2020 election: Trump could sink House GOP in suburbia

Now, recent national and district-level polls signal that many of the well-educated voters souring on Trump are also displaying more resistance to Republican congressional candidates than in 2018 — potentially much more.

That movement could frustrate GOP hopes of dislodging many of the first-term House Democrats who captured previously Republican suburban seats in 2018. It also means Democrats see further opportunities in white-collar House districts — from Pennsylvania and Georgia to Indiana and especially Texas — where the GOP held off the 2018 suburban tide, often only by narrow margins.

“The suburban exodus has continued, and my gut is as long as Trump is identified as the leader of the party, that continues,” says former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Even if Trump’s strength outside the metro areas allows the GOP to recapture some of the non-urban seats Democrats won last time, Davis warns, further suburban losses could still leave the party in a deeper hole after November.

“You can’t afford that,” says Davis, now a partner in Holland & Knight, a DC law firm. “[Suburbia] was the base of the Republican Party just a decade and a half ago. And there just aren’t enough rural voters to make up for those kind of losses. It means for the Republicans that instead of picking up seats in the House, that the bleeding could continue.”

The NRCC and some GOP consultants say such predictions overstate the party’s risk. They argue that the 2018 Democratic incursions into previously red-leaning suburban districts represented a high-water mark, driven by a greater turnout of Democratic voters than Republican ones during the midterm election. In the larger turnout of the presidential year, they maintain, many of these districts will snap back to their historic Republican leanings and allow both Trump and GOP House candidates to carry them again.

Bob Salera, a spokesperson for the NRCC, says the committee’s baseline assumption for these races is that Trump will run as well in most white-collar districts this year as he did in 2016, when he carried almost all of the new suburban districts Democrats are targeting in November, as well as many of those that the party captured in the 2018 midterms.

“For the most part, what we are seeing is Trump’s standing in these [suburban] districts is fairly close, within a couple points of where it was in the 2016 election,” Salera says. “Trump’s approval right now isn’t much lower, and in some cases in different places is higher, than it was in the 2016 election. Basically, we are looking at those 2016 numbers as a baseline for how the presidential [race] will play out in these districts.”

But Democrats, and even some Republicans, say that polling this spring flatly refutes the assertion that Trump’s position in white-collar House districts has not deteriorated since 2016.

In these suburban districts, “he’s underperforming,” says Robby Mook, president of the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC. “The House battleground that we are looking at today [is districts] he won in 2016 and he is losing today. That’s just a fact.”

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Mook, who served as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, says that all evidence signals that, if anything, the suburban movement away from the GOP under Trump is accelerating, particularly as the President turns toward more culturally and racially divisive messages aimed at his non-urban base.

“There was this seismic shift in American politics in 2016 that advanced in 2018 and is continuing to advance now,” Mook says.

In recent weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other party groups have publicly released or privately circulated polls that show Trump losing to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, often by substantial margins, in a wide array of well-educated districts, including many that Trump carried in 2016. The NRCC has discounted these polls as wishful thinking but has released very few of its own surveys this year, and none in the districts Democrats have spotlighted.

What the polls find

Public polling this spring consistently showed Trump and the GOP facing grim numbers with well-educated voters. National surveys released in the past few weeks by Monmouth University, the Pew Research Center and CNN all showed Trump’s approval rating among White voters with at least a four-year college education sinking to 33% or less, with at least 64% disapproving.

By comparison, even during the 2018 Democratic sweep, exit polls found that 38% of college-educated White voters approved of Trump’s job performance, according to results provided by Edison Research, which conducts the exit polls for a consortium of news organizations that includes CNN.

That decline contrasted with Trump’s showing among minorities in the new CNN and Monmouth polls, which found the President’s approval rating with voters of color was almost exactly the same as in the 2018 exit poll, just over 1-in-4 in each case.

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The Monmouth and CNN polls and a national New York Times/Siena College survey all found Biden leading Trump among well-educated White voters by about 30 percentage points, a much bigger advantage than any data source on the 2016 results recorded for Clinton. (The exit polls showed Trump narrowly carrying those college-plus White voters.)
Critically, some of the recent public surveys found that weakness trickling down to GOP congressional candidates. In last week’s Monmouth survey, college-educated White voters preferred Democrats over Republicans in House races by a resounding 59% to 36%.
If that disparity held through November, it would represent a huge deterioration for Republicans since 2018, when the exit polls showed Democratic House candidates nationwide carrying those voters by 8 percentage points, about one-third as much. (That came after the exit polls made a methodology change that analysts believe provided a more accurate estimate of the vote among college- and non-college Whites than in previous years.)
Even the more modest swing among well-educated voters that exit polls recorded in 2018 was sufficient to fundamentally reconfigure the House battlefield. The Democratic wave that year crested highest in well-educated and often racially diverse urban and suburban districts. Before that election, Republicans held 43% of the House districts where the share of people 25 and older with at least a four-year college degree exceeded the national average, according to a CNN analysis of the 2018 results.

But now Republicans hold only 23% of such seats, according to a new analysis of results from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey conducted by CNN senior visual editor Janie Boschma. In all, Democrats control 135 of the House districts with higher-than-average college education levels, while Republicans hold just 41. (Those numbers reflect the new district lines drawn under court order in Pennsylvania, but not the new lines that state courts have approved in North Carolina.)

Many of the top Democratic House targets for November are within those remaining 41 Republican districts with more college graduates than average, including incumbent Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania, Ann Wagner in Missouri, Chip Roy in Austin, Don Bacon in Nebraska, David Schweikert in Arizona and Steve Chabot in Ohio, as well as opportunities in open seats around Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Raleigh, North Carolina. Several more potentially vulnerable GOP seats (including those held by incumbent Reps. Rodney Davis in Illinois, John Katko in New York and Scott Perry in Pennsylvania) come in just below the average education line.

The flip side is also true: Many of the Democrats elected in 2018 who Republicans most hope to oust hold seats in districts with many more college graduates than average, including Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred in Texas, Sharice Davids in Kansas, Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens in Michigan, Lucy McBath in Georgia, Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, Tom Malinowski in New Jersey and all the newly elected Democrats from Orange County, California.

Top, from left to right: Democratic Reps. Colin Allred, Sharice Davids, Lizzie Fletcher and Tom Malinowski. Bottom, from left to right: Democratic Reps. Lucy McBath, Elissa Slotkin, Abigail Spanberger and Haley Stevens. All were elected in 2018 in House districts that have many more college graduates than the national average.

In 2016, when exit polls showed Trump running more competitively among college-educated White voters, he won many of the white-collar districts on both lists. With far fewer voters than in earlier generations splitting their tickets between presidential and House candidates, the outcome in many of them may be tipped by whether he does so again.

Perhaps the best test of Trump’s standing in white-collar districts will come in Texas, which Republicans have dominated since the early 1990s. Even in 2016, the state was only marginally competitive, with Trump beating Clinton there by 9 percentage points or nearly 800,000 votes. But in 2018, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke rode a surge of support in Texas’ big metropolitan areas — he won its five largest counties by about six times as much as Barack Obama did in 2012 — to hold Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to a victory of only about 2.5 percentage points. Democrats rode O’Rourke’s strong performance to sweeping gains in state legislative and local elections across urban and suburban areas, as well as the election of Fletcher and Allred.

“In Texas, the Democrats performed about as well in the suburbs in 2018 as they’ve done in 20 or 25 years,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and GOP chair in Travis County (Austin).

Democrats see opportunities

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee built on that beachhead by investing early in serious challenges in a number of Republican-held House districts, most of them better educated than average. The party’s best Texas pickup opportunity is the heavily minority but relatively less-college-educated West Texas seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Will Hurd.

After that the Democrats’ top targets are all districts that combine substantial racial diversity with large numbers of college graduates, including open seats in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston and challenges to GOP incumbent Reps. Chip Roy and, somewhat more distantly, Michael McCaul in districts that sprawl south from Austin through more conservative rural communities.

All of those seats have followed the white-collar movement toward the Democrats evident in other areas of the country since 2016. Except for the seat Hurd is vacating, Trump won the rest of those districts last time. But he did not exceed 52% of the vote in any of them, in each case carrying far less of the vote that Mitt Romney had done there in 2012.

In 2018, O’Rourke narrowly won the McCaul district and the Dallas open seat and fell short by less than 1 percentage point in both the Roy and open Houston-area seat, according to a recent analysis by J. Miles Coleman of the Sabato’s Crystal Ball election website. (In all, O’Rourke won or finished within 5 points of Cruz in 10 congressional districts now held by Republicans, and some of those other seats are beginning to secure late interest from Democrats as well.)

Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democratic nominee for the open seat in Fort Bend County, outside of Houston, was also the party’s candidate in 2018. A former foreign service officer who did not launch his campaign until January 2018, Kulkarni lost that year by 5 percentage points to Republican Pete Olson, who retired rather than seek reelection again after that close call.

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Kulkarni says the climate for Democrats in the district is more favorable now and that Trump is “absolutely” weaker than he was there even two years ago. Under Trump, Kulkarni says, Republicans “are not looking for a broad coalition, they are focusing on a very small but intense coalition and they are leaving out the suburbs.” Nearly 46% of the district’s residents hold at least a four-year college degree and racial minorities compose a majority of its population, with immigrants representing nearly 1-in-4 residents, census figures show.

Kulkarni’s race captures another critical element of the battle for these white-collar districts. Many of them are in metropolitan areas at the epicenter of this year’s twin national earthquakes: the coronavirus outbreak and the eruption of protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s funeral was held just across the border in Harris County, which has emerged as one of the centers of the outbreak, with a surging caseload (more than 36,000 as of Monday) that officials warn may soon overwhelm its hospital system.

Kulkarni has been unflinching in criticizing Trump on both fronts; he told me he considers the President’s response to the Floyd protests a “threat to American values” and Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak “the biggest failure of leadership in the government” he has ever seen.

From the outset, Kulkarni’s two potential Republican opponents (the nominee will be decided in a runoff next week) have dueled over which supports Trump more. Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, the front-runner, derided an earlier attempt by Harris County officials to require mask-wearing as “unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unAmerican … an unprecedented overreach which looks more like a communist dictatorship than a free Republic.”
(After GOP Gov. Greg Abbott last week imposed a statewide mask requirement, Nehls did not criticize him but suggested in a statement that he considered it unnecessary in Fort Bend. “The Governor’s going to do what he’s going to do to combat this virus statewide but this virus isn’t affecting everyone the same,” said campaign spokesman Nick Maddux.)
And neither Nehls nor rival Kathaleen Wall has dissented from Trump as he’s escalated his attacks on the protests and protesters, such as calling Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.”

Trump’s increasingly polarizing strategy for reelection helps explain why many strategists in both parties believe it will be difficult for as many House candidates as in the past to win in districts that vote for the other party in the presidential contest. That may help Republican challengers against Democratic incumbents in blue-collar and rural districts where Trump has been stronger, such as Reps. Collin Peterson in Minnesota, Jared Golden in Maine and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa. But it looms as a huge challenge for the GOP in these suburban areas.

Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP representative who lost his urban Miami district during the 2018 Democratic sweep, agrees it will be tough for the party’s candidates to escape the undertow if Trump doesn’t improve his position in those places.

“It’s almost impossible,” he says. “All candidates [are] encouraged to run their own races and maneuver however it is they need to in order to win. But with this heavy overlay, it’s very difficult. The space in which to maneuver is very tight.”

Like the NRCC’s Salera, GOP consultant Mackowiak says he believes Trump will perform better in these suburban districts than the party did in 2018. While Mackowiak believes that “if it’s a referendum on Trump he’s going to get killed in the suburbs,” he maintains the President can win back previously red-leaning college-educated voters by tying Biden and Democratic House candidates to liberal ideas such as the Green New Deal and single-payer health care that might advance under unified Democratic control of government.

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Still, Mackowiak acknowledges that if 2020 produces an electoral divide in Texas similar to the one in the 2018 Senate race — with Trump holding the state by maximizing rural turnout while suffering huge losses in the big metro areas — it will “be a category five political hurricane” for local Republicans.

“The state House will be gone,” he said. “We will lose three or four congressional seats. That’s an unthinkable scenario.”

Yet many observers in both parties believe that’s exactly what the November election may produce in virtually every state: a widening trench between the preponderantly White small-town and rural areas that remain bonded to Trump and a deepening recoil from him in the diverse and well-educated urban and suburban population centers.

Trump may be comfortable with that trade since he is trying only to finesse one more Electoral College victory even if he loses the popular vote again. But many Republicans say Trump’s vision of squeezing bigger margins out of shrinking places at the cost of generating more resistance in communities that are growing is a losing long-term trajectory for the party. Nowhere is that more true than in the battle for control of the US House.

“It’s a strategy that is divorced from the reality of the country,” says Curbelo. “And there are Republican leaders in both chambers who are aware of this. This is not an important [consideration in] the President’s strategy because in his team’s mind they only have to win one more election. But for everyone else it’s a longer-term game. A lot of Republicans have been willing to be shortsighted and taken what they can get from the Trump era. But ultimately they know this is not the future of the party.”

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