Republicans can no longer take suburban voters for granted — not after the 2018 elections. In that contest, the GOP lost Orange County, Calif., for the first time in decades, as well as several large suburban counties in Texas.
The opinion of many experts at the time was that Republican opposition to some elements of Obamacare may have hurt them. But there was another issue that almost certainly played a role in the GOP defeat and loss of the House in 2018.
The 2018 election reflected a changing landscape on guns. Republicans were swept out of the House majority after losing suburban bastions where they were once dominant — in places like Orange County, California, and around Dallas and Houston in Texas. Voters in 2018 favored stricter gun control by a margin of 22 percentage points, and those who did backed Democrats by a margin of 76% to 22%, according to exit polls. Gun policy ranked as the No. 4 concern, and voters who cited it as their top issue voted for Democrats by a margin of 70% to 29%.
And the mood has changed since 2016.
The gun issue propelled Trump in key states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania among voters who opposed Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support for gun control, said Republican strategist Brad Todd, whose firm polled on the issue. Todd said swing voters may still “see upsides and downsides to both approaches” on gun policy.
While Dems may hold the upper hand on gun control, it’s somewhat of an illusion. Just last month, Gallup conducted one of their periodic surveys on the issues that are most important to voters. “Gun control” ranked 15th among “non-economic” issues with only 1% of the electorate naming it as an important issue. Immigration was considered far more important with 27% of voters naming it as a priority.
I think it’s pretty plain that shortly after a mass shooting like the ones in El Paso and Dayton, concern about gun control spikes among voters. But after a couple of months, the issue subsides in importance as other problems like immigration push themselves to the forefront.
“Every time the country experiences a tragedy of this nature the Republican brand takes a hit,” said Carlos Curbelo, a Republican former congressman who lost his suburban Miami-area district to a Democrat in 2018. “Because many, many Americans perceive that Republicans are unwilling to act on gun reform, due to the influence of the NRA and other organizations.”
“Certainly in swing suburban districts there is broad support for” policies like universal background checks and 72-hour waiting periods, Curbelo said. “A lot of voters, especially young voters, have lost their patience with this issue.”
That support may be a mile wide and an inch deep. It may also play only a very minor role in a voters’ decision to support one party or another.
But is that changing?
A Marist poll last month, commissioned by NPR and PBS, found that 57% of American adults support banning “the sale of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15,” while 41% oppose it. Support for such bans was 62% among suburbanites, 74% among women in the suburbs and small cities, and 65% among white college graduates.
But the survey found broad opposition to banning semi-automatic assault weapons among the core elements of Trump’s coalition — 67% among Republicans, 67% among conservatives, 65% among white men without college degrees, and 51% among rural Americans.
Republicans have made the correct political calculation that supporting gun control — including a weapons ban — would probably cost them more votes than if they didn’t support it.
Trump himself has expressed possible interest in so-called “red flag” gun legislation that would allow states to try and keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. While some Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham, have been trying to work out a deal with Democrats, it’s fate is uncertain at best.
I think the issue of gun control in the suburbs is probably a wash, and other issues — like health care and immigration — are more important to suburban families.