Governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans did surprisingly well, have reminded us of a basic, immutable political fact. Elections are decided by moderate, independent or soft Republican, suburban voters. Doubling or tripling down on just turning out committed base voters is a losing strategy for both parties.
It’s important to know what suburbs we are talking about. Alexandria, Virginia; and Bellevue, Washington are both technically suburban communities, but they are highly urban and ethnically diverse, and they vote much like the liberal big cities they are adjoin. The battleground suburbs are in the second and third rings of growth. Bonney Lake and Mercer Island are both suburbs, but they are politically and demographically very, very different.
So, what do these swing voters want? How do you win in the suburbs? On this I can speak with some authority. My wife and I are both college educated, 55+, moderate independents who live in an outer ring suburban community, Sumner. I have spent the bulk of my adult life representing the suburbs in the Legislature, and then on the King County Council, and trying to win suburban elections as the chair of the Washington State Republican Party.
So, I think I have a good idea of what moderate suburbanites want. We want stuff. We want good schools and parks for our kids and grandkids. We can’t afford to live close to where we work, so we want good roads and public transportation. We want our neighborhoods to be safe from crime. We want to know that Social Security, Medicare, and other safety net programs will be there when we need them.
At the same time – this drives Democrats crazy — most of us live paycheck to paycheck and have had to stretch to afford the mortgage on our house, so we do not want our taxes raised. And when you say you just want to tax “the rich,” we don’t believe you. Besides, we all want to be rich someday.
We don’t like loud people with radical ideas. We don’t like Republicans who want to get into our personal lives or cut services we want. We don’t trust the idea of privatizing Social Security, and we don’t want the government to let big companies pollute the air and water. We think climate change is very real. And we don’t like Donald Trump, or anyone who supports Donald Trump.
At the same time, saying you are a socialist and you want to defund the police and teach critical race theory to our kids and grandkids, makes us very uncomfortable, even if we aren’t really sure how these terms translate into actual public policy.
In short, whichever party does a better job restraining their more extreme elements will win our vote, at least for that specific election. Suburban moderates swing back and forth based on what they are seeing and hearing. These swings lead to wave elections and make it impossible for either party to win a solid, long term governing majority.
Given the results in 2020, when Biden was elected but Republicans gained seats in Congress and in state legislatures, and the new results in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans not named Trump (or too cozy with him) are winning this suburban battle heading into the 2022 midterms. What does this mean for Washington state?
Overall, not much, because Republicans already hold the vast majority of outer ring suburban districts. This GOP tide will likely help Republicans flip a few legislative seats but will not threaten the Democratic majorities in either house, or the reelection of Sen. Patty Murray. Politically, Washington is much closer to California or New York than to a state like Virginia. There simply are not enough rural or outer ring suburban voters here to compensate for the lead Democrats pile up in urban King County.
One Democrat, however, who should be worried – depending on how redistricting works out – is Congresswoman Kim Schrier. Her 8th district is made up of predominantly outer ring suburbs, plus a chunk of Eastern Washington. That race is likely to be very hot next year.
If either party could stick to the centrist messages that attract suburban moderates they would become America’s governing majority. The problem is, neither party can do that because their base voters and activists on the right and left won’t permit it for very long. America is stuck in a doom loop of legislative gridlock and acrimonious division as suburban moderates swing back and forth between the two warring parties, neither of whom they really like or trust.
The way out of this mess, of course, is to create a new third party focused on winning in the suburbs. Such a party would attract moderates, break up the two party duopoly, and force American politics towards the reasonable center.
Of course, such a thing isn’t possible. Right?