John Weaver, a veteran Republican political strategist who has been critical of Trump, says that while Republicans can “cherry-pick” local factors behind each of their losses, the cumulative pattern of suburban erosion for the party is unmistakable. “We are not talking about a gradual change,” he says. “We are talking about dramatic overnight flips from what used to be reliably Republican to now reliably Democrat. And the turnout is massive.”
Though Bevin suffered some erosion in rural eastern counties in the state, the GOP generally held its ground in such areas, both in Kentucky and Virginia. That widening separation between the GOP’s strength outside of metro areas and an intensifying tilt toward Democrats inside of them continues the underlying pattern of geographic polarization that has defined politics in the Trump era.
In 2016, Trump lost 87 of the 100 largest U.S. counties by a combined 15 million votes, but then won over 2,600 of the remaining 3,000 counties, the most for any presidential nominee in either party since Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 2018, Republicans suffered sweeping congressional losses across urban and suburban America, but avoided hardly any congressional losses in heavily rural districts. While big showings in diverse metro areas helped Democrats win Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada, Republicans snatched three Senate seats from Democrats in states with large rural white populations: North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana.
Rather than looking to court urban areas, Trump has more frequently denounced places such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in an attempt to energize his mostly nonurban base. He continues to aim his message preponderantly at culturally conservative whites, and his campaign has signaled that it considers increasing turnout among such voters central to his reelection hopes.
Few in either party dispute that such a strategy could allow Trump to squeeze out another Electoral College victory, even if he loses the popular vote; he could do so by holding a narrow advantage in a few closely contested states, from Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona in the Sun Belt to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the Rust Belt.
But yesterday’s results underscore how narrow a wire the president is walking with that strategy. Even taking into account Bevin’s personal unpopularity, Bitecofer says the Kentucky result should caution Republicans about a plan that accepts metropolitan losses to maximize rural and small-town gains. “If it can’t work in Kentucky … you cannot do it in Wisconsin or Michigan,” she says. Beyond Trump, the urban/nonurban divisions evident in this week’s elections “should scare the ever-loving bejesus” out of 2020 Republican Senate candidates in states with large metropolitan populations, including Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. “Their danger level … has increased exponentially,” she argues.