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The Suburban Revolt

eye on the news

The Suburban Revolt

For Republicans, the midterm results suggest a daunting challenge ahead. November 13, 2018
Politics and law

In last week’s midterms, suburbia offered Democrats electoral insurance. The “Blue Wave” rolled mildly ashore, but the party can credit its reclamation of the House to the congressional districts that encircle urban pockets. Suburban voters sharply rejected Republicans in counties where the party had enjoyed decades-long dominance. Of course, previous election cycles demonstrate how these voters follow socioeconomic and political trends. As a voting bloc, suburbanites are moderate in disposition and not overly partisan. In 2006, bedroom communities and sprawling townships favored Democrats, but they returned to the GOP fold by 2010. Initial analysis of the 2018 elections, however, reveals a deep geographical realignment along socioeconomic lines, rather than the cyclical repudiation of the dominant political party.

According to an analysis by USA Today, more than 80 suburban counties and cities flipped from Republican to Democrat between 2016 and 2018, delivering a political surprise akin to Trump’s Rust Belt victories in the presidential election. Democrats prevailed in districts once considered unthinkable pickups. The party won Oklahoma’s 5th district, which includes Oklahoma City, for the first time since 1974, though Democratic activists largely wrote the race off. South Carolina’s 1st district, meanwhile, went Democratic for the first time since the late 1970s. The district, which includes parts of Charleston, was represented by Republican Mark Sanford before President Donald Trump hastened his primary defeat in June. Democrat Joe Cunningham, an attorney, went on to beat state representative Katie Arrington.

Suburban voters, particularly women and young professionals, have an aversion to Trump and his MAGA narrative. “We are not Ohio, Michigan or the Midwest. The college-educated suburban voter—they don’t like Trump because of his behavior,” said Dick Wadhams, former Colorado GOP chairman, in a Washington Post interview. In Colorado, Democrats carried every statewide race, secured control of the state senate, and added a House seat.

But voters also abandoned Republicans over policies independent of the president’s rhetoric. Confronting this resentment, numerous GOP candidates precariously balanced their party loyalty with an independence that they hoped could save their electoral prospects. Their approach proved futile among so-called “purple” voters, especially while the national Democrats followed their 2006 playbook—when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, then chaired by current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, successfully supported candidates who mirrored their districts. In 2018, Democrats repeated this pattern in appropriate locations, running candidates who resonated with disillusioned suburban voters. In many cases, suburbanites voted Democrat in districts ceded by retiring moderate Republicans.

The GOP saw this scenario play out in numerous instances. In New Jersey’s 11th district, Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor, easily prevailed in her race against Jay Webber, a Republican assemblyman who previously chaired the GOP’s state committee. Among the wealthiest districts nationwide, the 11th features most of Morris County, home to leafy, prosperous communities like Morristown and Chatham.

For decades, the 11th was one of the Northeast’s most Republican districts. In January, Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican mainstay and House Appropriations Committee chair who had represented the district since 1995, announced his retirement, forgoing an inevitably unfavorable campaign. With the loss of the 11th and three other districts, the GOP holds only one seat in New Jersey—its weakest point since 1912, when the state’ governor, Woodrow Wilson, defeated Republican incumbent William Howard Taft in that year’s presidential race. 

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by Trump last December, undoubtedly contributed to Republicans’ massive losses in New Jersey. One report found that the party’s tax bill disproportionately affected New Jersey compared with other states. For New Jersey households, the law’s $10,000 cap on deducting state and local income, property, and sales taxes represented a significant financial hit. A double-digit tax increase—which is what the federal legislation amounted to for many New Jerseyans—never wins voters. Republicans learned this lesson last week.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, Republicans lost five congressional districts anchored by suburbs. The 6th district, which includes suburban Philadelphia’s Chester County, is the state’s most dramatic example of GOP misfortune. Ryan Costello, a moderate Republican, had represented the district since 2015. Until this year, the district was considered one of the most heavily gerrymandered. But in a controversial move, the state Supreme Court redrew Pennsylvania’s congressional map in February, centering the 6th district around the state’s wealthiest county.

Following the Court’s maneuver, Costello announced his retirement, aware that his home county would vote him out in November. In 2017, a Brown University poll identified Chester County as one of the nation’s most divided places. At the time, 49 percent of county voters approved of Trump’s job performance, while 44 percent said that they had participated in some form of protest against his presidency. In 2016, the county supported Hillary Clinton for president. In the midterms, Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, an entrepreneur and former U.S. Air Force officer, easily won the seat. Houlahan has described the county’s voters as “purple people,” referencing their fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.

In July, Costello discussed suburbia’s electoral realignment on National Journal’s “Against the Grain” podcast. When the economy thrives, Costello believes, a “values election” ensues, with suburban voters addressing issues ranging from gun safety to clean energy. Costello told host Josh Kraushaar that a well-to-do suburban voter typically evolved from a Rockefeller Republican, “then probably converted into an independent, or is a Republican and won’t admit it to their friends at a cocktail party or will vote Republican but is just as ready to vote Democrat—that voter is a large piece of suburbia.”

Costello reflected on Republicans’ fading suburban dominion. Previously a county commissioner, he had matured politically when Republicans controlled courthouses, essentially a “farm team for candidates,” where they “cultivated a donor base.” Costello told Kraushaar that GOP suburban control has been “undermined” by Trump, “with people leaving the party, and by us . . . not focusing on some of those issues which our base doesn’t like, but which really is the bread and butter of what a suburban Republican is.”

Barbara Comstock, who represented northern Virginia’s 10th district since 2015, encountered a similar dilemma. She was trounced last week by Jennifer Wexton, a Democratic state senator. While Comstock occasionally broke with Trump, she failed to reassure suburban independents, who, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll, supported Wexton by more than 20 points in the district, indicative of a suburban rejection of the GOP incumbent.

The 10th district, stretching west of Washington, D.C., was always safe Republican territory. Created in 1952, the district had been under GOP control for 60 of 66 years, with Frank Wolf holding the seat from 1981 to 2014. Comstock, a former aide to Wolf, succeeded him. But the district changed over time, partially a consequence of exurban sprawl, an increasing immigrant population, and the federal government’s explosive growth. The district includes the entirety of Loudon County, which has the highest median household income in the U.S. With Amazon’s decision to site part of its new headquarters in northern Virginia, Crystal City, the district will only continue to grow—and trend even further blue.

The district is home to 35,000 federal employees, a voting segment hostile to Trump’s policies. The president’s routine references to the “deep state” indisputably angered career civil servants. Comstock fruitlessly attempted to win their favor by opposing Trump’s executive orders limiting federal employees’ union powers and making it easier for agencies to terminate workers. Comstock also opposed Trump’s proposal to institute a 2019 federal pay freeze and cuts to federal retirement benefits. But it wasn’t enough to renew affluent voters’ support. Comstock’s loss was among the first announced on Election Night. In his news conference last Wednesday, Trump singled out Comstock for refusing his “embrace” during the campaign. “I mean, I think she could’ve won that race, but she didn’t want to have any embrace,” said Trump. “For that, I don’t blame her. But she lost, substantially lost.”

The 2016 election demonstrated how working-class voters—historically devoted Democrats—found political and cultural refuge in the GOP. Rural counties provided the voting margins necessary for Trump’s win and for Republicans’ legislative gains. In response, politicos and pundits reassessed their dismissal of heartland regions. But Republicans now find themselves in a jam. While Democrats ignored the concerns of blue-collar cities and towns, Republicans took suburban voters’ support for granted. A Republican renaissance is proving illusory without this coalition. By losing suburban voters, the GOP could face a long-term obstacle in securing formerly winnable congressional seats, governorships, and state legislative chambers.

Republicans’ suburban disadvantage also indicates a class division disrupting both political parties. In suburbs outside larger cities, voters are often upwardly mobile transplants—though many have roots in struggling communities—who are financially inoculated against the concerns of working-class families. The economy of the 2010s boosted their stock portfolios, bank accounts, and home values. Development projects in their downtowns brought microbreweries, barre studios, artisanal donut shops, and Trader Joe’s. Opulent Craftsman imitations replaced post-World War II ranches along winding suburban streets. The opioid crisis was a new story, not a pandemic afflicting residential neighborhoods. Once GOP strongholds, these communities are safe and prosperous, with excellent schools—and they now trend Democratic.

Not far from this comparative utopia, interstate highways lead to post-industrial counties where a booming economy is a thing of the past. Family members support households with temporary or seasonal jobs. Main thoroughfares are anchored by Dollar Generals or Wal-Marts. Tricked-out gas stations are the new community diners. Cash-strapped municipalities forced to limit services and out-of-date zoning laws result in blighted neighborhoods and nuisance properties. Local officers respond to daily overdoses; hospitals transfer elderly patients to better medical systems. Dissatisfaction with life and location translates into political resentment. In 2016, these counties embraced Trump. They vote Republican to express their discontent and protest an economic class—made up of suburban Democrats, moderate Republicans, and independents—that overlooks and even scorns their plight.

Can the GOP find candidates who reassure blue-collar voters while also appealing to suburbanites? Could a Republican House member demonstrate that policy concerns like health care transcend class and economic status? Can a civil, moderate Republican take Trump-like positions on immigration and trade without alienating suburban voters? Plenty of Trump supporters still reside in suburbia, as travel writer Paul Theroux recently observed in the Washington Post. “Many in my large and lovable and liberal-minded family, and maybe yours too, revealed themselves as shy Trumpers,” he wrote.

We’re watching a political realignment take place. Republicans risk a prolonged period of electoral upheaval if they can’t find a message that resonates with both blue-collar and suburban residents. Perhaps the new Democratic House majority, already risking overconfidence and overreach, will create the opportunity for Republicans to unite these voters.

Photo: benkrut/iStock

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