Against the Grain

The GOP’s Suburban Delusion

House Republicans won’t be rebounding in the suburbs as long as Trump is president. But GOP leaders can’t acknowledge that obvious truth.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks following a Nov. 14 meeting for the House Republican leadership elections. From left, Reps. Tom Emmer, Liz Cheney, Gary Palmer, Jason Smith, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and Rep. Mark Walker.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Dec. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the newly minted chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, sounded like a congressman in denial in a recent interview with National Journal. Surveying a midterm landscape where his party lost 40 seats—nearly all of them in suburban or urban districts—Emmer proclaimed that there was no political realignment in the suburbs. “That’s not true. It’s just not there,” he told my colleagues Ally Mutnick and Kyle Trygstad.

Emmer’s comments are a sign that Republicans are delusional about the 2018 election results, a midterm that was defined by voters’ views of the Trump presidency, or they have no better options than to stick with a president who has swiftly transformed the Republican Party in his image. There’s a reasonable strategic case for House Republicans to own their Trump base, maintaining the seats they have and hoping to win back some of their losses in more conservative territory with stronger candidates. But House Republicans should be clear-eyed that such a strategy merely stops the political bleeding, and isn’t a formula to win back the majority in 2020.

There’s a narrow path for Trump to eke out a reelection with a base-first strategy, and Senate Republicans are favored to hold their majority under the current political trajectory. But unless suburban voters dramatically change their views of Trump in the next two years—a fanciful scenario, given how hardened public opinion is—the Democrats’ House majority looks awfully sturdy for the next election.

At first glance, a Republican comeback doesn’t look all that difficult. In the next Congress, there will be 31 Democrats in the House representing districts that Trump carried in 2016. Republicans will need to net 18 seats to win back the majority—a smaller hurdle than Democrats faced at the beginning of last cycle. Only three Republicans are left in districts that Hillary Clinton carried. All told, Republicans will be playing a whole lot of offense.

But look deeper into the demography of the Trump-friendly seats, and they’re not as favorable to Republicans as they look. Of the 31 Trump-district Democrats, 20 of them represent predominantly suburban districts where Trump’s toxicity was a major reason that the districts flipped. Republicans may be able to win back a few of the most conservative seats and benefit from the inevitable freshman flubs, but will have a tough time changing the national dynamic that propelled so many suburban Democrats to victory. “Republicans narrowed the enthusiasm gap considerably by Election Day but the expense was that independents broke strongly against them. They wanted to put a check on Trump,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the NRCC from 1998 to 2002.

And even among the small-town, working-class districts where Trump is popular, Democrats hold advantages thanks to established individual members with strong records of constituent service. As long as Rep. Collin Peterson runs for reelection in Minnesota, Democrats will be favored to hold the rural seat of the influential incoming chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Incoming Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Cheri Bustos of Illinois just won reelection with a whopping 62 percent of the vote, even though her district narrowly backed Trump. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin is another political survivor, outrunning Trump’s 2016 performance by 11 points this year.

By viewing the results through rose-colored glasses, Emmer is discounting how congressional races are increasingly becoming like parliamentary contests, with voters paying closer attention to candidates’ party affiliation than any of their individual attributes. His focus on well-liked candidates relying on their independent brands sounds quaint in an era of polarized politics. Two of the three Clinton-district Republicans who survived—Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko—could easily have lost if they drew less-extreme Democratic challengers. All local politics is now national, and that’s not changing in the era of Trump.

Emmer isn’t entirely off base in arguing that we’re not witnessing a suburban realignment. Realignments are long-lasting, and this suburban backlash is in response to Trump’s presidency. If a Democratic president is elected in 2020 and governs to the left, it’s not hard to see Republicans winning back many of the seats they lost. Trump or no Trump, voters are perpetually dissatisfied, and are inclined to punish the party in power for their (inevitable) excesses.

That offers cold comfort to Emmer as he vies to regain the House majority in two years. He needs to win back many of the suburban seats that the GOP lost, a Herculean challenge with Trump at the top of the ticket. But he still needs the president’s base to show up to support downballot candidates, a task that’s complicated if Republicans showcase their independence.

There aren’t many signs that House Republicans learned lessons from their midterm wipeout. But perhaps it’s because there aren’t many lessons to learn: Republicans are screwed with Trump, but they’d be in even worse shape without his backing.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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