The Allen-Talent suburban problem.

Bobos Say No-NoThe Allen-Talent suburban problem.

By Jonathan Martin

November 16, 2006, 6:15 a.m.

Karl Rove and others have made the case that if just a few precincts in a few counties had broken differently last week, Republicans may have held on to their majorities.

But just as Sen. John Kerry ignored the fundamental weaknesses in his own campaign two years ago by offering an eerily similar defense (“if it wasn’t for a few thousand votes in Ohio…”), Rove runs the risk of minimizing, and thus not addressing, some of his party’s most glaring challenges as made plain last Tuesday.

Among these: the GOP’s suburban problem.

Seeing Red After Montana, the two closest Senate contests this year were in Virginia and Missouri. But you wouldn’t know from looking at election maps of two states. Both are awash in red, depicting county after county where incumbent Republican Senators George Allen and Jim Talent romped. But look closer at the picture and you’ll see why they lost: those strategically placed specks of blue.

Remove Fairfax County from Virginia and St. Louis County from Missouri, and the Republicans hold the Senate with a one vote cushion. It is in these two suburban behemoths, both with over a million residents and each the biggest county in its state, where the GOP’s Senate majority slipped away on Election Night. The margin of victory for the challenger in both places was larger than their total margin statewide.

When he ran and won against incumbent Sen. Chuck Robb (D.), a Fairfax resident, in 2000, Allen lost the county by a bit over 16,000 votes or about 4 percent. Six years later he lost it by some 65,000 votes and a margin of nearly 60-40 en route to a statewide loss of just over 7,000 votes. Why?

Certainly, Allen’s well-chronicled campaign bumbling had something to do with it. But macaca alone didn’t lose this race for Allen. Fairfax, long a GOP-leaning, upper-middle class hub, is politically and demographically becoming more like its more liberal neighbors, Arlington and Alexandria, as new voters move into the county Since Allen unseated Robb in 2000, GOP deficits in the county have gotten progressively worse. It was about a 26,000-vote difference in the 2001 gubernatorial race, followed by about 34,000 in 2004 between Kerry and President Bush. Then, in last year’s gubernatorial race, over 60,000 voters preferred now-Gov. Tim Kaine (D.) to his Republican opponent.

The Talk, the Walk “They’re not liberals and they’re not all Democrats,” Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R.) says of the transplanted voters moving into his Fairfax-based district. In some ways, Davis observes, Republicans had become victims of their own success. “Economic development works,” and these new jobs outside the city have brought a different kind of constituent with them.

They key, Davis says, is “to know how to talk to” what he called this “creative class.” To this end, it was Allen’s good-ole-boy persona that turned off many, Davis argues, not necessarily the senator’s party brand or conservative stands on issues. Davis, himself a moderate, pointed out that his wife, a Fairfax state senator, and neighboring Rep. Frank Wolf (R.), both pro-life, get elected thanks to thousands of moderate suburbanite votes.

Davis, however, has a vested interest in believing that the right kind of Republican can reverse the tide in his home county. He’s already “building an organization,” waiting to see if Sen. John Warner seeks reelection in 2008.

To Larry Sabato, though, the GOP’s suburban problem is more severe than Davis would have it. “It is the social issues,” the pundit and University of Virginia professor contends. “The Christian Right is just anathema to the sophisticated suburbanite's image of herself (gender intended).” And Bush, the face of the party, “is no longer seen as compassionate, just conservative.”

But He Had Talent Jim Talent didn’t have an image problem. While Allen was weighed down by both his gaffes and his party’s problems, Talent’s contest against Democrat Claire McCaskill was much more of a purer indicator of the state of the GOP. Indeed, perhaps nobody can appreciate the Republican challenge with the suburban demographic quite like Talent.

Like many suburbs next to old cities, St. Louis County has absorbed thousands of new voters. Just as with Fairfax, new industry has moved into the region and settled not downtown, but in what Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau has termed “Edge Cities.”

And for Republicans, the problem is even worse here than in Virginia. St. Louis County is like Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax all in one. It includes more racially-diverse precincts closer to the city, similar to Arlington and Alexandria, as well as heavily white areas further away from downtown.

Like Fairfax, the electoral trend in St. Louis County is heading in the wrong direction for the GOP. Talent, a native of the county and one of its representatives in Congress for eight years, left his safe House seat in 2000 to run for governor. He just barely lost that race by a single percentage point, and was edged out in his home county by just over 3,000 votes. Two years later, Talent ran for a Senate seat. The margin again was just one percent, but Talent won the right side of the equation this time. But things got worse at home, as Talent’s deficit dropped to about 15,000 votes in St. Louis County.

And then last week, much like Allen in Fairfax, Talent saw his numbers crumble. He lost his home base by over 49,000 votes en route to a loss statewide of only 46,000 votes.

“There’s a demographic shift taking place,” explains Jack Oliver, a native Missourian who advised the Talent campaign. “People from the city are moving to the county and folks in the county are moving to the exurbs. Our natural Republicans are going westward,” further away from the city. But, much like Davis, Oliver, now a lobbyist after working on both Bush campaigns, doesn’t see a structural problem for his party. “The wave was too big,” for Talent to overcome, he assesses, and “independent voters voted like Democrats in Missouri and all over the country.”

The exit polls bear this out. In Missouri, self-described independents supported McCaskill over Talent 53-44. In Virginia, it was worse, with independents going for James Webb 55-42. Additionally, those who called themselves “moderates” supported McCaskill 64-34 and Webb 61-38.

Much like Davis, Oliver says Republicans don’t need “to abandon their conservative philosophy” to win in places like St. Louis and Fairfax County, they just need to talk to these suburbanites where they are.

“We need to focus on issues that affect their day-to-day lives” like taxes, education and health care, Oliver argues. But, echoing Sabato, Oliver also acknowledges that Republicans “have to show the compassionate side of our conservatism” to be successful.

Statewide Republican candidates may not be able to win the mega-suburbs because of demographic shifts, but Davis and Oliver, two individuals who have a sure grip on politics local and national, agree that they must remain at least competitive to win.

That much was proven in spades last week.