Why ‘all eyes’ will be on the Virginia suburbs this fall

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Reassured by the results of California’s gubernatorial recall election last week, Democrats now face tougher electoral tests this fall that will measure whether they can defend their most important political advance of the Donald Trump era.

Big gains in well-educated inner suburbs ringing the nation’s major cities keyed all the Democratic victories throughout the Trump years, from their recapture of the House of Representatives in 2018 to President Joe Biden’s win in 2020. Now Democrats face the challenge of preserving those advances without Trump directly on the ballot.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decisive victory in the California recall election offered a positive sign, with partial results showing him matching or even exceeding his 2018 performance in the biggest suburban counties — and significantly improving over his already strong 2018 showing with college-educated White voters, according to exit polls. But preserving the party’s Trump-era gains with suburban voters may be tougher in the upcoming Virginia race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Polls consistently show Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy political newcomer, staying surprisingly close to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, in a state that has trended steadily blue over the past decade. McAuliffe’s best hope of repelling Youngkin’s challenge is to maintain the advantage Democrats have established in the state’s booming suburbs, particularly those in Northern Virginia near Washington and others around Richmond.

Whether McAuliffe can protect that ground will likely not only determine the Virginia governor’s contest but also offer a key gauge of attitudes across the broader suburban battlefield looming in the 2022 midterms.

“If you took the results of what happened in Virginia in 2017 and spread it across the country, that was 2018,” says Democratic consultant Bradley Komar, who served as Northam’s campaign manager in 2017. “So all eyes will be on Virginia to see if we are holding our gains in the suburbs. Are we motivating our voters without Trump in the White House?”

The 2016 presidential race produced a widening geographic divide, with Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Democrats improving in big urban centers and their inner suburbs and Republicans from Trump on down solidifying their control of small-town, exurban and rural communities. The 2017 Virginia governor’s race provided the first confirmation that this divergence would continue — and even intensify — with Trump in office.

In that race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie generated big margins and passionate turnout from the state’s preponderantly White and culturally conservative smaller communities. But he was overwhelmed by a decisive move toward Northam in the state’s affluent, well-educated and racially diversifying suburban communities (along with solid African American turnout in cities such as Richmond and Norfolk).

Northam notably improved in the historically Republican-leaning suburbs of Richmond. But the big shift came in the growing Northern Virginia suburbs. Northam won the big five suburban counties outside Washington by a stunning 263,000 votes. That was about double the margin McAuliffe had squeezed from those same counties while winning the governorship in 2013 and a bigger net advantage than Barack Obama managed even with a presidential-year turnout in 2012. That suburban tsunami was enough to propel Northam to a commanding 9-percentage-point win overall in a state that previously had been considered a battleground between the parties.

Virginia set the pace in 2017

The 2017 Virginia model, largely mirrored that year in Democrat Phil Murphy’s win in the New Jersey governor’s race, set the mold for elections in the Trump years. In 2018, Democrats recaptured the majority in the House of Representatives by routing Republicans in more affluent and better-educated districts, literally from coast to coast. Before the election, as I’ve written, Democrats held 57% of the 182 seats with more college graduates than the national average; after the election, they held almost three-fourths of those seats.

The suburban wave largely rolled on through 2020. Big, sometimes enormous, gains in affluent, diverse inner suburbs were key to Biden’s victory in almost every closely contested state. Compared with Clinton in 2016, he swelled the margins by 100,000 votes in the four suburban counties outside Philadelphia, by 175,000 votes in Denver and its suburbs, and by 200,000 votes in Atlanta and its giant suburban neighbors. Biden comfortably carried Virginia by winning the big five suburban communities outside Washington by more than 500,000 votes, about 115,000 more than Clinton and more than double Obama’s advantage there just eight years earlier.

On the other side of this divide, Republicans through the Trump years benefited from expanding margins and explosive turnout among rural and small-town voters. Even in the 2018 Democratic sweep, that allowed Republicans to oust Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, three states with large White rural populations. Likewise, Trump’s rural strength allowed him to hold states such as North Carolina and even Texas despite big Biden gains in their metropolitan centers. Democrats in 2020 also faced the limits of their suburban gains, losing some of the 2018 seats they had won in more conservative suburban areas (like Charleston, South Carolina, and Orange County, California) and failing almost completely to capture any of the further House seats they targeted in more traditionally Republican suburbs around Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Indianapolis.

Even with these caveats, the parties emerged from the Trump presidency confronting a widening trench between rising Democratic strength inside the nation’s major metro areas and consolidating Republican dominance beyond them. A key question for political professionals is whether those exaggerated patterns persist beyond Trump or, on both sides of the trench, revert somewhat toward the mean with him no longer at center stage.Last week’s results in the California gubernatorial recall pointed mostly toward persistence. In partial vote counts as of this weekend, more than three-fourths of voters opposed the recall in San Francisco and its big surrounding counties of Marin, Alameda and Santa Clara (the home of Silicon Valley); in each case those results matched or even exceeded the margins for Newsom in his 2018 win and Biden in 2020.In Southern California, as of the latest count, Newsom dominated the affluent Westside of Los Angeles, won a solid three-fifths of the vote in San Diego County and even narrowly carried Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, suburban behemoths that Republicans once usually won. (Even if the final counts tilt any of those counties narrowly toward the yes position, Newsom at worst neutralized what was once a GOP strength.)The “no” vote amassed big margins in the more sparsely populated inland counties that have become the California GOP’s last redoubt, but until the final ballots are counted (a process that will take weeks), it won’t be entirely clear whether those places kept pace with the robust turnout in the blue-leaning population centers. While cautioning that the final numbers could point toward a different conclusion, Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, says, “I think we got asymmetric turnout.”