Revenge of the Country Club Republicans

It’s been roughly three months since John McCain effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination and during that time, there’s been no shortage of speculation about who the Arizona Senator might select as his running mate. Yet rather little of the speculation has taken into account the voter data that’s accumulated during that time. When this year’s GOP returns are assessed in terms of demographics and geography, an unlikely candidate emerges as the GOP’s most competitive nominee for November.

As evidenced by the Democrat’s snaring of former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s seat in March’s special election, once-rock ribbed Republican suburbs are becoming hostile territory for the GOP. Contravening the longstanding wisdom of political science, evidence is growing that appealing to the “Country Club Republican” — that aloof character once-ridiculed as a political dinosaur — might be the only strategy for the GOP to stanch losses amongst the fast-growing, affluent, well-educated, and increasingly secular suburbs that have been trending Democratic relentlessly for a decade. The one candidate in this year’s Republican presidential scrum who consistently found appeal in those suburbs was not the independent’s darling, John McCain, or the socially liberal Rudy Giuliani, as the pundit class not unreasonably expected, but instead, the smooth-talking upper-crust candidate: Mitt Romney.

There are any number of plausible reasons to have been skeptical of Mitt Romney as a the Republican standard bearer: his artless and opportunistic position shifting; his almost robotic stump speech delivery and the year-round tan and Brill creamed coiffure; the fact that he’d only won office in a less-than-bellweather state; the supposedly ominous “Mormon Question;” his bumbling courtship of the conservative movement. Nevertheless, Republicans need to assess Romney’s appeal if they want to maintain what’s left of their base in the counties where the party needs to be competitive.

Romney dramatically ended his bid during an address at this year’s CPAC, traumatizing some of the young and fervent in the crowd who were finally embracing the once decidedly liberal Republican governor of “Taxachusetts” as their last, best hope of staving off the partisan apostate McCain. The choice of venue was meant, of course, to convey that Romney’s “coming around” to core conservatism was sincere, with a hint that he might be back to take up their cause next cycle. But considering the zip codes where he enjoyed his strongest appeal, it might have been more fitting for Romney to have made that announcement before a U.S. Chamber of Commerce confab. (For an instructive contrast, just look at the ease with which Romney, the businessman and scion of auto makers, could deliver a speech before the Detroit Economic Club with how stilted and passionless McCain was when he delivered similar remarks before at Carnegie Mellon University. Indeed, McCain is far more at home standing before “men in uniform” than executives in pinstripes, and he came off as wooden and tentative — much like Romney did when speaking to passionately conservative crowds.)

So all of Romney’s ideological gymnastics might have been for naught. The executive and business-world experience he so consistently touted seems to have won him more actual votes from actual Republican primary voters than his forsaking of abortion and gay rights or his public pronouncements regarding his Mormon faith.

Despite his Mormon heritage and Bay State interlude, Mitt Romney is really a son of Oakland County, Michigan, the genteel Detroit white collar enclave and the mirror opposite of next door Macomb County, the spiritual home of the Reagan Democrat. Macomb boomed in the middle of the century as auto workers flocked there along Rust Belt “white flight” migratory patterns, fleeing the urban ills of the Motor City’s Wayne County.

The loyalty of Michigan Republicans to the Romney brand blunted any stark differences in Romney’s primary vote between Oakland and Macomb, but 2004 marked the first time that the two counties defied their partisan heritages in the same year, with Kerry narrowly besting Bush in traditionally affluent Republican Oakland and Bush edging out Kerry in the union Democratic stronghold of Macomb. Oakland’s population continues to climb, while Macomb’s has reached a plateau. House GOP leaders had to cajole Rep. Joe Knollenberg into running one more time to hold onto his previously safe Oakland-based district, while Macomb’s Rep. Candice Miller is considered safe in what looks to be a tough year for Republicans. Romney on the ticket might pull one more out for Knollenberg, while not threatening Miller.

Romney chalked up impressive totals in other suburban counties, like St. Louis County, Missouri. But perhaps more interesting were his strong showings in Franklin County, Tennessee, the growing New South Nashville suburban outpost, and the booming counties surrounding Atlanta. In these locales, middle-class Republican primary voters took up Romney as the anti-Huckabee.

Huckabee, of course, had scored well in rural Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia – and even Dutch settled rural Michigan. The former Arkansas governor’s gospel of economic populism drew derision from the Beltway’s vocal free-market establishment, but it was his incessant references to his faith in a political setting, exacerbated by his MegaChurch youth minister/Contemporary Christian demeanor, that may well have turned these voters off. McCain’s almost exclusive focus on military and national security issues didn’t offer the antidote. Romney’s record of private-sector accomplishment did.

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In the wake of three straight special election losses in House districts once considered GOP strongholds, pundits are prognosticating a Republican meltdown in this year’s congressional contests. While the victory of Blue Dog Democrat Travis Childers in Mississippi this month is legitimately alarming, the loss of Hastert’s seat to Democratic Rep. Don Foster shouldn’t have been considered unthinkable. (The victory of another Blue Dog, Rep. Don Cazayoux may have been given a boost by the demographic confusion of post-Katrina Louisiana. The jury is still out on that one, to be fair.)

Hastert represented a once largely rural seat that is now dominated by the growing exurban counties on the outskirts of Chicago’s Collar County suburbs, where Democrats are enjoying vote percentages previously only seen in Democratic landslide elections. The exurban counties are still very competitive Republicans, but the story is that just a few cycles ago those would be expected to be overwhelmingly Republican.

Instead, in many of these locales, Democrats are starting to give the GOP a run for its money. Kane County tells the tale: as it grows, Democratic performance inches up. Failing to note those trends, combined with a candidate – Jim Oberweis – widely regarded to be flawed, sowed the seeds for a take over. And while it’s difficult to pass up noting that the district contains Dixon, Ronald Reagan’s hometown, as Camper van Beethoven smirked almost two decades ago, it’s not 1949 anymore, even in Dixon. If Republicans don’t grasp the implications of this shift now, there’s little doubt they’ll learn the hard way in November.

–John Vaught LaBeaume is a writer in Washington, D.C.

(Image courtesy Flickr user danperry.com.)

 

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