Suburban Realignment and Other Thoughts About Tuesday’s Election

Statewide and local elections held in odd-numbered years are generally not predictive of the big national elections held the year following, but they can offer meaningful insights about the electorate. Tuesday’s off-year contest provided Republicans with glaring warning signs about their 2020 prospects, although it’s unclear they will be able to do anything to address them.

Going into Tuesday, I was interested in seeing if the circumstances which defined the last two cycles were still operative. In 2017 and 2018, waves of electoral energy fueled turnout surges across the political spectrum, as voters — driven by anger toward partisans on the other side of the aisle — flooded to the polls. Democrats were the beneficiaries of these negative partisanship elections in diverse jurisdictions, Republicans were the beneficiaries in largely rural constituencies. This dynamic repeated itself on Tuesday, making it the third straight cycle since Trump was elected to see elevated turnout that benefitted Democrats in places with significant urban and suburban voters.

Here are my takeaways from what happened last Tuesday: 

  • The suburbs are realigning. In Kentucky, Republican incumbent Governor Matt Bevin was narrowly defeated by Democrat Andy Beshear in one of the reddest states in the country. Beshear’s margin of victory came from two suburban counties in northern Kentucky across the Ohio river from Cincinnati. In Virginia, Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature, completing a dramatic rise that began with surprisingly strong showings in the 2017 election. Again, suburban voters made the difference. Democrats won the state senate with victories in suburban Richmond and exurban Loudoun County outside Washington, DC. In suburban Fairfax County, once a Republican bastion, Democrats won up and down the ballot. The same happened outside Philadelphia, where for the first time ever Democrats will run all four suburban counties. In my home county of Chester, this marks the first time Democrats will be in charge since — well, truthfully, no one can remember when Democrats were in charge because you would have to go back to before the Civil War. Not long ago, if you wanted to have a say in local governance you had to register as a Republican here no matter your political beliefs because all the action took place in the Republican primary. Now, the map of county government in southeastern Pennsylvania is a sea of blue extending from Philadelphia west through Chester and Montgomery counties and north through Lehigh and Northampton counties in the neighboring Lehigh Valley. If Democrats repeat this performance next year it is impossible to see how Donald Trump wins Pennsylvania. Trump is killing the Republican Party in the suburbs. This is not a sustainable business strategy. 
  • People are engaged at ridiculous levels. The key word defining our politics is intensity. Democrats are motivated and Republicans are motivated. Independent voters are motivated. This translates into off-the-charts turnout rates in jurisdictions with competitive elections the likes of which no one can remember. Off-year elections are usually sleepy affairs, without big name contests at the top of the ballot to drive turnout. But in Virginia and Kentucky, turnout reached near-record levels for an off-off-year contest. The Trump era continues to engage and enrage voters on both sides of the political divide, with the shadow of Trump hanging over the balloting even in local races. You can probably imagine what turnout will look like next year.
  • Political campaigns are being nationalized. Matt Bevin did everything possible to nationalize his re-election bid, bringing Trump into Kentucky for an election-eve rally and using impeachment to rally the troops. To a large extent, it worked. Bevin ended up performing about fifteen points above his job approval ratings, a testament to the strength of negative partisanship in driving turnout and determining how people vote. Had Bevin mustered an additional five-thousand votes, Trump would be taking credit for a tremendous win and the national press would be talking about impeachment as a magic bullet for Republicans in red states. Instead, the Kentucky results require more subtle conclusions. Politics is still tribal. Impeachment is a formidable rallying cry for the base. And Kentucky Republicans won everything down ballot. But Trump’s pull is not unlimited. Bevin was arguably the most disliked governor in the country, and in the end he couldn’t overcome that. 
  • At the same time, local issues win elections. Despite the nationalized environment, and despite the Trump effect in the suburbs, local undercurrents remained important. Democrats ran on gun control measures in Virginia, and on health care and education in Kentucky. Those messages resonated. There is a silly line of Beltway wisdom that warns Democrats about the dangers of impeachment overwhelming the local issues that served them well in last year’s midterms, but Tuesday’s election demonstrated that the two are not mutually exclusive. Democrats can and did run successfully on local issues in a political environment defined by national currents. It is the formula I expect them to follow again next year, regardless of the outcome of the impeachment process. The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said all politics is local. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, all politics is local and national at the same time.