Seeing Red in the Suburbs

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Republicans made striking gains in yesterday’s elections by winning independent voters by about three to two in Virginia and New Jersey. The impact can be seen in looking at the suburban vote in both those states, which tilted towards Barack Obama last year.

Loudoun County, Virginia is a fast-growing commuter suburb of Washington that includes the historically preserved town of Leesburg. In 2008, Barack Obama won the county by 54% to 45%. This year, anxiety about the growth of government and high taxes led to a dramatic shift in favor of GOP candidate Bob McDonnell. He won 61% in the county over Democrat Creigh Deeds, a shift of 17 points towards the GOP.


Republicans also won Fairfax County for the first time in a dozen years in a gubernatorial race and took three state legislative seats from Democrats in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Similar shifts occurred in New Jersey. Middlesex County includes office park-filled New Brunswick, home of Rutgers University. In 2008, Barack Obama walked all over John McCain there and won by 22 points. This year, Republican Chris Christie defeated Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, by three points, a shift of 25 points in favor of the GOP.

“What we’re seeing is the suburbs that drifted away from Republicans in the 1990s over social issues, and were even further estranged by the economic strains of the last few years, are coming back to them,” notes Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, who says the results should give the White House pause. “You combine that with the crushing victory of Republicans in the coal-producing rural counties of Virginia, and I would be very nervous if I were a Blue Dog Democratic member of Congress,” he tells me.

The pattern of GOP gains in the suburbs was repeated in other states. Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican judge from Pittsburgh, won control of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for Republicans by winning key Philadelphia suburbs that have trended Democratic for the past two decades. She won every suburban county around Philadelphia except for Montgomery, which she lost to Democrat Jack Panella by a few hundred votes.

“It’s clear to me she won because of the wins in the Philadelphia suburbs, and that’s something other Republican statewide candidates have not been able to do in recent years,” G. Terry Madonna, professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In New York, Republicans were disappointed in losing the wild and widely-watched special House election in the rural North Country near Canada. But in the suburbs around New York City, they made surprising gains. Four years ago, Republican Rob Astorino won only 42% of the vote in his challenge to Democratic County Executive Andrew Spano in tony Westchester County, which includes Scarsdale and White Plains. This year the results were exactly reversed as Mr. Astorino ousted Mr. Spano by a 16-point margin. In Nassau County, on Long Island, Republicans won back control of the county legislature and the race for county executive will head to a recount.

Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Republicans gained control of the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, picked up two freeholder seats in Bergen County and won three more Freeholder seats in Passaic County.

Even where Democrats won suburban contests, their margins were down. In 2008, Barack Obama won 65% of the vote in California’s 10th Congressional District, clustered around the Bay Area communities of Walnut Creek and Concord. This year, in a special House election, Democratic Lt. Governor John Garamendi prevailed but with only 53% of the vote, despite having 80% name ID when the race started, a huge bank account and a virtually unknown Republican opponent.

Republicans lost their Congressional majority in 2006 when they alienated suburban voters. In the next year, Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to avoid suffering the same fate.

‘John Fund is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’