Democrats swept the House in 2018 in a ‘suburban revolt’ – and there’s ‘no way’ they could win the presidency without keeping the trend, experts say presidential debates in Miami, Detroit and Houston, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination will face off once again on Tuesday night, not in a big city or a sprawling metropolis, but instead in Westerville, Ohio, an affluent suburb north-east of the state capital, Columbus.
Westerville is perhaps best known locally as the place the former Ohio state governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich calls home. But it – and suburbs like it – is also, Democrats say, “ground zero” in the battle for the White House in 2020.
“These suburbs, even more than the rural parts of the state, were the pre-Trump base of the Republican party,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic party. “If all of a sudden Republicans are not able to run up the numbers in places like Westerville, that is a very real obstacle on their prior path to victory.”
In 2018, Democrats won the House majority in a “suburban revolt” led by women and powered by a disgust of Donald Trump’s race-based attacks, hardline policy agenda and chaotic leadership style. From the heartland of Ronald Reagan conservatism in Orange county, California, to a coastal South Carolina district that had not elected a Democrat to the seat in 40 years, Democrats swept once reliably Republican suburban strongholds.
In Ohio, Democrats lost a fiercely contested governor’s race but made gains in the state house for the first time in nearly a decade, all of which came in suburban districts, including one that covers Westerville.
Democrats see this trend moving more sharply in their direction in 2020, spurred by a confluence of the president’s increasingly erratic behavior as he faces impeachment, growing economic anxiety and rising frustration over inaction on gun control after a string of mass shootings, including in Dayton, Ohio, where a gunman killed nine people in 32 seconds.
“There is no way Democrats win without doing really well in suburbs,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice-president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic thinktank.
She said suburban voters, and particularly well-educated women, are repulsed by Trump’s hardline immigration agenda that separates families and his racist attacks on congresswomen of color. But neither are they looking for “a far-left socialist takeover”, she said, warning that Democrats risk overreaching on policy by embracing a single-payer healthcare system and decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
“Trump is making Democrats’ job easier in the suburbs,” she said. “But what really delivered these pickups in 2018 was a focus on kitchen table issues like healthcare, housing affordability and education.”
Trump and Republicans have made clear their 2020 strategy is to brand the Democratic field as dangerous “socialists” as a way of hurting their advantage with swing voters wary of the president.
While Trump has found success by driving up support in less densely populated and rural areas, some Republicans have questioned the long-term durability of this strategy.
After Democrats won the House in 2018, Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader, called on Republicans to put forward a “suburban agenda”.
“There is no doubt that some of the loss in support this year from college-educated women, for example, is a result of the negative opinion these voters have of President Trump,” he wrote in the New York Times. “But it is also true that Republicans have not had much to offer suburban voters on what they consistently say are their top issues, including health care, child care, education, the environment and transportation.”
In 2018, voters in the Richmond suburbs of the district Cantor once represented elected the moderate Democrat and political newcomer Abigail Spanberger.
The residents of Westerville, as in many of the suburbs where voters are turning against Republicans, are wealthier, whiter and more educated than the state as a whole.
But the suburbs are changing. They are becoming more diverse and more economically and racially stratified. The rate of poverty in the suburbs is now higher than in many urban areas, a majority of adult residents do not have a college degree and more than a third are minorities.
A central feature of the ideological debate shaping the Democratic primary is over which candidate can best reconcile the economic interests of wealthy, white professionals and poorer and nonwhite liberals.
Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, argues that there is a “policy cost” to an electoral approach that prioritizes voters in well-educated, white suburban areas, and particularly women.
“There are short-term political gains for Democrats in winning over suburban voters but that doesn’t necessarily lead to progressive policies,” she said. In her research, Geismer found that many suburban Democrats supported a national liberal agenda while opposing measures that challenged economic inequality in their own neighborhoods.
It’s why, she said, two of the most liberal states in the nation – Maryland and Massachusetts – re-elected Republican governors in 2018. Similarly, voters in states such as California and Washington, which have prided themselves on leading the resistance to Trump’s agenda, rejected progressive ballot measures that would have respectively imposed aggressive rent controls and a tax on carbon pollution.
Democrats’ arrival in Ohio has revived a simmering debate over Ohio’s status as the nation’s most reliable bellwether. No president since John F Kennedy has won without winning Ohio. But the state has not kept pace with the demographic changes transforming the country, resulting in an electorate that has grown increasingly older, whiter and less educated than the rest of the nation.
In 2016, Trump won the state by 8.5 percentage points – the widest margin of any swing state even as Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 1.2 percentage points.
“Ohio being selected as a debate site is a nice consolation prize. But don’t mistake it as a fundamental shift in the 2020 political map,” Bret Larkin, the former editorial director of the Plain Dealer, wrote in an op-ed. “And Ohioans should not expect to see much of the party’s nominee in the crucial months of next August, September and October.”
But Pepper, the Ohio Democratic party chair, believes a Republican reckoning in the suburbs gives Democrats a “real shot” at winning Ohio in 2020.
Several recent polls have indicated bad news for the president in the state. A recent Emerson poll of Ohio voters found that Trump’s approval rating in Ohio hovered at 43% with a disapproval of 51%, mirroring his national approval rating. Meanwhile, 47% of Ohio voters said they supported impeachment, compared with 43% who said they did not. The survey also found that in a hypothetical general election matchup, Trump would lose the state to the leading Democratic candidates – former vice-president Joe Biden, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren.
Kyle Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President, said the state reflects the political realignment taking place across the country: voters in the parts of the state that are highly educated and increasingly diverse are turning toward Democrats while working-class white voters continue their migration to the Republican party.
But in Ohio – as in the critical battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – many political observers believe Trump’s fate might still rest in the hands of the white working-class voters who lifted him to the White House in 2016.
“The state is not ‘unwinnable’ for Democrats, but improvement in the suburbs isn’t sufficient to do it,” Kondik wrote in an email. “The Democrats will have to cut into the Republican margins outside big urban [and] suburban areas as well.”
Democratic candidates claimed big victories in three Philadelphia-area "collar counties" on Tuesday in one of the starkest warnings for Republicans across the nation that their prospects among suburban voters are at risk.
For the first time since the Civil War, Democrats will hold all five seats on the Delaware County Council, south of Philadelphia.
In Chester County, Democrats won a majority of council seats for the first time since the modern parties aligned. Democrats also won races for county sheriff and district attorney.
And in Bucks County, Democrats claimed two of three seats on the County Council to win a majority for the first time since 1983.
All three counties that ring Philadelphia were once key battlegrounds in a state at the heart of the fight for the Electoral College. But Democrats have been making inroads in recent years, even before President Trump came on the scene.
Democrats have won Delaware and Bucks counties in each of the last seven presidential campaigns, by increasingly larger margins. Hillary Clinton won Delaware County with 59 percent of the vote and Bucks County by a little less than 3,000 votes in 2016, even as she became the first Democrat to lose Pennsylvania since Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Clinton also won Chester County in 2016, becoming just the second Democrat to win it in the last 13 presidential contests.
But the local results this year, Democrats say, suggest more long-lasting fallout for the GOP.
“There’s a repudiation of the Republican Party brand that is not going anywhere. That is a trend that is going to continue as long as and probably well after Donald Trump is the standard-bearer for the party,” said Mark Nevins, a longtime Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “This is a commentary on the Trump effect on Republicans across the country.”
Republicans, too, acknowledged the challenge they face in the year ahead as Trump prepares to defend an electoral coalition that runs through exurban and suburban areas.
“Those results are a reflection of what should be a growing concern for the GOP: voters. It's not enough to turn out your base, at some point you have to grow it, especially given the changing demographics and politics of suburban communities,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Trump skeptic.
“When you have to hold an increasingly larger share of suburban voters because you have no juice in the cities they surround, it becomes more difficult to win races when Democrats are able to increase their share of that vote,” Steele said, pointing to another state that voted on Tuesday: “Can you say Virginia?”
But the local results are far from determinative in a state where Trump ran up the score far from the urban cores. Nevins said he continued to worry about Democratic performance in other parts of the state.
“In 2016, Pennsylvania was lost or won, depending on how you look at it, in the northeast. The question is whether or not white non-college voters in northeast Pennsylvania are following the trend that suburban voters are in southeastern Pennsylvania or even in the doughnut around Pittsburgh,” Nevins said. “And I don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Republicans used the Kentucky’s governor race as a test of their 2020 strategy to stoke outrage against both the Democrats’ impeachment efforts and their leftward drift -- and largely came up short.
The undoing was Governor Matt Bevin’s poor showing in the suburbs, a trend that extended to Virginia as Democrats captured full control of the state government for the first time in a quarter-century. That was boosted by the defeat of the last Republican legislator in the state’s Washington, D.C., suburbs.
While off-year local elections bear little resemblance to presidential outcomes, the results sent a pair of warnings to President Donald Trump one year before the 2020 contest. First, the House impeachment inquiry may not incite a backlash at the polls, and second, he remains deeply unpopular with educated voters in the suburbs.
“Republicans have a huge suburban problem nationwide,” said Josh Holmes, an adviser to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. “I don’t know if this is a permanent phenomenon because the realignment does not appear to be issue-based. It’s predominantly based on views of the president.”
Yet Holmes denied that the suburban problem was a factor in Kentucky, attributing Bevin’s apparent defeat to his personal unpopularity and noting that other GOP statewide candidates won their races comfortably.
Earlier results in Kentucky signal that governor’s races don’t necessarily translate to national contests for the White House and Senate. In 2011, Democrat Steve Beshear, the father of Bevin’s rival Andy Beshear, won the governor’s race by 20 points; three years later McConnell won the Senate race by 16 points; and two years after that, Trump carried the state by 30 points.
McConnell, who faces re-election next year, told reporters on Wednesday that Kentucky isn’t “turning blue” and that “we’re looking forward to doing well in Kentucky in 2020.”
Still, Trump bet that he could save the race by nationalizing it, visiting Lexington on Monday to rally with Bevin and warn voters that the outcome would reflect on him.
“You got to vote, because if you lose it sends a really bad message,” Trump said. “If you lose, they’re going to say: ‘Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.’ You can’t let that happen to me!”
Following the playbook of the 2018 midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives, Andy Beshear focused on issues like bolstering access to health care and education. Bevin believed he could win by tying Beshear to the progressive wing of the national party and impeachment. He closely hugged Trump, even campaigning in a blue jacket covered with images of Trump’s face.
A particularly worrisome sign for the GOP came in counties like Campbell and Kenton, the suburbs of Cincinnati, which Bevin narrowly lost Tuesday after Trump won them by 25 points in 2016.
The suburban drift is deeply alarming to some Republicans, particularly those who support the party’s economic policies and judicial appointments but worry that its positioning on other issues is alienating important voters.
“The 2018 midterm results, which were confirmed by the Kentucky governor’s race, show that Republicans may be headed for extinction in the suburbs if they continue to be completely dismissive of issues like impeachment, gun control and improving health care,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil-and-gas executive.
The suburban shifts to Democrats are offset to a large extent by a rural exodus toward the Republican Party that put Trump in the White House and could re-elect him in 2020. His popularity in remote areas dominated by white voters without a college degree proved decisive in swing states poised to decide whether he’ll get four more years, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Eberhart said Bevin’s defeat was “a wake-up call to Republican candidates everywhere: President Trump’s coattails may not be long enough” to save them in 2020.
In Virginia, which voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004 and has since trended blue, Democrats seized narrow majorities in both state houses, giving them control of the next drawing of congressional district lines, further solidifying their gains.
“There’s a Trump fatigue that has set in,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said at a Wednesday breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
He attributed the results in Kentucky and Virginia to a Republican Party that is “so off the rails to the far right.”
Democrat Lucy McBath narrowly flipped Georgia's 6th Congressional District this year, winning it by two percentage points.
Jon Ossoff knows better than most how big of a victory that is. He also knows it will be a battle for Democrats to hold this suburban Atlanta seat.
"I think for years to come it'll be a fight," he said. Ossoff was the Democratic candidate in the district's special election in 2017, after former GOP Rep. Tom Price vacated the seat to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services. That race was widely seen as the first referendum on Trump, and as a result became the most expensive House race ever. Republican Karen Handel ultimately won by nearly 4 points.
Before that, the district in recent elections routinely elected Republicans by more than 20 points, up to more than 30 points.
Now that McBath has defeated Handel, Ossoff is optimistic about his party's chances here.
"I believe that [McBath] will have a robust presence in the district," he said. "So I think that it will be a tough re-elect, but I think she'll win."
Democrats gained nearly 40 House seats this year, and suburban districts like this one accounted for the majority of those pickups, according to FiveThirtyEight.
And Ossoff is not alone in thinking these seats will be hard-fought in 2020.
"Those are going to be the first districts that Republicans pursue in their in their bid to win the majority," said David Wasserman, political analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Democrats see opportunities in demographics
That said, a few factors could work in Democrats' favor. Demographics is a big one.
"Those districts could be much better for Democrats two years from now than they are today because so many young professionals and non-white voters are moving in," Wasserman said. "And the old Republican base in those districts is, for lack of a better term, dying out."
Georgia's 6th District, for example, is rapidly becoming more diverse. In the run-up to the 2012 election, the district was nearly 72 percent white. Today, it's around 60 percent white.
And for McBath, an African-American, one big focus was energizing non-white voters. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., campaigned for her and saw this as one strength.
"I think that Lucy was really effective in engaging communities that were not — that had not been engaged before. You know, women voters as well as minority voters," Sewell said. "She really concentrated on that, and that really made a difference."
Race is just one demographic challenge Republicans face. For years, Democrats have steadily been doing better with college educated voters, who are concentrated in many suburbs. Georgia's 6th District is also a prime example of this, as one of the most-educated congressional districts in the nation.
There's something else that's harder to measure: Democrats here talk about how they hid their beliefs before 2016. But during that special election in 2017, they found each other, and now they've banded together. Local activists hope that kind of infrastructure-building will have a lasting impact.
"A lot of people didn't have it on their radar that they could be this involved in the process," said Jen Cox, founder of the local women's activist group Pave It Blue. "And now there's no turning back from that. They've switched out their social life for their activist life."
Republicans certainly don't all see lasting defeat in the suburbs.
The seat McBath just won, for example, is a long-time GOP stronghold — Republicans have held it since Newt Gingrich won in 1978. Until recently, the GOP routinely won this seat by huge margins.
Similarly, other newly elected suburban Democrats — Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia — will soon represent areas that Republicans have won easily in recent elections.
These districts still have plenty of conservatives around to put up a fight in the future. In short, this year's midterms don't mean Democrats will have an easy path in these districts.
Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says he's bullish on the GOP's future. But he acknowledges the party has work to do on how to appeal to more suburban voters.
"Those are the conversations that we're going to have among party leaders, grassroots activists over the next couple of months as we now begin to mount our comeback," he said.
Local Republicans have some prescriptions. Jason Shepherd, chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, feels that the party needed a more consistent, positive message.
"We heard very little, politically speaking, of how great the economy is. We heard very little about how the tax cuts are working," he said. "We misplaced those pocketbook issues that really are what voters in the suburbs, in more urban areas care about most."
That message was lost, he said, in some of the president's rhetoric.
"I think if Donald Trump had really focused the message more so on the successes of the administration, I think it may have been a different story," he said. "But what was focused on at the end of the day was immigration, which appeals to the base."
Georgia does have plenty of Trump fans — he won the state in 2016 and easily won his party's primary that year.
But Marco Rubio won the counties that make up the 6th District during the 2016 GOP primary. Michael Williams, head of the Cobb County Young Republicans, says it's important to confront that moving forward.
"If we're not dealing with Donald Trump Republicans here, then we need to be able to articulate where we are also not Donald Trump Republicans — where do we part with the president? Where do we stand with him?" he said. Like Shepherd, he thinks focusing on a healthy economy and jobs is a winning message here.
But for all the strategizing people like Williams do on the local level, national trends can dominate. For example, in a midterm year like 2018, the president's party tends to fare poorly.
"We can knock our knuckles raw on doors. We can be making thousands and thousands of phone calls," Williams said. "And then stuff that happens in D.C. at the national level filters down and affects what happens around here. There's nothing we can really do about it. So 2020 is going to be a whole different ballgame."