As the suburbs realign, Democrats have a victory — if they can keep it | John L. Micek

Lily Mirjahangiri cheers as Democrat Ghazala Hashmi takes the stage as a newly elected Virginia senator at an election party in downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Going into Tuesday night, if you were a swing-state progressive, it was pretty easy to be discouraged about the state of the presidential race. Sure, a new national poll showed the 2020 Dem hopefuls led President Donald Trump by “unprecedented margins” in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.

But in the states that really matter: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, a New York Times/Siena College poll all showed the race within the margin of error, wiping out the 3 percent lead that former Veep Joe Biden enjoyed in the Keystone State and rendering irrelevant U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 1-point edge in a battleground state that Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016.

And then something extraordinary happened on Tuesday night: Democrats romped in the Philadelphia suburbs; they upended the political map in Virginia by capturing both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in a generation, and further consolidated their hold on the Old Dominion.

The icing on the cake came in deep red Kentucky, where, barely 24 hours after Trump held a raucous rally, GOP Gov. Matt Bevin got sent packing by Democrat Andy Beshear.

Taken together, the Democratic wins suggest that Trump, whose popularity has remained mired in the mid-40s for most of his three years in office, is still vulnerable in key battleground states, and that he might not be able to count on states, such as Kentucky, which he carried by large margins in 2016.

They also say the road to the White House runs through the suburbs.

All this is said acknowledging that a year in American politics is a lifetime, and given the ramming-speed pace of our national dialogue in the Trump era, much can — and likely will — change between now and Election Day.

Nonetheless, Tuesday’s results highlight structural weaknesses for Trump as the House’s impeachment inquiry moves into its public phase, and the president shifts into perhaps the most difficult period of an already stormy tenure.

In Kentucky, it’s reasonable to think that the result was specific to Bevin, who was controversial and deeply unpopular among his home state voters.

But, as the Washington Post reports, Bevin’s “attempt to nationalize his cause by stoking conservative grievances about the impeachment process was not enough to overcome his problems nor was Trump’s raucous rally for the governor on Monday — raising questions about Trump’s political strength as he faces a barrage of challenges and a difficult path to reelection.”

Trump won Kentucky by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016, defeating Hillary Clinton 65.2 percent to 32.7 percent, according to Associated Press tallies reported by The New York Times. Beshear edged Bevin by not even a percentage point on Tuesday.

But next year, someone nearly as unpopular as Trump — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also will be on the ballot. And he faces a credible challenge in the form of Amy McGrath, the favorite to emerge as the Democratic nominee.

She raised $10.7 million in the first three months of her campaign, CNN reported. A year from now, after a brutal campaign, and endless headlines about impeachment (however that is ultimately resolved), Bluegrass State Democrats could be sufficiently motivated to kick out McConnell and send a very strong message to Trump.

Then there’s Virginia, where Democrats have steadily eroded Republican gains, and have the opportunity to rewrite the state’s political narrative through both redistricting and by passing anti-gun violence measures that Republicans stymied earlier this year.

Virginia is really two states: There are the progressive suburbs around Washington D.C., that are home to tens of thousands of federal employees. And then there’s rural western Virginia, which made possible the ugly scenes around Charlottesville in 2017.

Nonetheless, Clinton carried Virginia in 2016, beating Trump 49.8 percent to 44.44 percent, taking all 13 of the state’s electoral votes. The Democratic surge on Tuesday, strongly suggests that Democrats can build on, and expand those margins in 2020.

The results in Pennsylvania send the strongest message.

On Tuesday night, Democrats captured all four county courthouses. One of them, in traditionally Republican Delaware County, went blue for the first time since the Civil War. The victories finished a job that began in 2018 where, thanks to the miracle of a court-ordered redistricting, the Dems captured three out of four Congressional seats in the four, suburban counties, and evened their Capitol Hill margin with Republicans to nine seats apiece.

Former Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who decided to retire instead of running in a redrawn seat that favored Democrats, warned his fellow Republicans Tuesday of an “electoral realignment” in the suburbs that should put them on notice, the Post reported. His suburban district is now held by a Democrat.

“Republicans aren’t leaning in on the issues that affect suburban, affluent voters like gun safety and the environment,” Costello told the Post. “Plus, Trump is not a benefit but a burden. That forces Republicans to have to ask voters to really hear them out on issues like taxes and school safety even if those voters don’t like Trump and that’s not easy.”

Yes, disdain for Trump in the ‘burbs is already well-established. But other stuff needs to happen to erase Trump’s 44,000-vote edge in 2016.

That means the traditional progressive wave out of Philadelphia. But it also means strong Democratic turnout in some highly competitive congressional districts such as central Pennsylvania’s decidedly purple (and largely suburban) 10th District, now held by GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Perry. Ditto for the very suburban 17th District held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb. 

If Democrats also manage to recapture Obama voters who went for Trump in the northeast and southwest, along with independents, then they’ll seal all 20 of the state’s electoral votes. And that leaves Trump, who faces challenges in other Rust Belt issues, with a shrinking list of options.

Again, a lot can and will change before next November. But for now, at least, Democrats have a victory — if they can keep it.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.