Consider Pennsylvania, where Democrats have rightfully crowed that they took control of county commissioners in the suburban Philadelphia counties of Chester, Delaware and Bucks — once the center of Republican strength in the Keystone State.
But Republicans gained control of county commissions in more counties on Tuesday than did Democrats. Three ancestrally Democratic counties in western Pennsylvania — Westmoreland, Greene and Washington — turned red on Tuesday. Republicans also gained control in tiny Cameron County and in Luzerne County, home to Wilkes-Barre and one of the largest counties in the United States to flip from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. As the culturally liberal suburbs move blue, the culturally conservative hinterlands swing red.
Deep-blue New Jersey jumped into the act, too. Republicans won now-Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s (D-N.J.) old state Senate seat in a special election and also picked up two General Assembly seats in another part of Van Drew’s congressional district. This seat flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016, and these wins show that voter sentiment in blue-collar southern New Jersey is shifting toward Trump’s party, too.
Washington observers may have been puzzled by the fact that Van Drew was one of only two House Democrats to oppose the resolution establishing impeachment procedures, but he clearly has his finger on his district’s pulse. He won only 52.9 percent in 2018 against a Republican nominee who was abandoned by the party over his long history of racist comments. He knows that the partisan realignment lauded by national Democrats is threatening his career.
Even the Democratic wins on Tuesday come with asterisks. Democrats took over the Virginia state Senate and House of Delegates because court-ordered redistricting eliminated the pro-GOP gerrymander protecting a number of Republicans. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had carried every delegate seat Democrats gained on Tuesday, and GOP candidates often performed better than Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has apparently lost his reelection bid on the basis of widespread rejection by urban and suburban voters, but it’s worth noting that he ran well behind other statewide GOP candidates in rural areas, too. Republicans won every other statewide office in Kentucky, including the victory of African American Daniel Cameron over the scion of a long-powerful Democratic family, Gregory Stumbo, for state attorney general. Cameron won all the suburban counties that Bevin had lost.
This is not meant to minimize the very real problems Republicans face in educated suburbs. This decline is extremely problematic for the future of the party. But the fact is, the party had rocky future prospects in 2015 before the rise of Trump, too.
To understand why, it’s helpful to put Republican voting groups into four “animals”: elephants, RINOs, TIGRs and RAMs. Elephants are the Republican base, divided into sub-factions of business conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives. RINOs are moderate suburbanites often derided as “Republicans in Name Only.” TIGRs (or “Trump is Great Republicans”) are the blue-collar voters who have moved to the GOP. And RAMs are “Recently Arrived Migrants” — the nonwhite voters who will make up increasingly larger shares of the electorate in the next decade.
The Romney-era GOP was an alliance between elephants and RINOs that could win the House with ease and was competitive in the Senate. But it could no longer win the presidency. This was the coalition that failed to take a majority of the vote in all but one presidential election between 1992 and 2012. And its unattractiveness to RAMs meant its power would shrink as time went on.
The Trump-era GOP trades RINOs for TIGRs. This coalition cannot win the House, but it is stronger in the Senate and in the presidential race because TIGRs tend to be more concentrated in older, whiter, more rural states in the West and Midwest. It, too, will fade in power because it is unattractive to RAMs.
The Republican future rests on putting elephants, TIGRs and RINOs together and making that coalition attractive to a larger share of RAMs than is currently the case. That’s a tall order, but it’s not impossible, and it’s certainly no harder than the Democrats’ challenge of uniting their divided factions.
Tuesday’s results underscore the need to regain RINO suburban trust, but they also show how important Trump’s TIGR realignment is to the party’s future. That is the full lesson from Tuesday’s ballot — and the first post-Trump Republican to articulate this unifying message will be the next Reagan that the party has longed for.