How Republicans can win the suburbs


There was a time when Republicans dominated the politics of upper-income suburbs, but that time has passed. Voters who saw the Democratic Party prior to the 1970s as the party of working and ethnic Americans — which, in coalition with Black voters, gave the party of FDR and JFK a tremendous political advantage over the GOP — have faded. 

As the sons and daughters of Italian, Irish and other European immigrants shifted parties in the wake of a cultural revolution that drove them into the hands of the Republicans, a revolution continued into the new century as more of the core constituencies on which older Democrats had been able to rely left because, as former Democrat Ronald Reagan once observed, the Democratic Party had left them.

Today’s Democrats are more and more dependent on new culturally and politically liberal voters attracted to their party by the same policies that drove their middle- and working-class neighbors into the hands of the GOP. They are now increasingly dependent on Wall Street money and liberal college-educated elites working not with their hands, but in newer high-tech industries for both money and votes and living in the affluent suburbs once dominated by Republicans.

In a sense, the parties have traded constituencies. Republicans now have more appeal to voters whose parents were more comfortable with Roosevelt and Kennedy, while Democrats seem far more attractive to well-educated graduates of elite colleges toiling away in Wall Street hedge funds, California’s Silicon Valley or in the government itself.

Montgomery County, Maryland, could be the poster child for this change. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the county, and he did it in 1984 when everybody, everywhere was voting for the Gipper. He lost it to Jimmy Carter in 1980, and in 2020 Joe Biden managed to garner more than 78% of the vote against Donald Trump after Barack Obama won 71% and 74% of the county’s votes in the two previous presidential elections.

Numbers like these can be dispiriting to party leaders who can feel the world changing under their feet and while gaining new constituents as Republicans are doing elsewhere isn’t much comfort in a county like Montgomery with fewer working-class families than millionaires and folks with postgraduate degrees. To win, they must both contend with the fact that many county voters may no longer be as readily receptive to a generic GOP message retaining party loyalists to put in the long hours required to win elections in such an environment.

Fortunately, while presidential, Senate and other federal races may turn on national issues, state, county and local races are often more about local issues and managerial competence. Voters are smarter than many politicians think. They know that senators and congressmen don’t do much these days but talk, that governors, mayors and county executives are about services and running governments that affect their lives directly every day.

If they see a candidate as more in sync with them on broader issues it helps, but it is often more important that they are persuaded that the candidate can do the job he or she seeks. If they can, many voters will disregard their views on extraterrestrials or election fraud as interesting and eccentric but not particularly relevant. Add to this the atmosphere this year and Republicans in the Montgomery Counties of the nation sense an opportunity to break through by attracting not just new voters, but those increasingly frustrated on local issues like education and government mismanagement.

Sensing that county voters may have had enough of business as usual as reflected in the 70% vote they cast in favor of term limits in a recent referendum, Montgomery County Republicans are fielding more candidates and volunteers than in any recent election cycle. Their slate is headed by a Black county native, Reardon Sullivan, who is an articulate businessman who may actually have a shot at unseating the machine-backed incumbent. Mr. Sullivan is a fresh new candidate who doesn’t harp on ideological issues that take a back seat to the real issues and frustrations of citizens who have had enough and are looking for a new way; issues like public safety, education, the local economy, transportation and putting together a fiscally responsible county government responsive to its citizens.

It’s a campaign that might work. After all, in the last cycle in New Jersey, similar frustrations allowed a truck driver who spent a mere $168 to beat a powerful machine-backed incumbent.

And if it works in Montgomery County, it could work elsewhere.

• David Keene is editor-at-large at The Washington Times.

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