Correction: An earlier version of this story cited the incorrect district in which Rep. Joe Walsh will run for reelection. He will run in Illinois's 8th District.
Reps. Dave Reichert and Joe Walsh approach politics in very different ways. Reichert, the Washington state Republican first elected in 2004, has won reelection in a swing district even in good Democratic years by appealing to the core of his suburban constituency—swing voters, not ideologues, who make up a growing share of both the electorate at large and the undecided middle. Walsh, the Illinois Republican first elected in the 2010 GOP sweep, is brash and bombastic, challenging his rivals and taking no prisoners.
What they have in common is that they hold suburban districts that are among the 30 or so that have fueled both the Democratic surges in 2006 and 2008 and the Republican surge in 2010. And both sides could learn a lot more from Reichert’s approach than from Walsh’s.
The fickle nature of suburban voters, and their generally unfavorable outlook on Congress, means they once again will play a defining role in 2012. If history is any guide, anything more than an even split of these voters between Democrats and Republicans could make the difference between Speaker John Boehner and Speaker Nancy Pelosi—or between President Obama and President Romney.
For the past four decades, the growth of suburban minorities and the increasing social conservatism of the Republican Party have moved the trend lines in a Democratic direction. In 1972, George McGovern won just 33 percent of the suburban vote against Richard Nixon. Bill Clinton won 47 percent of the suburban vote in 1996, the same level Al Gore and John Kerry reached. In 2008, President Obama became the first Democrat in modern times to break the 50 percent barrier.
Then came 2009, when both New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell won more than 50 percent of the suburban vote. That presaged the GOP’s strong showing the following year, when the party won suburban voters by a 55-42 percent margin. It was the best the party has performed in the suburbs since George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Whether the swing toward Republicans is a permanent reversal of the tide or a momentary reaction, it came after Democrats committed the same sins of overreach as the Republicans who came before, said Hofstra University political scientist Lawrence Levy. “The national Republican Party has caused itself problems in suburban communities by embracing much more strident, in-your-face extreme positions that, when Democrats did [the same] 20 years ago, the suburbs rejected them, too,” said Levy, who runs the National Center for Suburban Studies. “Suburbanites don’t like extremists of any stripe, whether it’s left or right.”
Democrats would be wise to play up fiscal discipline, while Republicans shouldn’t misread the electorate, Levy said. “The Republicans have misread the suburbs by thinking because they are leery of taxes, they’ll reject anything that requires government spending,” he said. “They don’t like government telling them what to do, but they move to the suburbs for the things that government can do well—good schools, great parks, low crime.”
Candidates who don’t convince their constituents that they walk that tightrope have found themselves victims of electoral swings. In the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, Republicans lost 23 suburban seats. In the Republican tsunami of 2010, Democrats gave back 16 of those 23 seats.
The members who survive are the ones who at times vote against their party. Reichert was one of eight Republicans, along with suburban Reps. Mark Kirk, Michael Castle, and Mary Bono Mack, to vote for cap-and-trade legislation in the 111th Congress. The Democrats who narrowly won in 2010—Reps. Jerry McNerney, Gary Peters, Jason Altmire, and Gerald Connolly—have positioned themselves closer to the center of the House.
The ongoing redistricting process will shift the focus from some suburbs, where seats will become less competitive, to newly competitive seats in other states. Reichert, whose district lost its most liberal precincts in Bellevue and Mercer Island in exchange for overwhelmingly Republican rural areas, is likely safe. Walsh, the victim of a Democratic-led gerrymander, is the underdog as he seeks reelection in a district that's now much friendlier to Democrats.
Redistricting has similarly altered some suburban areas in Florida in ways that favor Republican incumbents, while Democrats see new opportunities in suburban California. Suburban districts in Pennsylvania and New York have yet to be finalized.
President Obama’s team will similarly focus on key suburban areas in swing states, while Senate Democrats must perform well outside Democratic bastions.
Redistricting has already made for fewer competitive seats in suburban areas, complicating Democratic efforts to take back the House. But those districts that remain nail-biters will give House Democrats opportunities for growth. What remains to be seen is whether the GOP’s success in 2009 and 2010 is a true reversal of three decades of pro-Democratic trend lines or a blip as suburbanites once again reject a party that wasn’t striving for the middle.
This article appears in the Feb. 16, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.