‘Up for grabs’: These four groups will prove critical to midterm results

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Craig Hudson for The Washington Post; iStock)

Strategists in both parties are looking at the same voter groups for clues to the midterm elections: suburban voters, especially suburban women; Latino voters, especially Latino men; Black voters, especially young Black people; and Trump loyalists, especially those in rural and small-town counties. Both their turnout numbers and their party preferences hold keys to the results.

Suburban voters

In almost every election, suburban voters play a critical role, and they will again in November.

During the Trump years, many suburban voters, especially women, shifted toward the Democrats. A primary reason was the revulsion many of them felt toward President Donald Trump.

Democrats hoped that shift signaled a more permanent alignment, and it’s true that some college-educated White women became a key part of the Democratic constituency. But what happened in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race raised doubts about their reliability as Democrats. Then-candidate and now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin was able to move the suburban vote back in the Republicans’ direction.

“They weren’t flaming liberals,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said of the suburban women who backed Democrats in 2018 and 2020. “There was a reaction against Trump.”

Today, said GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, “They’re quite up for grabs.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agreed that her party’s candidates cannot take suburban women for granted in November. “Women elected Biden for stability and in reaction to Trump," she said. “They really rejected his style of leadership. But we had one woman say in a focus group, ‘I just want to get off this roller coaster.’ ” Under Biden so far, she added, "They’re getting no help in doing that.”

Lake offered that assessment before the leak of a Supreme Court draft ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade. That decision, if it comes early this summer, would give Democrats an issue to counter Republicans in the competition for the votes of suburban women.

[How women across the country are talking about the possible end of Roe]

Republican strategists argue that unlike in 2020, they can now rely on suburban men turning out for their candidates after seeing many anti-Trump GOP voters swing back to the party this cycle.

“Suburban women have moved so far the opposite direction, we’re not going to get all of them back right away. But if we can at least win back a good amount of the suburban men that we lost and some of the suburban women, that’s a formula for us to win in pretty much every state that we need to win in,” said a Senate GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could speak openly about the races they are working on.

The bottom line is that any notable move by suburban voters in the direction of the Republicans this fall will prove costly to Democratic hopes of holding down their losses. But a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade could counter GOP efforts to woo suburban women.

Latino and Hispanic voters

Latino voters will be more closely watched than ever this year after the surprising uptick in their support for Trump in some areas in 2020.

While this fast-growing minority group still largely favors the Democratic Party, their low engagement in elections and recent trend toward identifying as independents and, in some cases, backing Republicans make them key targets for both parties.

The GOP has not been shy about trying to peel away Latino voters from Democrats this cycle, arguing that the community’s conservative social and religious values align more with their ideologies than with the more liberal left — even if voters don’t realize that yet.

House Republicans see pickup opportunities in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and are running Latino candidates from border districts who they believe will give Democratic incumbents their first real contested general election in a generation.

Senate Republicans — and Democrats as well — know that key battleground states in Arizona and Nevada, where Latinos make up 30 percent and roughly 29 percent respectively, are critical for their candidates. But Latino and Hispanic voters turn out in lower numbers, meaning that persuasion and mobilization will be critical in November for both parties. The fact that a recent Quinnipiac survey showed just 26 percent of Hispanics approved of Biden’s leadership illustrates the challenge.

But Republicans face their own issues in trying to appeal to Latinos. Some Republican lawmakers representing Latino-majority districts and political operatives have noted that Latinos are turned off by the blunt and at times racist rhetoric that Trump and some other Republicans have used to characterize the community. As the Senate Republican strategist noted, “It all comes down to tone.”

Black voters

For Democrats, Black voters are the key to every election. They are the party’s most loyal constituency and were instrumental in securing Biden the Democratic nomination in 2020 and then in helping him defeat Trump.

Black voters will deliver huge majorities for Democratic candidates, if they vote. But there are questions about whether Black voters are as enthusiastic about the president today as they were before he was elected. It’s true that he delivered on his promise to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. The confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will take the place of Justice Stephen G. Breyer when he retires, was a high point for Biden’s relationship with Black voters to date.

But on other issues, Biden has disappointed many Black voters. He and congressional Democrats have failed to deliver any legislative action to protect voting rights, and long-standing promises to change laws in reaction to police killings of unarmed Black people have gone unfulfilled. Younger Black voters in particular are less enthusiastic about Biden’s presidency.

Trump voters

With Trump not on the ballot, one big question mark is how many of his most loyal voters will show up in November. In the smattering of elections in 2021, including for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, they turned out in big numbers for Republicans, particularly in rural areas. If they replicate that performance in November, that could be a big problem for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Democrats have increasingly struggled in rural areas. “It has gotten to be a real challenge for folks to be Democrats in the area,” said Brian Bruening, Democratic chair in Clayton County in rural northeast Iowa. “Just comparing from when I started as chair in 2017, there were a lot of folks engaged then. That has fallen down. The pandemic had a lot to do with it. But at the same time, the animosity toward Democrats has really discouraged a lot of people from participating [or] even saying they’re Democrats at all.”

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About this story

Illustrations by Lucy Naland based on photos by Demetrius Freeman, Jabin Botsford, Nitashia Johnson and Craig Hudson, graphics by The Washington Post and additional imagery from iStock.

Story editing by Philip Rucker. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba. Project editing by Jay Wang. Design and development by Tyler Remmel and Jake Crump. Design editing by Madison Walls. Graphics by Chris Alcantara. Graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Additional editing by Rachel Van Dongen, Ashlyn Still and Jenna Johnson.