GOP threat in 2018: white suburban voters revolt

  • Brenda Fraser and her husband Gale Fraser in Summerlin, Nev. tns photo

  • Judy Lehman and her puppy, Boo, in Summerlin, Nev. (Michael Finnegan/Los Angeles Times/TNS ) Michael Finnegan

Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, December 26, 2017

SUMMERLIN, Nev. — White college graduates in America’s suburbs have turned hard against Republicans in elections around the country and threaten to upend the party’s control of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections.

Put off by Donald Trump’s presidency, they have been shunning Republicans in congressional and state legislative contests. Their support was crucial in electing Democrats as governor in Virginia and U.S. senator in conservative Alabama.

Republican hopes for keeping control of the U.S. Senate next year will hinge on affluent, mainly white suburbs such as Summerlin, Nev., where Trump’s unpopularity is weighing on GOP Sen. Dean Heller in his run for re-election.

It’s an open question whether the Republican Party — encumbered by Trump’s often racially charged cultural appeals to blue-collar voters — has repelled well-educated whites for the long term.

“This is a big group of people, and they’re growing, and if they turn into a base group for the Democratic Party, that really changes things a lot,” said Ruy Teixeira, a demographics expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “If there’s anyone who can do that, it’s Donald Trump.”

For now, the Trump backlash is endangering House Republican incumbents in well-off suburban districts nationwide. It also puts at risk the Republicans’ one-vote majority in the Senate.

Heller is widely seen as the party’s most vulnerable senator, and his re-election in this closely divided state depends on convincing white voters in upscale swing suburbs that Trump’s shortcomings should not be held against the senator.

It won’t be easy. Republican Judy Lehman, 77, regrets voting for Trump. “At the time I thought it was a very good thing — now I’m not so sure,” Lehman, a retired corporate concierge, said as she walked her Shih Tzu-bichon frise puppy in Summerlin recently. “I’m starting to wonder if he’s really stable.”

Part of what’s pushing white-collar suburban voters away from the GOP is Trump’s alliance with his party’s right wing on abortion, immigration and climate change, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“The Republicans have become an anti-science, anti-fact, anti-immigrant, anti-cosmopolitan party, and that is just very unappealing to college-educated voters,” Mellman said.

Republicans have also positioned themselves, he said, as “anti-diversity” in an era when college-educated whites have largely welcomed civil rights advances for women, racial minorities and LGBTQ Americans.

“I’m pushed away by the anti-gay, white nationalist side,” said Shayna Smith, a 30-year-old nurse who lives in Summerlin. “My generation is a little more open.”

She is a Republican who voted for Trump but plans to back someone else in 2020 “if they have a heartbeat.”

Republicans know that suburban whites turned off by Trump pose a daunting challenge, especially when women, African-Americans, Latinos and other core Democratic groups are highly motivated to vote.

“I think it has more to do with reaction to who’s in the White House than anything else,” said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

Trump’s unpopularity — about 38 percent of Americans approve of his job performance — is a boon to Democrats, but the economy’s strength gives him cover.

Despite the growth in minority voting, whites remain the dominant force in presidential elections. In 2016, 71 percent of the voters were white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian, and 3 percent another race, according to exit polls.