For the president, the results underscore that his best hope for reelection in 2020 will be to expand the electorate as much as possible in the small-town, rural and exurban areas of the battleground states. Scouring those areas for every vote possible will be the campaign’s highest priority.
For Republicans looking beyond the president’s reelection campaign, the deterioration of support in the suburbs should be cause for major alarm. Democrats won control of the House in 2018 by flipping suburban districts, and there was nothing in the results Tuesday night to suggest that the anti-Trump energy that fueled those victories has slackened. Trump is the master of motivating voters — both those for him and, clearly, those against him.
“This is an overwhelming Trump phenomenon,” said a gloomy Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment of the party’s plight. “Trump has accelerated everything. There is no path in a swing, suburban district for a Republican — male, female or minority. . . . It’s not a challenge, it’s a hill. . . . There’s no strategy to climb it.”
This strategist said she worries about the GOP losing more suburban swing districts in 2020. If that happens, she said, the diversity of the Republican conference in the House will be reduced to “white men with white hair and white men with gray hair and a few token women, and when [Rep.] Will Hurd [Tex.] leaves, no African Americans and only a couple of Latinos.”
The Republican problem in suburban America is a Republican problem among female voters, particularly college-educated white women who long have been targets of persuasion efforts by both parties in national elections. Whether known as soccer moms, security moms or some other label, suburban women have been a critically important swing group of voters. Today, Republicans are running sizable deficits among suburban women.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll highlights the current state of suburban voters. In a head-to-head test between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, suburban men side with the president 51 percent to 43 percent. Among women, however, Biden leads by 28 points, 63 percent to 35 percent. Matched against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Trump is leading among suburban men 54 percent to 42 percent but losing among women 60 percent to 34 percent.
“Republicans have a big problem heading into 2020 — and that could impact states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona and so on,” Christina Reynolds of Emily’s List wrote in an email Wednesday morning. “We saw those persuasion swings in 2018, and based on last night we feel good we’ll see them again in 2020.”
The depth of the anti-Trump sentiment in suburban America extends down the ballot, as Tuesday’s results showed in local races in places such as the Indianapolis and Philadelphia suburbs. Even with a historically low national unemployment rate in these areas, voters have chosen to send a message of displeasure with the president, and the spillover is hitting the Republican Party at many levels.
“Every election, in every locality, is played in the key of Trump,” Russ Schriefer, a GOP strategist, wrote in an email Wednesday morning.
Tuesday’s results come with the normal caveats about off-year elections. It’s always risky to read too much into the outcome. Kentucky isn’t turning from red to purple as a result of the apparent election of Beshear, whose father Steve Beshear served as governor before Bevin.
As many Republicans, including the president, pointed out late Tuesday, the rest of the statewide races in Kentucky went to the GOP. Republicans also noted individual races where GOP challengers defeated Democratic incumbents as evidence that Tuesday wasn’t as bad as many are portraying it.
Especially in gubernatorial races, it’s still possible for Democrats to win in red states and for Republicans to win in blue states, if the matchups are favorable. Republicans hold the governorships of deep-blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. Democrats won the governorship of Kansas last year because Republicans ran a flawed candidate in the general election.
Beshear fit the state of Kentucky, just as Rep. Conor Lamb (D) fit his western Pennsylvania congressional district when he won a special election in early 2018. Democrats won’t be nominating a presidential candidate whose views are as moderate as those of candidates like that.
The question for Democrats is what kind of candidate they choose as their nominee. Some Democratic strategists urged caution Wednesday, pointing out that Trump will do everything he can to paint the Democratic nominee as “raising taxes and socializing health care,” as one Democrat put it. “Suburban voters will never like him, but he needs to get them to hold their nose and avoid the [Democratic nominee], or just not participate,” a strategist said.
Trump’s path to reelection will not depend on states such as Kentucky or Mississippi, where the GOP won the governor’s race on Tuesday. Those are givens in his column. But there are few states he lost in 2016 that are likely to flip in his direction next year. His campaign is focused on Minnesota, New Hampshire and a couple of others.
Instead, he must replicate the path he took in 2016. He needs to win Florida and North Carolina and then somewhere among the three northern states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that gave him his electoral college majority. Tuesday’s results represented another reminder of the obstacles that may lie ahead.
“The biggest red flag I’d be worrying about is Pennsylvania,” Schriefer wrote. “Key, targeted state and critical to the Trump coalition. Yet Democrats cleaned up in the suburbs, sweeping in Delaware County — a county with a 30,000 [Republican] plurality and under [Republican] control since the Civil War, an area filled with college-educated, upper/middle income, primarily white voters that were once the bedrock of the Republican Party.”
That’s the broad message from Tuesday’s results, just as it was the broad message from the 2018 midterm election. It’s certainly possible that Trump can win reelection in 2020, but he will have to do it over the opposition of many suburban voters.