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Suburban Swingers

It’s no surprise that Republicans are looking to win back suburbs that they lost back in 2008, but they will have to rely on more than just votes from skeptics and the independents. They’ll have to cater the full spectrum of a new social territory. Nearly half of the country’s population lives in big metropolitan suburbs, and it’s an increasingly diverse--and dispersed--crowd: racially, economically, and politically.

According to the Wall Street Journal this week, places like Virginia’s 11th District might well be the “ultimate test for the Republican suburban push.” District 11 crosses through some of the most educated and affluent territory in the Washington, DC, region--but also the most dynamic. After 14 years under Republican Tom Davis, the District went blue in 2008. It is now represented by Democrat Gerry Connolly, who faces a reelection challenge this November.

Republicans are “banking on a voter backlash,” according to the Journal, but they may need a little more than that to color the District red.   The counties that Mr. Davis presided over are much different from when he took office in the mid 90’s. 

Take for instance Fairfax County, most of which falls in District 11. Between 2000 and 2008, whites as a share of the total population dropped from 64 to 58 percent. And by the time the seat went blue in 2008, the suburban county had a population of over 1 million, and Hispanics represented more than one in every three residents.  Poverty remained comparatively low in Fairfax through 2008, but indications of recovery have not been promising. Since the recession began, demand for food stamps has risen 40 percent among county residents, and initial unemployment insurance claims have increased 180 percent. Both increases are far above those occurring in similar counties nationwide. 

In suburban battlegrounds across the country, Republicans are going to have to confront these challenges head on. More poor live in the suburbs than in cities, and since 2000, the number of suburban poor has grown about five times faster than those in cities. If Republicans want a bigger piece of VA, and the twenty-three other formerly Republican sweet-spot-suburbs around the country, they will have to convince voters that they can (and will) adapt their political strategies to the evolving needs of constituents in these areas.