If elections and national surveys over the past year have shown us anything, it is that suburban voters could well be the key to the 2018 midterm House elections.
Turnout among minority voters and younger voters could affect the result in a district here or there, but an increase in suburban turnout or a substantial shift by suburban voters (especially suburban women) from the Republicans to the Democrats could have a much broader impact on the fight for control of the House.
In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam ran ahead of 2013 Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe by 11 points in Fairfax County and 10 points in Loudoun County, two large suburban areas outside Washington, D.C. He also did 9 points better than McAuliffe in two Richmond-area suburban counties, Henrico and Chesterfield.
Northam even drew a larger percentage in those four suburban counties than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The same trend held in the Alabama Senate special election in December, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones.
While Republican Roy Moore ran up large margins in rural areas, Jones won five of the state’s six largest counties. (Of course, Jones’s strong showing in those urban and suburban areas was undoubtedly due to the unique set of liabilities carried by his GOP opponent rather than President Donald Trump’s weaknesses.)
According to the 2016 exit poll, Trump carried rural areas comfortably, 61 percent to 34 percent, and most of those voters remain loyal to him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since rural voters tend to be whiter and more traditional in their outlook than voters in urban America. (For a different view of defections from the Trump coalition, see Ron Brownstein’s Jan. 11 piece “The Voters Abandoning Donald Trump” in The Atlantic.)
Given that, House Republicans campaigning in heavily rural districts are less likely to suffer because of Trump’s standing. That should be good news for GOP lawmakers like Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whose district is 72 percent rural, and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, whose at-large district is 77 percent rural.
Non-rural voters are a different story.
Clinton carried urban voters by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent), but Trump’s narrow 49 percent to 45 percent margin in the suburbs, which accounted for almost half of all voters, allowed him to win an Electoral College majority even while he was losing the popular vote by more than 2 points.
Indeed, Trump’s winning margins over Clinton among suburban voters in Michigan (53 percent to 42 percent), Pennsylvania (52 percent to 44 percent), Wisconsin (55 percent to 39 percent) and Florida (53 percent to 43 percent) produced that victory.
If there is a partisan shift in the suburbs in November, a couple of dozen House Republican seats should be among the first to feel the movement.
In New Jersey, Rep. Leonard Lance’s district is 92 percent suburban, while the districts of retiring Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank A. LoBiondo are 90 percent and 72 percent suburban respectively. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock’s district is 83 percent suburban. (All district breakdowns by suburban, urban and rural areas come from “The Almanac of American Politics, 2016.”)
In California, the districts of Reps. Steve Knight and Duncan Hunter are each 90 percent suburban, while retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s open seat is 69 percent suburban.
Retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s district is evenly split between suburban and urban areas. In Michigan, departing Rep. Dave Trott’s seat is 99 percent suburban, while Rep. Mike Bishop’s is almost 78 percent suburban. Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis’s district is 83 percent suburban, and Rep. Erik Paulsen’s is 66 percent suburban. Illinois Rep. Mike Bost’s district is 65 percent suburban.
Of course, all suburbs are not alike.
In some places, closer-in suburbs tend to be older and more moderate, while suburban areas farther out tend to be newer and more conservative.
Strongly conservative suburbs are less likely to be strongly anti-Trump, but even in those areas a shift to the Democrats could have a significant impact.
Not every Republican in a district that is at least 50 percent or 60 percent suburban is likely to lose, but many of them probably will if we have anything approaching a “normal” midterm election with an unpopular incumbent in the White House.
Looking for other names to watch? Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman’s district is 49 percent suburban and 1 percent rural. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s district is 77 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions sits in a district that is 47 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder’s district is 79 percent suburban.
There are other GOP seats that are majority suburban — including Georgia’s 6th (Karen Handel), New York’s 24th (John Katko), Virginia’s 7th (David Brat) and Ohio’s open 12th (Pat Tiberi) — and I have not listed any Pennsylvania districts, which have only recently been redrawn.
But clearly, at least four GOP-held seats in southeast Pennsylvania — Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s and those of retiring Reps. Pat Meehan and Charlie Dent — are at risk.
Finally, a handful of Republican-held seats in heavily urban districts that also have some suburban areas — Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Florida’s 26th (Carlos Curbelo), Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr), North Carolina’s 9th (Robert Pittenger), California’s 44th (Mimi Walters) and Texas’ 7th (John Culberson) — could also be affected by movement in the suburbs, especially if combined with turnout and vote choice shifts in urban areas.
With Republican retirements and a new Pennsylvania map giving Democrats better House opportunities, the GOP needs to hold on to suburban voters who supported Trump in 2016. That won’t be easy, especially considering the president’s problems with more highly educated voters and suburban women.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2018.