For nearly two years, Republicans have worried that Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency would alienate moderate suburban voters in the midterm elections, putting dozens of onetime Republican strongholds within Democratic reach.
And in the final days of the campaign, there is mounting evidence that their fears are justified.
From Charlotte to Chicago to Kansas City, there are signs on the ground that in the final moments before Election Day, well-off, well-educated moderates in historically Republican areas are in fact turning out for Democrats, making the GOP vulnerable on a vast and volatile playing field and ensuring that the fate of even once solidly red districts is uncertain until the end.
“I have a little button I wear every once in awhile, this is what it says: ‘Thanks Trump, you turned me into an activist,’” said Beth Monaghan, who earlier this year ran unsuccessfully in a North Carolina GOP state Senate primary.
Now, she is a prominent member of Republicans for Dan—a group supporting Democrat Dan McCready—here in the state’s Ninth District, a longtime GOP bastion that stretches east from south Charlotte, where McCready is locked in a close race with Republican Mark Harris.
In 2016, the Ninth District backed Trump by nearly 12 percentage points and the outgoing GOP congressman, Robert Pittenger, by around 17 points. It is a more conservative district, and a tougher race for Democrats, than many of the House battlegrounds in play.
But the latest New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll, from Tuesday, has the contest in a virtual tie, and there is palpable anti-Trump energy on display in populous corners of this district, including in neighborhoods within the Charlotte city limits that are demographically similar to affluent suburbs elsewhere. It’s proof of just how deep into traditional red territory the GOP challenge is cutting at a time when actual votes are being cast.
“I’m going to vote McCready, I’m just frustrated with Republicans,” said Suzanne DiOrio, 46, a personal trainer. Asked at an early-voting site in southeast Charlotte to name the last Republican she voted for, she replied, “That would be Trump.”
She saw the 2016 campaign as a choice between the lesser of two evils, and was “tired of the Clintons.” But now, she said, “I’m not happy at all,” pointing to Trump’s “tone, rhetoric.”
Asked if she regrets her vote for the president, she replied, “A little, yes. But that’s why I’m here.”
Indeed, in nearly 40 interviews across early voting sites in south Mecklenburg County—the vote-rich, Charlotte-area region of the district—many voters pointed to Trump as a key motivator in turning out to vote early, whether because they supported or opposed him. But in this more moderate part of an otherwise-conservative district, many of those voters also expressed hope that their next member of Congress would be a check on the president.
Wayne Bobo, 67, said that with the exception of George McGovern in 1972, he voted for every Republican president until Trump, writing in another Republican instead in 2016, though he didn’t recall the name. He still voted Republican downballot that year, he said, but “not anymore.”
“I want a balance,” he said, adding that “anybody who supports Trump must be crazy.”
The views of Bobo and DiOrio, who spoke with a reporter at an early voting site up the street from a Whole Foods, certainly don’t guarantee that this district or others like it will flip. But the fact that this race is so competitive does underscore the scope of the GOP suburban challenge across the country in the homestretch of the campaign.
And in other GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton won, the Trump-driven problem for Republicans is even more stark.
“I HAVE NO POSITIVE THINGS TO SAY ABOUT HIM”
In Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, Democratic strategists say that the suburban backlash to the GOP has helped party nominee Sean Casten gain a foothold in a once solidly Republican area in suburban Chicago.
Casten has been propelled by voters such as Lynn Kubat, a 62-year-old evangelical who has voted for every GOP presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan and, she says, never voted for a Democrat for Congress.
But she plans to vote for Casten in part because she strongly supports gun control measures and opposes the GOP tax plan. And, she added, she dislikes Trump.
“I have no positive things to say about him as a person of very, very immoral character, and very narcissistic,” Kubat said. “And [he’s] not concerned about the needs or the people of this country.”
A New York Times/Siena poll found the race was effectively a dead heat, a big shift from 2016, when Republican Rep. Peter Roskam won by nearly 20 points.
It’s a similar story in suburban Houston, in a district that in 2016 Rep. John Culberson won by 12 percentage points, and Clinton won by one. This time around, he is in an expensive and close race.
“The only reason the election is close this year is the fact that people do have very strong feelings one way or the other about the president,” he said.
He added that he was focused on talking about his record of delivering for the district on issues such as hurricane relief and economic matters.
If only, some Republicans fret, Trump would stay focused on economic issues too.
Instead, Trump’s closing argument has been unabashedly nationalistic: “I’m a nationalist, OK?” he said at a Houston rally Culberson skipped last week. Instead of a message zeroed in on jobs and the economy, Trump is focused on hardline immigration issues such as calling for troops to be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border and urging an end to birthright citizenship. (Harris, in North Carolina, said he would be “very open” to considering legislation that built on a Trump executive order on that issue, as proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham.)
It’s a culture war waged for Trump’s base, helping to enthuse the president’s supporters in key Senate races around the country. But it’s another story in the House, especially in many of these more moderate neighborhoods where fiscal issues have long been the main reason voters supported Republicans.
“They ought to be talking about the economy, in my opinion, how good it’s doing,” said Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman and ex-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They’re not doing that. They’re talking about immigration. We’ll see if it works.”
Roskam spent Thursday morning trying to get back to that message. He addressed a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast, where he touted the GOP-backed tax law as a boon to local businesses. The incumbent says he wants to close his election on the issues of civility and taxes.
In an interview, Roskam said his district, which includes a large Indian-American population, is much more interested in incremental steps on immigration policy, including securing the border as well as many pro-immigrant policies preferred by Democrats, than in Trump’s sweeping ideas.
Trump’s proposal “skips right past this district,” Roskam said. “This district hears that and kind of shrugs.”
Retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, a moderate Republican who represents suburban Philadelphia, was blunter on Twitter, calling Trump’s embrace of birthright citizenship repeal “political malpractice.”
“A TSUNAMI OF AWFUL THINGS ALMOST EVERY DAY”
Trump’s aggressive messaging comes against a backdrop of national unease, fueled by gun violence, a deadly anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh and multiple attempted pipe bomb attacks targeted at top Democrats and CNN. Privately, some Republicans fear that this frightening moment will leave voters with the sense that the country is on the wrong track.
“I voted for McCready for gun control,” said Carmella Whitehead, 42, who voted early in Charlotte accompanied by two young sons. “I’m sick of our kids getting killed.”
Whitehead, who said that she didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton in 2016, hastened to note that in other races this year she “voted for Republicans too, to even it out.”
At an early voting station about 16 miles southeast of downtown Charlotte, across from a large church, Harris greeted a steady stream of supporters who turned out to vote Wednesday morning. The former pastor is beloved by conservatives in the area, he just earned a boost for his base when Trump visited last week, and there are reasons for Republicans to feel some optimism from the early voting numbers here.
In between voter conversations, Harris said that conservatives were galvanized by the Supreme Court hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And he was skeptical of the idea that he faces a significant problem with moderates.
Those voters may not love Trump, argued Harris, a staunch Trump advocate, but this is not a district with much Democratic DNA. For them, he suggested, the idea of crossing party lines to vote for a Democrat is still deeply uncomfortable.
“To see the next two years of this administration tied up with Democrat control of the House is causing a lot of Republicans that may not be overly excited about the president to really take pause and realize, hey, this election is about more than just the president’s personality,” he said, raising the specter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, and praising Trump for presiding over a strong economy.
But for many voters here and around the country, Trump simply looms too large.
“It’s a tsunami of awful things almost every day,” said Janice Collier, a 60-year-old daycare provider from Shawnee, Kan.
She is voting for Democrat Sharice Davids in the Third District of Kansas, another moderate, well-educated enclave that narrowly voted for Clinton in 2016, but is currently represented by Republican Kevin Yoder.
Collier continued: “It has to be stopped and it’s going to start right here.”
Hunter Woodall of the Kansas City Star, and David Smiley and Jimena Tavel of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.