Republicans win but face erosion in suburbia

The Briefing, Vol. VII, Issue 35

Sept. 16, 2019

This week:

  • Republicans win big special election
  • High stakes in 2020 up and down the ballot
  • Biden losing his grip?

House 2019-2020

Republicans breathed a sigh of relief this week after Republican Dan Bishop, propelled by a late visit from President Trump, held on to a Republican House district in southern North Carolina by two points. What’s more, Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready by a much wider margin than the 905-vote margin by which Republican Mark Harris had defeated McCready in the since-overturned 2018 race.

Still, the results contain some warning signs for the GOP. Republicans need to take seriously their eroding position in suburban America, which proved their undoing in 2018 House races. If they can’t improve over that showing in 2020, then there could be severe consequences, for House candidates, Senate candidates, and President Trump himself.

Remember that, at the bottom of the ballot, the 2020 election (along with the 2019 elections in Virginia) will have much more important consequences than the 2018 races did. This is a decennial election, meaning that it will determine who controls redistricting after the new Census reapportionment occurs.

If Republicans fail to hold or claw back control of a few key state legislatures, it will significantly diminish their control over redistricting and their chances of eventually regaining lost ground in the U.S. House. 

And of course, there’s also a more direct effect. Democrats expanded their territory, and whatever U.S. House seats Republicans fail to regain next year, they will need to win from an even more entrenched incumbent. Add into this equation consideration of whether Trump is re-elected. If he is, then history strongly suggests Republicans will lose a lot of ground in Congress in 2022, just as Barack Obama did in 2014 and George W. Bush did in 2006. 

On the other hand, if Trump is not re-elected, Republicans will want to have as many House seats as possible, so as to limit Democrats’ ability to make radical left-wing changes that are difficult to undo, and also so as to give themselves maximum chances of retaking the House in the first midterm of a Democratic presidency..

North Carolina-9: So, what happened in the Bishop-McCready race? The results in each area tell an important tale. In suburban Mecklenburg County — in the eastern suburbs of fast-growing Charlotte — Bishop lost by 13 points. In fact, even though Bishop represents this area, McCready outperformed his own 2018 showing in this part of the district against a different opponent. 

In neighboring exurban Union County, Bishop won, but again by a smaller margin than Harris had won in 2018. 

So then, if he lost ground in those two key counties, how is it that Bishop outperformed Harris? It was because he cut into support for the Democrat in the district’s eastern rural areas. In fact, Bishop did better than Harris in all seven of the smaller counties in the district. Once again, the late visit by Trump seems to have had an effect, but remember that this is a Republican-leaning seat. The fact that Democrats nearly took it in 2018 helps illustrate the extent to which the tide shifted against Republicans in the midterm.  

The Trump effect: As in 2016, then, Trump appears to have accomplished what no one expected he could — he won over traditional Democratic voters from small towns and rural areas, whom many wrongly believed had already become Republicans to the maximum extent possible. In this House race, Trump may have played a role in transferring such voters’ support down-ballot to other Republicans. 

This is actually a lot rarer than you’d think. Trump has failed to move the needle in some races previously (think back to Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania), and Barack Obama was utterly incapable of transferring his own popularity to Democratic candidates in by-elections and midterms — even in governor’s races in heavily Democratic states such as Maine, New Jersey and Maryland.

In 2020, Trump will be campaigning on his own behalf, and it’s possible that he will be able to help candidates down-ballot in some places. Also, it’s worth noting that in 2016, some Republican candidates (such as Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.) managed to carve out completely separate majorities from Trump in their respective states, even as they and the president won alongside one another. Trump won bigger rural majorities, whereas the other Republicans performed far better in the suburbs. Fears that Trump would sink down-ballot candidates in the suburbs were just wrong. 

In the age of Trump, however, the Republican Party has changed, and the worry is that its appeal in the suburbs, where the GOP once dominated, is disappearing. The benefit of the Trump era has been a platform more supportive of working-class concerns over the previous focus on the middle class — professionals and business owners. But this, like all coalition shifts, comes with political trade-offs. 


Democrats: Not all polls are showing the same thing — and in fact, most national polls are not showing the shift just yet. But Joe Biden, the early frontrunner, may be on his way to losing his early grip on the Democratic nomination process. That is probably good news for President Trump, although it is hard to say at this early date. 

The long view is that Trump is an underdog against any Democrat, but that the polling, demonstrably broken in 2016, still has not been adjusted to account for his unexpected levels of support in important states.  

Is Biden finished? No, but it isn’t hard to perceive his precarious position as a centrist frontrunner in a leftist party. He did not do horribly in last week’s debate, but all signs are pointing to his gradual decline. His lead, where he has a lead, has fallen mostly to single digits in polls released during the first half of September. Elizabeth Warren is starting to catch him in various state and national polls. Bernie Sanders also fares well in some places (such as New Hampshire), but Warren looks like the stronger alternative in the long run, all other things being equal. She is already showing potential to be the left-wing candidate who can unite the Sanders wing of the party but without Sanders’ baggage as a disloyal Democrat (really a non-Democrat) and a supposed spoiler who cost Clinton the 2016 election. (It’s an absurd charge, of course, but many Democrats believe this.) 

It’s still very early, obviously. But a Warren-Biden race would force a resolution to the war for the Democratic Party’s soul. It would pit wealthy, leftist urban white Democrats against more centrist black Democrats, especially in South Carolina. This will be an especially interesting dynamic in an era of left-wing identitarian politics. Warren is also the only Democrat who has trailed President Trump in any recent poll, and so be prepared for a possible repeat of 2016.