Wins for Democrats in Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Indiana show that the coalition that put President Trump in the White House is hemorrhaging voters, threatening his reelection prospects in 2020.
Trump won election three years ago with support from a potent combination of rural, blue-collar voters and suburbanites. But in key state and local elections on Tuesday, suburban voters rejected Republicans, turning once-GOP strongholds blue.
“The battle for the suburbs is still up in the air,” said Brad Todd, a Republican consultant whose client, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, won a competitive race for governor.
In 2016, Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the suburbs 49% to 45%, while capturing 61% of the rural vote, according to the media-conducted exit polls. In midterm elections last year, the Republicans’ suburban advantage eroded substantially. The Democrats improved their vote share in the suburbs to 49%, equaling the Republicans’ performance on their way toward flipping dozens of House districts that had been controlled by the GOP for years.
No exit polling of Tuesday’s contests was conducted, but Republicans absorbed yet more mortal blows in the suburbs. Democratic challengers retired Republicans in county elections in the Indianapolis and Philadelphia suburbs. The party also flipped state legislative seats in suburban Virginia, turning the commonwealth’s legislature blue and solidifying full Democratic control of the state house for the first time in 20 years. Suburban defections denied Republican Gov. Matt Bevin a victory.
Trump, whose 2020 strategy focuses on juicing Republican turnout, appears comfortable with this development. But GOP insiders, pointing to the president’s winning 2016 coalition, argue he is going to have to reach beyond his loyal base, increasing his share with swing voters and disaffected Republicans that predominate in the suburbs to win reelection. “We’ve got to come with an argument to win people back,” said John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican.
In parsing Tuesday’s results, Republicans found a few items to smile about.
Bevin’s loss in Kentucky was squarely related to his unpopularity. The Republican ticket of statewide candidates that ran down-ballot of him was successful. The party won a race for state attorney general for the first time since the 1940s. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is just as likely to win reelection in 2020 as he was before Bevin lost, with Trump’s popularity in the commonwealth as high as ever. Meanwhile, Virginia has been trending blue for more than a decade.
The Republican Party’s strength in rural communities and with voters in the exurbs remains robust. Republican strategists say that that dynamic could offer Trump a path to reelection despite dangerously diminished support from upscale, college-educated suburban voters, especially in an election with Trump on the ballot and a Democratic presidential nominee that he can portray as a socialist bogeyman.
“Trump is running against no one, and when you run against no one, no one usually wins — especially against Trump,” said Jeff Burton, a GOP strategist. “For now, the election is about him. The president is going to make it about the Democrats.”
The suburban voters that handed Democrats victories in Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Kentucky governor’s race are similar to voters in suburban battlegrounds in crucial swing states that will decide the presidential election next year. And, Democrats argue, their candidates won running specifically against Trump and the Republican legislative agenda in Washington.
That has Democrats optimistic about their prospects.
“Suburban voters are continuing to reject Donald Trump,” said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “This is a five-alarm fire for the GOP.”
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