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Amid Changing Political Landscape, Suburbs No Longer Belong To GOP


For a long time, the U.S. suburbs reliably voted Republican, but the suburbs have changed, and last November, Donald Trump lost them in a big way. Now, with the 2020 midterms in view, both parties are wondering what's going to happen when Trump is not on the ballot. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports on the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's drop in on Chester County, Pa. It's suburban Philadelphia but a place with its own identity.

MARIAN MOSKOWITZ: We have a huge agricultural community. We are the mushroom capital of the world. You could come here for a mushroom festival on New Year's Eve. It's quite fun.

GONYEA: Democrat Marian Moskowitz is chair of the Chester County Board of Commissioners.

MOSKOWITZ: And we have a lot of industry. We are very big in the biopharma, life sciences community. We have new technology coming in, so a lot of great things happening here.

GONYEA: Right next door is Montgomery County, where Liz Preate Havey chairs the local Republican Party. She says she's watched these suburbs flip from red to blue, some only in the past few years. But she says the shift began long before that.

LIZ PREATE HAVEY: If you look at the trends, this has been happening for many, many years. I think it accelerated over the last couple of years. But when I moved into Montgomery County 21 years ago, it was already starting to change.

GONYEA: In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the suburbs but not by enough of a margin to make up for Trump's strength in the state's rural areas. She lost Pennsylvania, but Joe Biden racked up huge margins in the Philly suburbs. It was key to his statewide victory. The suburbs are far more diverse than they were decades ago, and many suburban voters had an intense dislike of Donald Trump. Republican Preate Havey is hoping some of those more moderate voters come back to the GOP.

PREATE HAVEY: Now that they don't have Trump, who people voted against because they didn't like him as a person, he's gone now. And so people are actually looking at issues now and things that affect them on a day-to-day basis.

GONYEA: The changing politics in the suburbs also reflects a larger realignment of the two major political parties. Sarah Longwell is a longtime GOP strategist and a prominent Trump critic. She describes that shift as a trade.

SARAH LONGWELL: Republicans are trading what have historically been some of their key voters, which are college-educated voters in the suburbs. And they're trading them for white working-class voters in more rural and exurban areas without college degrees. And Democrats are picking up in that trade college-educated suburban voters, especially women.

GONYEA: Still, it's hard to say if this is a long-term realignment. University of Michigan Professor Matt Lassiter studies the suburbs. He cautions that easy political labels don't always fit suburban voters.

MATT LASSITER: I personally believe that their main political identities are not as Democrats but are parent, taxpayer, homeowner.

GONYEA: And while every election has its dominant national issues, Lassiter says there's an overlay in the suburbs that shouldn't be ignored.

LASSITER: And the way they think about politics broadly is the things that we don't talk about a lot, like zoning, like school boundaries, that those things matter more than who they vote for every four years in a presidential election.

GONYEA: The next big election in these Philadelphia suburbs comes in 2022 when there's an open U.S. Senate seat, as well as a governor's race. Given what happened in 2020, there will certainly be an argument that Republicans need a candidate with suburban appeal. But local GOP chair Liz Preate Havey counters...

PREATE HAVEY: So I don't think the answer is we need to go back to the centrist Mitt Romney-type candidate in the suburbs. I really don't. You know, the Democrats are providing us with a lot of far-left policies. Biden is not a unifier. He is not a centrist. You know, Republicans don't like what they see on the left. And some of those are Never Trumpers who don't like what they see.

GONYEA: She's also banking on history, which shows that the party that controls the White House usually losing seats in the next midterm. Democrat Marian Moskowitz acknowledges that Democrats cannot count on anti-Trump sentiment to boost turnout the way it did last fall.

MOSKOWITZ: I don't think you can run a race in 2022 on Trump. I just don't think you can.

GONYEA: But she also says if Republicans nominate a slate of candidates who run waving the Trump banner, that could change.

MOSKOWITZ: Certainly if they are pro-Trump people running, then, yes, we're going to use Trump, I'm sure (laughter).

GONYEA: Such comments are a measure of how much Trump does still hang over things for now at least even out of office. Don Gonyea, NPR News.


You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.