Republican Comeback in the Suburbs

Last year, when I wanted to write a story about how the suburbs -- especially older, inner-ring, dense suburbs -- were trending Democratic, I traveled ...
by | October 26, 2009

McDonnell Last year, when I wanted to write a story about how the suburbs -- especially older, inner-ring, dense suburbs -- were trending Democratic, I traveled all the way to suburban St. Louis. It would have been easy to tell the same story just across the Potomac in Northern Virginia -- too easy.

It already seemed commonplace to point out that formerly Republican territory such as Fairfax and Loudoun counties had gone Democratic in a big way. It was clear the reason Democrats, including Barack Obama (the first Dem presidential candidate to carry the state since 1964) were able to win in Virginia was because the capture of the bigger suburbs meant the GOP would "run out of state" looking for voters in less populous rural areas that could counteract the combined urban-suburban Democratic vote.

Robert Lang, co-director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, has done the most thorough work on this.

But demographics is not destiny, or not entirely. Political parties adapt to changing landscapes and environments. Robert McDonnell, a true-blue conservative and the GOP's candidate in next week's gubernatorial election, understood this. While so much of his party has been arguing about the need to return to "core conservative principles," McDonnell saw that he would have to run a different strategy to be competitive in an altered state.

Equally evident is what McDonnell has avoided: rhetoric that ignites the conservative base but could turn off independent voters. He has been careful to intermingle praise for President Obama's education policies with criticism of his spending and health-care initiatives. He pronounced himself "delighted" that Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, separating himself from those in his party who were ridiculing the president. And after personally asking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for help early in the summer, he changed his mind in August and asked the controversial conservative to stay away.

McDonnell campaign strategists said they don't expect to win Northern Virginia or a majority of minority votes, but they don't think they need to. In a state that remains Republican in most places, they said their goal is to keep Democrat R. Creigh Deeds from getting more than 60 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia -- the magic number strategists in both parties have come to see as a threshold for Democratic victories. In a Washington Post poll conducted this month, McDonnell trailed Deeds by just 5 points in Northern Virginia, 51 to 46 percent.

That's from the Washington Post . Check out the accompanying state maps.

McDonnell's decision not to write off the increasingly Democratic suburbs is a big reason why he's winning this race. It's a strategy that clearly will be followed by other Virginia Republicans.

The question is whether, when he wins, his victory is viewed simply by Republicans nationwide as a repudiation of Obama's policies, giving comfort to those who think they can return to power by stressing their differences with the administration, or whether it becomes the first step in the long process of GOP candidates learning to refashion their message in response to a terrain that has changed dramatically since George W. Bush's victory in 2004.


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