Friday, May 24, 2024
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GOP Can Target Suburban Swing Voters and Keep Their Base



In recent election cycles, the Philadelphia suburbs have been moving further into the Democratic column. To add to the challenge for Pennsylvania Republicans, more areas are resembling these communities as the state becomes more suburban. It’s a common trend in Rust Belt and East Coast states.

Some analysts have argued that the answer for Republicans is to run “moderate” candidates. Admittedly, this approach is preferable to some others – either ignoring the suburban trend altogether or trying to compensate by building up super-majorities in rural Pennsylvania. Still, a moderate strategy may be too simplistic, and even misguided.

My personal observations as a congressional candidate and former chief of staff, and as CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry, have led me to conclude that a more important factor for Republican candidates is whether they strike the right tone and have the right temperament – and if they focus on kitchen-table issues, the ones that matter most to voters.

Is a candidate seen as a “fighter,” for instance, as opposed to being perceived as “angry” or confrontational? There is a difference. It matters what the candidate fights for and against.

In the suburbs, swing-voters’ default setting currently is to vote for Democrats. Fairly or not, Republicans are perceived as angry or confrontational.

The suburbs are the most politically, culturally, and ideologically diverse segment of American society. Even in Chester County – Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county, with the most college graduates – it’s not easy to strike a balance. There are Whole Foods and gun clubs, hot-yoga studios and pro-life prayer vigils. And all these exist among registered Republicans and Independents, without even taking Democrats into account. 

Moving too close to the center poses as many risks for Republicans as moving too far right; being too bland is as risky as it is to be too fiery. On Election Day 2022, shaking hands outside at a polling place in Chester County for over 13 hours, I was challenged by multiple moderate to right-of-center voters on a variety of issues. They were testing me to see if I would stand up for them. I didn’t for a moment think that any of them were going to vote for my Democratic opponent, an incumbent who had voted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. But it was clear that many were considering whether they should bother voting at all.

That’s the challenge for Republicans, who are already outnumbered and usually outspent by their Democratic opponents. If the GOP nominee is perceived as too far out on the fringe or too angry, swing voters will vote for the Democrat. If the nominee is perceived as too moderate or lacking conviction – lacking “fight” – some voters who are now part of the GOP base will not vote in that race.

Let’s address the elephant in the room, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. There is little doubt that a GOP candidate who bases his/her campaign on abortion will likely fall short. But abortion as an issue – and being “pro-life” – is more complicated than that. Pro-life candidates have had relative success in the suburbs, such as former U.S. Senator Pat Toomey and former Reps. Jim Gerlach and Patrick Meehan; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who rates an 80% from the National Right to Life Committee, continues to win. Candidates who are pro-life have had relative success in suburban communities in purple and blue states like New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and Florida. And then there are Govs. Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis, of Virginia and Florida, respectively. Not only did they win; so did their colleagues on the GOP tickets.

This is why I believe tone, temperament, and priorities are more important for success than being “moderate.” Yes, Youngkin seemed at home in his sweater-vest, looking like a dad at a soccer game. But he talked passionately about school choice, parents’ rights, and common sense. He jumped into issues that many in the GOP would have seen as politically radioactive. In Virginia’s Loudon County, which resembles our Chester County, Youngkin lost by only 11 points. This is an impressive performance compared with that of the prior Republican candidate for governor, who lost by 20 points, and Donald Trump, who lost by 25 points in 2020. 

Gov. DeSantis found success with an edgier tone. He has not shied away from campaigning against mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory, and even the Disney corporation. His nearly 20% reelection victory margin included success in the suburbs and in minority communities, too.

Both Youngkin and DeSantis made progress in the suburbs. Neither are considered moderate. Both have confronted hot-button battles of today. They are fighters, yes – but their fights have been on behalf of kids, parents, and the quality of day-to-day life.

Most swing voters are looking for a clear, positive message. GOP candidates must build a coalition: they need to reach out to voters who want a candidate who shares their priorities and opposes radical “woke” policies. This is especially true among first- and second-generation Asian and Hispanic voters. Swing voters will tolerate and even applaud a “fighting” tone in a candidate if they sense that it’s genuine and policy-driven. If, by contrast, they perceive it as mean-spirited or reflexively partisan, they will look elsewhere.                                                                                          

Put all those voters together, and that makes a pretty strong coalition and partnership. There’s a path forward to electoral success for Republicans. The choice is ours.

This article was originally published by RealClearPennsylvania and made available via RealClearWire.