shelves are short of domestically-produced items.
As Omicron subsides, President Biden’s infrastructure spending and the trillions in stimulus dollars remaining in household and business checkbooks will boost demand. Inflation of 4% or 5% would still be too high but a darn sight better than the 6% or 7% now feared.
Government regulation and interference in the marketplace are again less popular with voters, but the refundable child tax credits, paid family leave and other elements of the Build Back Better agenda still garners support because its programs would ease the pain.
For the Republicans, the opportunity lies in explaining how they to intend shepherd the transition to a greener and fairer economy without curtailing petroleum production, boosting gasoline prices and further expanding the welfare state.
A critical component of the progressive Democratic strategy has been to convince Hispanics to align with blacks and progressive women in outrage against white men and cultivate a culture of victimhood and entitlement.
Hispanics—coming to America more recently and from many different places—are not so easily convinced to support the progressive line as are the disaffected among radical feminists, academics, the liberal media and followers of Black Lives Matters. Many like Passaic Mayor Hector C. Lora, a son of Dominican immigrants, see hard work not big government as the key to minority success.
Youngkin broke the code in Virginia by running with a Black woman for lieutenant governor and a Hispanic man for attorney general with compelling and inspiring conservative stories about an America that offers all opportunity not repression.
Now Republicans must replicate that nationally to win over the Hector Loras and defang the victimization and retribution state.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.