Suburbs pose challenge for GOP in post-Trump era
Republicans are facing an uphill battle in their quest to rebuild support in the suburbs ahead of 2022 after devastating losses in the Senate and White House this past election cycle.
Despite aggressively targeting suburban voters in the Georgia runoffs, former Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R) both suffered surprise defeats after former President Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose the state since 1992.
The post-mortem on Georgia was only starting when, on Jan. 6, a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol during the Electoral College certification, dealing a potential blow to the party’s law-and-order messaging.
“No, it’s not a good time,” said Chuck Clay, a Georgia Republican strategist and attorney at Hall Booth Smith. “A lot of soul searching is going to have to go on.”
The nation’s suburbs, particularly in Georgia, have been slowly trending blue for years. In the lead-up to the 2020 general election, Democrats and Republicans alike looked to shore up support among suburban voters in key battleground states, especially amid growing unrest over the summer sparked by incidents of police violence against Black men and women.
Republicans, including Trump, sought to paint Democrats as lawless rioters in the hopes of appealing to suburban voters in states like Wisconsin, where the city of Kenosha became a center of unrest.
But Democrats’ stunning victories in Georgia underscored the challenges Republicans face in regaining a foothold in suburban areas in the post-Trump era.
“Suburbs, my friends, the suburbs. I feel like a one trick pony but here we are again. We went from talking about jobs and the economy to Qanon election conspiracies in 4 short years and – as it turns out- they were listening!” Josh Holmes, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tweeted as the results for the Georgia runoffs came in earlier this month.
The suburbs played a key role in the Democratic wins in the Peach State. Biden won 55 percent of the state’s suburban vote, while Trump trailed at 43 percent.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates won 54 percent of Georgia’s suburban vote in the Senate runoffs, while Republicans garnered 46 percent, according to The Associated Press’s VoteCast.
Democrats benefited greatly from the fact that the state’s suburbs are growing — and becoming increasingly diverse in the process. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the white population in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County was 90 percent in 1990; by 2017, it was only 39 percent. The newspaper cited one projection showing that the white population in the county is expected to drop to 29 percent in another 10 years.
GOP strategists say the party needs to cast a wider net for voters, many of whom were turned off by Trump’s rhetoric.
“[Republican] men and women of conscience need to step forward, men and women who care about the GOP, men and women who want to build a majority party and realize in pure pragmatic terms that you don’t win very often when you’re peeling people off instead of bringing them in,” Clay said.
Loeffler, once seen as a moderate, was thought to be an antidote to Republican issues in the suburbs. She became one of Trump’s fiercest allies in the Senate, later backing Trump in challenging the Electoral College results of the 2020 election until the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill.
Republicans say the party needs to turn its focus back to promoting its traditionally conservative principles, like fiscal responsibility, in an effort to win back their suburban base.
“Republicans are going to have to take a deep breath and get back to the issues that they know are important,” one GOP strategist told The Hill. “The party needs to find itself more fiscally responsible. The party again needs to focus on issues that impact each of us who have families and those issues that are important to us, they’re bread and butter issues.”
Democrats, who will defend narrow majorities in the House and Senate, face their own challenges heading into the 2022 midterms. The sitting president’s party has lost seats in the House every midterm for the last 50 years, with only two exceptions. The most recent exception was the 2002 midterm elections, in which the Republican Party under George W. Bush gained seats in the House in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
It’s unclear if the riot at the Capitol will have the same benefit for Democrats in 2022. Republicans argue that voters’ memories are short and that there will be a new slate of issues that preoccupy them in two years.
“Because of the cyclical nature of politics, I would argue right now the Republicans are favored to retake the House,” said another Republican strategist. “But much of the work in terms of getting back these suburban voters is going to be done for us by the Biden administration. Because as soon as they hit us with a heavy dose of identity politics to the point of exhaustion, they raise taxes, we hit a recession, guess what? That’s going to be the path forward.”
Meanwhile, Republicans say their problems extend beyond the suburbs.
“It was also a turnout problem for Republicans, meaning they didn’t do a good enough job of getting their own base out. If they had, frankly the challenges they faced in the suburbs wouldn’t have gone away, but they would have been overcome by a robust base turnout,” the same Republican strategist said of Georgia.
“Our own internal issues helped seal the fate of our two Senate candidates more than I think the suburbs did, frankly.”
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