Democrats last week once again had suburban swing voters to thank for electoral gains made in what is being viewed as a fresh repudiation of President Donald Trump.
In Kentucky, voters outside of Louisville and Lexington and south of Cincinnati boosted Democrat Andy Beshear in his challenge of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who had aligned himself closely with Trump. Beshear claimed victory, though Bevin had yet to concede and requested a recanvassing.
In the “collar counties” of Philadelphia, suburbanites ushered in an all-Democrat Delaware County Council for the first time since the Civil War and voted for Democratic control of the legislatures in Bucks and Chester counties.
And in Virginia, the Norfolk, Richmond and Washington, D.C., suburbs helped Democrats flip enough state legislature seats to put the General Assembly and governorship under the party’s control for the first time since 1993.
“We’ve seen the suburban voter gradually shifting their votes from red to purple and now to blue,” Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Democrat, told Newsday. He credited the state party’s “common sense” approach to gun control, education and women’s rights for swaying suburban residents there.
There were more examples nationwide — including outside of Indianapolis and St. Louis — of a continuing suburban revolt against Republicans in the era of Trump. They were part of a blue wave that began in the 2017 off-year elections and led to the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterms.
Window into 2020
Political experts said higher voter turnout and changing suburban demographics also were factors in the Democratic victories.
Experts noted that while the suburban backlash spells trouble next November for Trump and Republicans failing to distance themselves from him, it additionally serves as a warning to Democrats nominating a challenger to the president.
“The suburbs are where it is at for 2020. That’s what Election Night 2019 tells me,” said New York-based GOP consultant Susan Del Percio. “That has to be very concerning for Republicans, but that’s not to mean that it’s good news for Democrats.”
The suburban voter is a moderate who votes on issues, and such a voter likely bristles at the notion of giving up their private health care, Del Percio said.
“That's the issue for Democrats. If they end up nominating someone very progressive, they could potentially lose the suburban vote,” she said.
In the Democratic race for president, two of the top three candidates in national polling — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — are left-of-center and champion the fully government-run Medicare for All. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, considered more moderate, is now moving toward jumping into the already-large field.
Need for outreach
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, agreed that the suburbs won't automatically back the Democratic nominee.
Democrats must build a bridge from their urban progressive base to suburban swing voters, and Republicans must build one from their exurban base to the suburbs, Levy said.
“The party that ends up building the bigger, better bridge is going to win,” he said.
Moderate, college-educated suburban women are an especially critical target for both parties, but they've been breaking for Democrats.
They helped Democrats retake the House last year, spurning Trump and his positions on health care and gun violence. They are credited with doing the same for Virginia state Democrats on Tuesday night.
A survey of woman voters in key congressional suburban districts conducted by the Republican Main Street Partnership and released in August found that two in three are pessimistic about the country’s direction and 61 percent disapprove of the job Trump is doing.
Democrat losses, too
To be sure, Democrats suffered suburban losses on Tuesday, including on Long Island.
Nassau Republicans retained control of the county legislature while Republican Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino fended off a challenge by Democratic Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. And in the Hempstead Town supervisor race, Donald Clavin, the Republican receiver of taxes, declared victory over first-term Democrat Laura Gillen.
New Jersey Republicans also bucked the national trend, picking up seats in both state legislative chambers to eat into the Democratic majority.
In deep blue states where suburban residents feel overtaxed, “the suburbs can hold in any negative feelings about Trump and vote their pocketbooks,” wrote Washington Post analyst Dave Weigel.
Despite the newly reaffirmed importance of suburban voters, Trump's reelection campaign has signaled a focus on the rural, white and working-class voters who make up his base.
It also rejected the premise that the president hurt the Republican candidates for whom he stumped.
Trump had campaigned for Bevin in Lexington the day before the gubernatorial election. After the Kentucky governor's apparent defeat, Trump's team noted how unpopular Bevin was and played up GOP victories in other races in the state.
"The President just about dragged Gov. Matt Bevin across the finish line, helping him run stronger than expected," Trump campaign manager Brad Pascale said.