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Republicans lost the House in the suburbs…here’s a way to fix that

Suburbanites absolutely hammered the GOP in 2018...there's a way to win them, and the House, back.

The midterms turned out to be a Blue Wave after all. Besides Democrats reclaiming more House seats since Watergate, surviving an ugly Senate map, and making big gain in many state capitols there is one abiding trend lurking in the results and data for which there is not currently a solution: how can Republicans reclaim the host of suburban seats they just surrendered?

You might say, the problem was how unpopular Trump is with college-educated whites (especially women) who were often the decisive demographic in Republican electoral setbacks, be they suburban or not. While Trump’s eventual departure from the political scene is a matter of time, decisive voters in the suburbs will need a reason for voting Republican again after many turned to Clinton in 2016 and other Democrats in 2018 … and it’s not like 2020 is likely to bring them back either.

There is one school of thought that says, screw it, Trump won the Presidency, Republicans picked up Senate seats, and people like Brian Kemp won the Governorship in Georgia. We can figure this out without the squishy suburbs!

The Resurgent’s own fearless leader has pointed out losing suburbanites is a problem. It is, for several reasons, one of which is most evident after this election: Republicans need wins in more suburban districts to recapture a governing majority in the House.

Yes, getting crushed in the suburbs is highly problematic in some 2020 Senate contests as well as in some Presidential swing states, even if Senate and Presidential contests ebb and flow with unpredictable variables of election cycles, candidate choices, and future events. The problem with the House is staring us in the face now.

By the time California is done counting mail-in ballots Democrats may have claimed 40 House seats. Over 30 of those are suburban. In fact, California’s House delegation “hasn’t been this blue since the Civil War.” And while such losses were steep in blue states — California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and the like — they also reached into Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

In Georgia, Republicans lost at least one Congressional seat and a host of state legislative races in the suburbs, thanks in part to Brian Kemp’s Trump-like strategy of goosing the rural vote while abandoning the suburbs.

Events in Texas earned a lot of derision from the right because of the media’s fawning Beto-mania, but the final results amplified the Republican suburban collapse, well-beyond losing a couple House members and many down ballot contests as well:

It could all be a blip — a year of Democratic enthusiasm spurred by a shiny candidate or vitriol toward President Donald Trump. But with margins narrowing over time in some of the GOP’s longtime strongholds, Tuesday night’s results suggest that the Republican firewall in the suburbs could be cracking.

A common point after O’Rourke’s strong showing is he won Tarrant County (Fort Worth), previously considered the state’s bellwether.

It’s much more problematic than that from a Republican standpoint. Watching the trend lines from the Romney dominating Texas in 2012 to Clinton gaining ground in 2016 and on to the Beto-led ticket of 2018 shows a huge shift leftward. In the marquee race on the ballot, from 2012 to 2018:

  • Dallas County went from voting 57% Democratic to 66%
  • Travis County (Austin) went from voting 60% Democratic to 75%
  • Harris County (Houston) went from voting 49% Democratic to 57%

Perhaps it’s easy to look past large urban centers, especially in a Democratic wave year. Yet, even aside from traditionally Republican Tarrant, which went from voting for Romney by 16% to voting for Beto by 9%, let’s look instead at key suburban counties, where the Democratic shift was even more telling from 2012 to 2018:

  • Denton (northwest of Dallas) went from voting 33% Democratic to almost 46%
  • Collin (northeast of Dallas) went from voting 33% Democratic to almost 47%
  • Fort Bend (outside of Houston) went from voting 46% Democratic to over 51%, with Clinton narrowly flipping the county in 2016
  • Williamson (north of Austin) went from voting 38% Democratic to over 51%
  • Hays (south of Austin) went from voting 43% Democratic to 57%

Not only did voting patterns shift significantly, the population of those counties is soaring as the Texas economic and population boom continues. Example: those last five suburban counties counted 308,000 more two-party ballots in the 2018 Senate race than they did in the 2012 Presidential race.

Yes, Beto was a uniquely animating candidate for Democrats in a year they were exceptionally motivated, but that shift is clear, amplifying trends witnessed in suburban areas across the country in 2018.

Karl Rove has put up the emergency beacon:

“We’ve got to be worried about what’s happening in the suburbs. We get wiped out in the Dallas suburbs, Houston suburbs, Chicago suburbs, Denver suburbs — you know there’s a pattern — Detroit suburbs, Minneapolis suburbs, Orange County, Calif., suburbs,” Rove said Saturday during a panel discussion for the Washington Examiner’s Sea Island Summit.

“When we start to lose in the suburbs, it says something to us,” Rove continued. “We can’t replace all of those people by simply picking up [Minnesota’s First Congressional District] — farm country and the Iron range of Minnesota — because, frankly, there’s more growth in suburban areas than there is in rural areas.”

Whatever one thinks of Karl Rove, the guy understands how to win elections.

What to do?

Here’s a thought: let Republicans who can win in moderate, suburban districts … be moderate Republicans. And most definitely, not Trump Republicans.

One example: Sarah Davis, a Texas state representative in Houston’s inner suburbs, survived 2018 even as the Republican Congressman went down to defeat:

Meanwhile, Culberson’s most problematic precincts relative to 2016 also fell inside House District 134, where Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis staved off Harris County’s blue wave to win re-election by almost seven points.

While Davis was winning by seven, Culberson lost by 5. She did that with a record of good governance while chairing the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health & Human Services as well as the General Investigating & Ethics Committee.

Notably, Davis doesn’t thrill many GOP activists, including as she:

…was on this year’s list of Texas Monthly’s best legislators (not for any partisan or ideological reason, but because she was an effective lawmaker). Davis has called herself a “rational Republican,” and if you look at Rice University political scientist Mark Jones’ Texas House liberal/conservative ranking, you’ll find that there is no Democrat to the right of Davis and no Republican to her left. She is the very definition of purple in the Texas House. [emphasis added]

She’s clearly no Trump Republican. Governor Greg Abbott helped lead an effort defeat her in her primary, including because of her Investigations & Ethics work. He failed.

What’s more notable perhaps in her win amidst a tide of suburban blue was her platform:

“I have been a leading champion in the Texas House for women’s health, including providing more funding for cancer screening and preventive care,” said Davis. “I passed bills to make government more transparent and accountable to taxpayers, and supported a balanced budget that improves our roads and schools, invested a record amount in border security, and set aside $11 billion in the state’s ‘Rainy Day Fund’ in the event of a fiscal emergency.”

Notably not on the agenda: immigration, tax cuts, culture war issues, or even a hint of Trumpiness.

Not only did it work electorally, Davis survived in a district that the Houston Chronicle noted in its endorsement of her:

[She] fits well with her wealthy, highly educated constituents, who have a habit of voting for candidates instead of parties. In 2012 the district went for Mitt Romney by 15 points. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won by 15 points — and Davis did about as well.

Davis might not be at the critical mass of the Republican party under Trump, but she’s exactly the kind of suburban Republican the party needs nationally to retain a governing majority in Congress.

Moreover, there’s something to be said for running on a platform that appeals broadly to your constituents, not just the base … let alone a Trumpy one.

In Massachusetts, popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker was re-elected with 67% of the vote. How did he do it? His official bio gives a pretty good hint:

Upon taking office in 2015, Governor Baker worked to close two budget gaps of more than $2 billion—without raising taxes. The administration has focused on bolstering local aid for our schools and communities, investing in a more reliable public transportation system and prioritizing funds to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic. Governor Baker also delivered critical tax relief for over 400,000 hardworking individuals and their families in his first year through a fifty percent increase of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Prudent budgeting, education, transportation, and battling the opioid epidemic are popular issues where bipartisan consensus is achievable.

Or, we can take a look at Maryland, where another popular Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, won re-election with 56% of the vote. The top four issues on his platform:

  • Transportation
  • Jobs and the Economy
  • Education
  • The Environment

Again, prudent issues, popular with his constituents, on which he can find bipartisan consensus.

You might say, but Eric, places like Massachusetts and Maryland sometimes elect Republican Governors and even legislators, but often then send ardent Democrats to Congress.

True.

But, Democrats won back the House by running very different races than your stereotypical, deep blue Democrat. Harkening back to the days of Rahm Emmanuel recruiting less progressive, rural, pro-2nd Amendment Democratic candidates to expand their gains in 2006, many winning Democrats ran moderate campaigns, focused on health care, and creating deliberate space from Nancy Pelosi and visions of DC Democrats gone wild:

Nancy Pelosi did not want to talk about Planned Parenthood.

It was a meeting of House Democrats early in 2017, during Republicans’ drive that March to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Ms. Pelosi and her political lieutenants laid out their counterattack: Democrats would talk about pre-existing conditions and millions of people losing coverage. And they would talk about an “age tax” — a provision in the Obamacare replacement passed by the House, which would have allowed health insurers to widen the premium gap between younger and older customers.

Ms. Pelosi acknowledged it would require restraint from Democrats. In her own San Francisco district, she said, people wanted her to fight the health care battle over funding for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid. “Those things are in our DNA, but they are not in our talking points,” Ms. Pelosi became fond of saying, according to a close associate.

That narrow focus on health care and a few economic issues came to define the Democrats’ midterm campaign.

Democrats also ran a lot of veterans. The ran as moderates, such as how Kyrsten Sinema won in Arizona or how Democrats seized a suburban Kansas district. Despite being targeted as a radical, Sharice Davids — the first LGBT Native American elected to Congress — ran on health care as a leading issue. And in Oklahoma, the surprise Democratic winner in the suburban 5th District ran on education, health care, and “women and families.”

The list goes on, but the point is clear, candidates had space to run toward their districts (how Democrats act in the House majority may be another matter). That’s exactly what Republican will need to take back the suburbs, reclaim the House … let alone deal with potential Senate contests in purple states, and reclaim the Presidency in a post-Trump era: have candidates with space to run toward their districts.

Yes, that would mean moderates in the House GOP who may be pro-choice, not firm on the 2nd Amendment, and more amenable to government solutions than some conservatives might like. But that’s representative democracy. By equal turns, that also means rural and conservative lawmakers will still have a big place in the Republican caucus. And leadership will have to find common ground to govern in a majority. But, better that challenge to find a way to govern than twiddling ones thumbs in a years-long minority.

Put differently, if Republicans want to reverse the electoral losses of 2018, they have to let people like Sarah Davis be Sarah Davis.

The alternative is the minority in the House for years to come.

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