Inside the Capitol, more than 40 House Republicans have rebooted the Suburban Caucus, a group that is focusing on building out policy proposals that resonate with higher-income, college-educated voters who have broken sharply from the GOP in the Trump era.
That the caucus went dormant for almost a decade is the perfect metaphor for Republican struggles in localities outside Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix and Denver.
Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who narrowly survived a tough race in the St. Louis suburbs, woke up the morning after the 2018 midterm elections with a sense of fear and fury. “We’ve lost the majority, and I’m looking at so many of my friends that lost seats in majority-suburban districts,” Wagner said, recognizing that Democrats won a huge chunk of their 40-seat gain by defeating her GOP allies.
“We cannot be the majority party if we are going to be a party that appeals only to rural America,” she said. Within a few months, she relaunched the GOP’s Suburban Caucus.
On Monday, Wagner and other members of her caucus will be onstage at a summit arranged by N2 America, a new nonprofit started by a trio of female Republican strategists who are trying to work on both policy proposals and communications strategy for rehabilitating the GOP brand in the suburbs.
One key factor, according to the lawmakers and strategists, is that Republicans are hemorrhaging suburban votes because of Trump’s tone, which has been adopted by a growing number of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers in the Capitol. These suburban voters are often tuning out good economic news in their region because the political news is dominated by put-downs and counterpunches.
“Suburban voters are discerning and sophisticated. We’ve just got to get the personalities out of it and focus on policy,” said Liesl Hickey, a former executive director for the National Republican Congressional Committee who served as chief of staff to former congressman Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who founded the Suburban Caucus 15 years ago.
The group’s board is a collection of top strategists for the past 15 years from the Bush administration, the Republican Governors Association, congressional leadership and unsuccessful presidential candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
The degree of difficulty keeps getting more pronounced with each election held in one of these former bastions of Rockefeller Republicans. Twelve years ago, in the Democratic presidential primary, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s epic clash drove up record turnout in many places, including propelling 1 million voters to Virginia’s primary.
On Tuesday, in a race that previously seemed to lack energy among the top Democrats, more than 1.3 million voters turned out, delivering a blowout victory for former vice president Joe Biden.
The Virginia suburbs told the story. In Fairfax County, Democratic turnout jumped from about 161,000 voters in 2008 to roughly 245,000 in 2020. Neighboring Loudon County, once more of a conservative exurb, saw an even sharper tilt, with its Democratic turnout more than doubling from 35,000 voters 12 years ago to almost 72,000 on Tuesday.
That followed a pair of devastating elections for Republicans at the state and local level in 2017 and 2019, turning Virginia from the quintessential swing state into a commonwealth with Democrats holding every statewide office and majorities in the state legislature as well as a majority in its congressional delegation.
Republicans who have survived these suburban waves are trying to preach a new religion to a party that has drifted further to the right. “I worked my butt off,” said state Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R), who won reelection by less than 1,400 votes in her suburban Richmond district last fall.
Dunnavant, who will be on hand at Monday’s suburban summit, said every Republican in these regions needs to work on “practical things” that relate to these neighborhoods and communities in ways that cut through the permanent echo chamber of national news. In her first term, she worked on laws to make it easier for community college credits to transfer to four-year colleges, workforce training and battling the opioid epidemic.
She found a “voter fatigue” throughout her suburban district in the national news of Trump clashing with congressional Democrats. So, Dunnavant said, “I brought the conversation back to what I was doing.”
Suburban Republicans will try to make the self-described democratic socialist policies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) part of their 2020 strategy, even if Biden continues his surge to the Democratic nomination, arguing the race will pull the former vice president in Sanders’s direction.
“These socialist policies that Bernie Sanders and others have gotten on board with do not resonate in a suburban district like mine,” Wagner said.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), whose district does a 270-degree turn around Houston, won with less than 53 percent in 2018 but said he appeals to suburban voters with pitches that find middle ground, particularly on climate change.
“They want to care about the environment but they want to do it in a smart way,” Crenshaw said. “They want solutions that are based on science and engineering, not fantasy,” Crenshaw said.
Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), who helped relaunch the Suburban Caucus with Wagner, said he is focusing on legislation designed to improve “financial literacy” for parents and students taking out loans for higher education, as well as tax incentives for employers to pay off those loans when they hire college graduates.
Wagner said her caucus was working on a next round of policy proposals that would serve as “niche issues” that, assuming the Democratic majority does not take them up in the House, GOP candidates could use as a menu of options in the fall elections.
“It’s kind of like our ‘Contract with Suburbia,’ ” she said, a play on the GOP’s “Contract with America” that propelled Republicans to the House majority in 1994.
If they can find these issues that resonate in the suburbs, Republicans argue that they can overcome the Trump bombast at the top of the ticket in down-ballot races, avoiding the din of the 2018 election when presidential behavior, not the growing economy, seemed to overwhelm the suburbs.
“Certainly his tone and style were issues,” Hill said. “As we go into 2020, I think we need to talk about the results of the Trump administration.”