Republicans Lost the Suburbs

Supporters of Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids react to election results during a watch party on Nov. 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas.
Supporters of Democratic candidate for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids react to election results during a watch party on Tuesday in Olathe, Kansas. Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

There’s a geographic signal to Tuesday’s congressional results that bursts through the noise: Congressional Republicans have been routed from the suburbs.

Here are some Democrats who took Republican seats on the outskirts of major cities: Sean Casten (IL-6) in the Chicago collar counties; Sharice Davids (KS-3) in the suburbs of Kansas City; Jennifer Wexton (VA-10) in the D.C. suburbs; Kendra Horn (OK-5) in the suburbs of Oklahoma City; Angie Craig (MN-2) south of the Twin Cities; Joe Cunningham (SC-1) around Charleston; Tom Malinowski (NJ-7), Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), Max Rose (NY-11) around New York City.

Many of those were among 2016’s 25 “split districts”—GOP-represented districts that voted for Clinton—and made for obvious targets. They’ve been sliding toward Democrats for years. Others lurched left after voting for Trump in 2016. But amid various confusing patterns—the GOP winning big state races in the South; Democrats’ big victories in Michigan and Wisconsin—the trend is clear. Republicans are getting blown out of the places where once, long ago, the party found its most dedicated voters and defined its priorities.

Just look at Texas, where headlines of Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss disguised how much he did for candidates down the ballot. Two powerful, long-serving Republicans—Houston’s John Culberson and Dallas’ Pete Sessions—were defeated by Democratic challengers. “Everybody is going down in Dallas County if they’re a Republican tonight,” Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith told MSNBC Tuesday night. Later, Pete Sessions gave a concession speech in which he explained what had happened: His conservatism had brought economic growth to Dallas (the so-called Texas Miracle, in which Sessions probably overstates his role), and he paid the price. “Unfortunately, that success was not enough to stem the liberal tide of people who have moved here from across the country.”

That might be right, in some places. Whether they’re leaving high-cost coastal cities or low-growth areas in the Rust Belt, Americans keep moving to the Sun Belt. This has changed politics in places like Texas and Georgia. A quarter-million black people moved to Atlanta between 2010 and 2016, a bigger influx than anywhere in the United States. That’s part of what put Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams within striking distance on Tuesday.

That’s not all that’s happening, though. The Republican Party also went nuts, progressively alienating nearly all of its highly educated voters, culminating in the defection of the “Never Trump” Republicans, the last rats off the ship. And the suburbs changed too, as rings of white affluence became increasingly diverse, often home to pockets of poverty. The suburbs are younger now, and the family in the tract home next door is just as likely to have been priced out of the city as to have escaped it.

There’s also reason to expect suburbs everywhere to rally around a Democratic Party that rejects Trump’s reactionary, caustic politics. Things are going well there! In February, I wrote about what’s pulling American metro areas apart from the rest of the country:

Since the financial crisis, these places account for more than 93 percent of U.S. population growth, two-thirds of economic output, and 73 percent of employment gains. All those shares are growing. Those numbers fall rapidly and progressively as you look at midsize cities, small cities, and rural areas.

From the left, there was plenty of criticism for Democrats’ suburban gains after 2016—especially after Sen. Chuck Schumer couldn’t deliver the promised fruits of a centrist candidate: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” he said that summer, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Needless to say it didn’t happen in 2016, and Clinton ran up the numbers in places like Orange County, California, while the party failed to make any gains in Congress. The strategy was derided as a pivot to the donor class.

This time, without any substantial ideological compromises, Democrats translated popularity into power.

The vanishing of the suburban Republican will have consequences in the House. They were federal officials, but they had powerful influence over how business got done in their home districts. John Culberson, for example, played an instrumental role in redirecting an important stretch of Houston’s light rail network away from a busy, popular street, jeopardizing the system’s long-term success.

For good or for ill, suburban Republicans also had a stake in metropolitan issues. So it was that defeated Rep. Leonard Lance, of New Jersey, was a rare Republican voice in the House advocating for support of the Gateway investment to repair critical rail infrastructure under the Hudson River. Sometimes, they dragged their party with them, or enough of it to matter, supporting programs with predominantly metropolitan impacts like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit or the TIGER grants for transportation projects.

They’ve been replaced by Democrats, of course, who should be even more likely to support policies that favor the country’s big metro areas. But if 2016 showed that metropolitan-rural divide in presidential preferences, 2018 shows that split solidifying in the legislature. That means, more than before, that urban policy is now the exclusive concern of the Democratic Party.