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Suburban Vote This Year Flashes Warning Signs for GOP

Democrats scored gains in numerous once-Republican suburbs in state and local races Tuesday, most notably in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Republican strategists are nervous about that trend continuing into 2020.

Capitol building, Richmond, Va.
Capitol building, Richmond, Va. Democrats drove nearly every Republican out of state and local office in Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William counties in the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington on their way to winning control of both state legislative chambers.
David Kidd
The last time Democrats held majority control of the Delaware County, Pa., County Council was never. On Tuesday, they not only won a majority, they now hold every single seat.

“I never thought I’d see the day when Delaware County would go that blue,” said Nathan Shrader, a political scientist who used to live in the area. “It was for a long time the true party stronghold for the GOP in the state.”

The story was the same all around the Philadelphia suburbs. Democrats won their first-ever majority on the Chester County Board of Commissioners, as well as their first majority in Bucks County since 1983.

Control of a few suburban counties may not seem to matter much outside those areas, but given their location, these are ominous warning signs for the Republican Party. If the populous suburbs are turning on the GOP, that spells major trouble in a state that President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2016.

“GOP should be most concerned about what happened in local elections in Chester, Delaware and Bucks County, PA,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a consultant and former top aide to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. “That is genuinely alarming if you know the voting history.”

Not all suburbs are going Democratic. Half the country lives in suburbs and Democratic gains outside of major cities aren’t being matched in suburbs in smaller metropolitan areas. Republicans continue to improve on their already-dominant performance in rural areas. Even on Tuesday, the GOP actually took over control of more county boards in Pennsylvania than Democrats, winning nearly everything in southwestern Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh.

But those jurisdictions are a lot smaller than the collar counties around Philadelphia. And suburban damage suffered by the GOP was by no means limited to southeastern Pennsylvania.

In Kentucky, Andy Beshear’s improvement on past Democratic performance in the Cincinnati suburbs provided his margin of victory over GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. Democrats drove nearly every Republican out of state and local office in Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William counties in the Virginia suburbs near Washington on their way to winning control of both state legislative chambers.

Democrats also picked up state House seats in suburban St. Louis, Memphis and Jackson, Miss. They made gains in several local elections outside Indianapolis, including winning their first city council majority in 36 years in Columbus — Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown.

All this follows on the Democratic Party’s strong showing in suburbs last year. The suburbs are where the party registered most of its 2018 gains in U.S. House and state legislative seats.

In 2018, Democrats picked up numerous legislative seats outside cities such as Charlotte, Atlanta and Denver, while completely wiping out the last remaining Republican delegations around San Francisco, Seattle and Austin.

Democrats picked up a dozen Texas House seats last year, whittling the GOP’s majority in the chamber down to nine seats. They’re hoping soon to slice that number to eight, with Eliz Markowitz finishing first in Tuesday’s voting in a special election west of Houston. (No date has been set for the runoff.)

“Suburbs have been determining national elections — presidential and congressional — for more than a generation,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “What Tuesday night told us was that swing voters in a number of key states don’t like what they’re hearing and seeing from Republicans, including President Trump."

Democrats have been gathering strength in the largest suburban counties — those with populations of more than 1 million — for more than a decade. There are several possible explanations why their performance is continuing to improve.

For one thing, suburbs are becoming more diverse, attracting greater numbers of non-white residents who tend to vote Democratic. The landscape of many suburbs is shifting from sprawl to urban-style density, a type of makeover that tends to attract Democrats. Political scientists have shown that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to favor dense environments.

“As more dense cities fill up, people who would otherwise be living closer to the center of town are being pushed out, turning more suburban counties Democratic,” says Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, who closely follows patterns of political geography.

But changes in voting in some suburbs is happening too fast to be explained entirely by demographic change. The number of Kansas House Democrats who represent Johnson County, outside Kansas City, jumped from two in 2014 to 10 following last year’s elections.

Immediately after the election, three state senators from Johnson County switched allegience from the GOP to the Democratic Party. One of them, Barbara Bollier, is now the Democratic frontrunner for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020. “The party switchers wouldn’t have won as Republicans in Johnson County,” said Burdett Loomis, a retired University of Kansas political scientist.

Democrats are now winning over a particular type of suburban voter — affluent, college-educated, often female. The gap in presidential voting between counties that have a Cracker Barrel, compared with those that have a Whole Foods, has grown markedly over the past quarter-century.

Affluent suburban voters have registered their distrust with Trump in numerous polls and, over the past two years, state and local elections. If Democrats can sustain their success in winning over a majority of voters in Whole Foods suburbs, that would have major consequences next year, on up to the presidency.

“Draw a 25 mi radius around Philly, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Detroit,” tweeted Kevin Madden, who was spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “That’s the 2020 ballgame.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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