The biggest question in Tuesday’s elections may be whether Democrats can maintain their advantages in the nation’s biggest population centers – despite all the headwinds buffeting the party.
Geographic polarization has been one of the most powerful trends in American politics for roughly the past two decades, with Democrats gaining ground in the most populous metropolitan areas almost everywhere, and Republicans growing stronger in the smaller places beyond them. That trend notably accelerated after Donald Trump emerged as the GOP’s dominant figure in 2016 and has ratcheted up since the Supreme Court rescinded the constitutional right to abortion last year.
The GOP’s dominance of exurban, small-town and rural areas helped Trump win the White House in 2016 and has allowed the party to solidify its grip up and down the ballot on interior states with large nonurban populations. But Republicans’ retreat from the well-educated inner suburbs around major cities has been the principal reason for their disappointing results in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections, as well as the anti-abortion movement’s defeat in a series of ballot initiatives since the 2022 Supreme Court decision.
By traditional measures, the political environment for Tuesday’s election again looks favorable for Republicans, with most voters expressing dissatisfaction about both the economy and President Joe Biden’s job performance. But all of those conditions were present in the 2022 midterms, when Republicans underperformed anyway, mostly because of continued resistance in the major population centers – especially those well-educated inner suburbs where most voters oppose new restrictions on abortion.
The largest urban and suburban areas will likely determine whether Democrats can defy political gravity once again this year in Tuesday’s key elections, from Kentucky and Ohio to Virginia and Pennsylvania. If Democrats run well, it will reinforce the message from the 2022 midterms that they can hold a critical swathe of voters who feel the party has not delivered for their interests by portraying Republicans as a threat to their rights and values.
That dynamic may be most clearly on display in the expensive, high-stakes struggle for control of the Virginia legislature. Heading into Tuesday’s vote, Democrats hold a narrow majority in the state Senate and Republicans hold a slim edge in the state House of Delegates.
As in many competitive states during the 2022 election, Republicans, by most conventional political measures, are well positioned in Virginia. Even though Biden carried the commonwealth by 10 percentage points in 2020, polling now shows more voters disapprove than approve of his performance; conversely, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has made himself the face of the GOP’s legislative campaign, consistently draws majority approval from state voters. To support the GOP ticket, Youngkin has also raised huge sums of money – much of it from national Republican donors hoping that a strong result Tuesday might entice him into a late entry into the GOP presidential race. And in a recent statewide poll by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, Virginia voters gave Republicans a double-digit advantage over Democrats when asked which party they trusted to handle both the economy and crime, two issues central to families’ day-to-day concerns.
“In normal circumstances, with an incumbent Democrat [president] under water, as Biden is, and the economy playing so strongly in favor of Republicans, you would expect a Democratic wipe-out,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School. “But that’s just not happening.”
Instead, the Post/Schar survey showed Democrats slightly leading when voters were asked which party they intended to support in the Virginia legislative contests.
Translating that broad sentiment into individual state House and Senate race results is an imperfect process. And because the margins in each chamber are so narrow, most analysts agree that both chambers are still within reach of either party.
But generally, observers following the contests say they will be surprised if Republicans win control of both chambers – and maybe less startled if Democrats flip the state House while holding the Senate to achieve control of their own. “It doesn’t really feel like 2021,” when Youngkin stunned Democrats by surging in the final weeks to capture the governorship, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the political newsletter published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “At the very least a Republican sweep would be a surprise. And a Democratic sweep would be less surprising.”
Both parties agree the Democratic emphasis on protecting legal abortion is the principal reason the party remains in such a competitive position, despite all the other GOP advantages. In the Post/Schar poll, Democrats led Republicans by nearly 20 points when Virginia voters were asked which party they trusted to handle abortion; the share of female voters who said abortion was an important issue in their choice stood at 70%, way up from just under half in polling around the 2019 legislative elections. Warnings that Republicans will restrict abortion rights dominate Democratic advertising in most of the key races. “If we win, we win because of it,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster working on the Virginia races, said of abortion. “And if we turn out our base, we turn out our base because of it.”
The Democratic emphasis on preserving abortion rights isn’t unusual: The party did the same in virtually every competitive race in 2022. More unusual is how much Virginia Republicans have emphasized the issue too. Youngkin has made clear that if provided control of the legislature, Republicans will ban abortion at 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. The governor’s political advisers argue that voters will see such restrictions as a “consensus” solution to a polarizing issue, and the latest Post/Schar poll, like earlier surveys, found the state split about evenly over a 15-week ban. “I really feel that this is a moment for us to come together around reasonable limits,” Youngkin argued on ABC News this past weekend. “I think that this is a reasonable place for us to land.”
But Democrats believe the more telling measure is that only about one-fourth of Virginia voters say in polls they want the state’s abortion laws made more restrictive than the current standard, which permits the procedure through 26 weeks of pregnancy. By emphasizing their plan to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks, Rozell and others believe, Republicans have raised the salience of the issue that most favors Democrats. Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, briskly encapsulated the Democrats’ closing message when she said: “When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they know that if they wake up on Wednesday and there is Republican control in the state, there will be an abortion ban. Period.”
Control of both chambers will be decided primarily in relatively well-educated suburban House and Senate districts across the state, particularly in Northern and Central Virginia, around Washington, DC, and Richmond. The Post/Schar poll gave Democrats a roughly 25-point advantage in the former and a 10-point lead in the latter. If the state’s major suburban areas break for Democrats because of abortion, “that is basically the ballgame,” said Kondik.
If populous (and mostly prosperous) suburbs prove the bridge too far for Virginia Republicans, it would extend a striking pattern from other recent contests in which abortion has played a central role. In the seven states that have held ballot initiatives related to the issue since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision, the side favoring abortion rights has consistently dominated the largest places.
In these ballot initiatives, abortion rights supporters carried all six of the counties that cast the most votes in Kansas, eight of the 10 counties that cast the most votes in Kentucky and Michigan, and the 14 largest in California. Even in Montana, which doesn’t have many population centers, an anti-abortion ballot measure lost in all three of the counties that cast the most votes. (A Vermont constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights in 2022 carried every town in the state.) In this summer’s first round of Ohio’s battle over abortion – a GOP-backed measure to make it more difficult to change the state’s Constitution – the abortion rights side carried 14 of the state’s 17 largest counties, including several that had voted for Trump in 2020, according to the results posted by The New York Times.
Round two of Ohio’s confrontation over abortion will come Tuesday when voters will decide a ballot measure that would repeal a six-week ban on the procedure that the GOP legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed, in 2019. Some voters have been confused because both this summer’s proposed change to the state constitution and the current measure to repeal the abortion ban have been designated as Issue One, and the position in support of abortion rights was a “no” vote over the summer and is a “yes” vote now. But the limited polling available has found the measure likely to pass, largely because of preponderant support among urban and suburban voters.
Democrats are counting on similar metro support in two other races Tuesday in which abortion has loomed large: a state Supreme Court contest in Pennsylvania and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s reelection bid against Republican state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. When Beshear narrowly won a first term in the Republican-leaning state four years ago, he combined a strong performance in the state’s major population centers of Louisville and Lexington with an unusually competitive showing in smaller, blue-collar Eastern Kentucky counties. But Beshear will likely struggle to match his small town performance this year with hostility to Biden running high in those places. Beshear this time is stressing his support for abortion rights, and if he wins, he will likely have relied even more on Kentucky’s largest counties, including several that are functionally suburbs of Cincinnati, just across the Ohio border.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court election between Republican Carolyn Carluccio and Democrat Daniel McCaffery will likely follow a similar path. As Kondik and a colleague noted in a recent analysis, the most recent state Supreme Court election (in 2021) did not track Pennsylvania’s usual presidential patterns, which have seen Democrats gaining in major white-collar suburban areas around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Republicans advancing in the mostly blue-collar, smaller places between them. But with abortion and voting rights dominating the current race, Kondik said it is much more likely to follow the presidential map, which should provide Democrats the edge.
In all these ways, Tuesday’s elections may underscore the intractability of the geographic polarization that has reshaped American politics through the 21st century. In 2020, Biden won fully 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, while Trump carried over 2,500 of the remaining 3,000. Biden dominated all the hubs of the emerging information economy: According to tabulations by Brookings Metro, a nonpartisan think tank, Biden-won counties generated 71% of the nation’s total economic output, even though he captured only one-sixth of counties overall. Trump romped in the nonmetro places that are home to much of the nation’s manufacturing, energy extraction and agriculture.
The 2022 election showed how difficult it was to dislodge these patterns. Despite the widespread discontent over Biden and the economy, Democrats in the key races maintained (or even enlarged) advantages in populous suburban counties outside Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. Republicans continued to post strong numbers beyond those metro areas – and in some cases, Democrats suffered diminished margins in heavily minority inner-city neighborhoods where discontent over the economy is widespread. But the Democratic suburban gains allowed them to win seven of the nine governor’s and Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – the five states that decided the 2020 presidential race by switching from Trump in 2016 to Biden.
Dante Chinni, director of the American Communities Project at Michigan State University, said voters’ geographic separation into blue metros and red non-metros has enormous, possibly irreversible, momentum. That separation now reflects not only political choices, he noted, but also decisions by marketers, who reinforce the diverging demographic patterns by locating retail outlets and restaurants that appeal to the predominant groups in each region. Everyone now understands the underlying cultural differences between a community with a Whole Foods or a Panera Bread, and one with a Cracker Barrel. “A community develops in a certain way and attracts a certain kind of person with certain beliefs and the consumer marketing industry reads that pretty quickly and knows the things to put in those locations to appeal to those people,” Chinni said. “It seems to me everything that’s built into the system is designed to reinforce these differences.”
Both parties are uneasy about where this geographic resorting has left them. Many Democrats worry that their rural decline dangerously constricts the number of House and Senate seats they can realistically win. Many Republicans in turn worry that it’s a losing hand to trade gains in rural places that are stagnant or declining in population for losses in suburban areas that are growing. “It’s a trajectory that is not sustainable for Republicans,” said veteran Wisconsin GOP strategist Mark Graul. Referring to the major suburban county outside Milwaukee and a rural Western Wisconsin county, he added, “We can’t subtract three voters in Waukesha County for a voter in Trempealeau County. The math doesn’t work.”
The persistent public dissatisfaction with Biden’s performance on the economy, crime and other issues provides Republicans a powerful wedge to move voters in the major population centers away from Democrats. Tuesday’s major elections will test whether that discontent is sufficient to overcome the durable doubts in these places about the Trump-era GOP on issues relating to rights, personal freedoms and democracy. The results will offer the year’s last major ballot-box test of how voters are balancing those contrasting beliefs almost exactly one year before they pick the next president.