The main theme connecting Tuesday night’s governor’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi, state legislative contests in Virginia, and local elections in Pennsylvania is that Republican support has utterly collapsed in the suburbs.
It’s an existential warning for the GOP: Without running competitively in at least the outer rings of urban areas, Republicans can dismiss their chances of winning back the House, start worrying about the Senate flipping next year, and desperately pray that Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders emerges as the Democratic presidential nominee in order to give President Trump a shot at reelection.
The scope of the Democrats’ suburban gains from last night’s elections were striking. In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear carried two of three rock-solid conservative counties spanning suburban and exurban Cincinnati. In Virginia, Republicans lost their last elected official in Fairfax County, got walloped in fast-growing exurban Loudoun County, and flipped GOP seats in suburban Richmond and the Tidewater. Even in Mississippi, Republicans lost ground in DeSoto County, a traditional GOP stronghold.
The ramifications are clear down the 2020 ballot. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic majority is built on freshman members who prevailed last year on tough suburban turf. In last year’s midterms, Democrats netted three GOP-held seats in Virginia alone. In Tuesday’s legislative elections, Democratic candidates won a clear majority of the vote within those congressional districts. In the onetime GOP base of Northern Virginia (the 10th District), which finally flipped blue in 2018, Democratic candidates carried a whopping 63 percent of the vote, according to an operative tracking the results.
That means that it will be extremely difficult for Republicans to regain districts that were once solidly red but have turned against Trump. Battleground members like Sean Casten of Illinois, Katie Porter of California, and Sharice Davids of Kansas may have their vulnerabilities, but are protected by the changing nature of their previously conservative districts. And Democrats are hoping to build on their majority by winning suburban seats in Texas that once looked like impossible targets.
On the Senate side, Democrats are targeting several GOP-held seats with sizable suburban populations, including Colorado (Cory Gardner), Arizona (Martha McSally) and North Carolina (Thom Tillis). Republicans still need to cater to their own Trump base, but such positioning threatens to alienate swing suburban voters. Democrats are hoping a future impeachment trial puts these senators in an unenviable spot. Break with Trump, and the GOP base abandons you. But stick with Trump under all circumstances, and the pathway to a majority gets awfully difficult.
If Democrats somehow put Georgia or Texas in play—an outcome looking less likely, given the party’s underwhelming recruiting so far—it will be because they ran candidates who appeal to swing voters in the booming Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston metropolitan areas.
Finally, Trump’s own reelection chances rely on cutting down his losing margins in suburban America. In 2016, Trump showed it’s possible to win a healthy Electoral College majority while underperforming in suburban battlegrounds. But last year’s midterm results and subsequent polls have shown Trump losing even more ground in these areas—to the point where he’d need historic turnout from his working-class base to make up the deficit.
Trump is likely past the point where he can recover his support in the suburbs. But there’s one silver lining for Republicans. A New York Times/Siena poll conducted in the six biggest battleground states found that 6 percent of registered voters would support Joe Biden over Trump, but not Warren. “The Biden voters who say Ms. Warren is too far to the left are relatively well educated and disproportionately reside in precincts that flipped from Mitt Romney in 2012 to Mrs. Clinton four years later,” the paper reports.
Warren winning the Democratic nomination would be the biggest lifeline that Trump and downballot Republicans could receive for next year’s election. The president’s struggles in the suburbs will make it awfully difficult for him to win a second term. But he’ll have a fighting chance if Democrats turn to a candidate who would threaten to jeopardize some of the party’s critical suburban gains.