The suburbs have become the battleground of American politics. With city dwellers more Democratic than ever, and rural folk trending Republican, suburbanites now hold the balance of power in deeply divided partisan America. In 2004 they favored George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry by 52% to 47%, almost identical to the overall count of 51% to 48%. But the same suburbs that ushered Bush and a Republican Congress into power now are leading a national revolt against the GOP leadership. "It's a rudderless ship," says independent voter Peter Zorn, 58, a retired educator and father of three from Northbrook, Ill., outside Chicago. "They don't seem capable of moving forward."
Amid such doubts, President Bush's job approval rating among suburban voters has collapsed to 29%, according to a May 5-7 Gallup Poll. And those same highly educated, upper-middle-class voters say they want to see Democrats in charge on Capitol Hill. By 51% to 39%, suburbanites tell Gallup they plan to vote Democratic for Congress this November.
With half the nation's voters living in suburbia, the GOP is in serious jeopardy of losing its congressional majority unless Republicans rebound among suburbanites concerned about huge deficits, soaring gas prices, and the war in Iraq. In the House, the party could lose a dozen suburban seats from New York to San Diego. And a suburban collapse could cost Republicans Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, and even conservative Arizona. "The districts we represent are important to maintaining a majority," says Representative Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), an at-risk incumbent in Philadelphia's prosperous Bucks County suburbs.
So while White House political guru Karl Rove is crafting a national strategy based on issues such as fighting terrorists, Democratic obstructionism, and "family values," many congressional Republicans are focusing on a different set of issues to appeal to voters in swing districts such as Fitzpatrick's. The result: a new suburban agenda tailored to appeal to families that live in neighborhoods of cul-de-sacs, soccer fields, and megamalls.
"FAMILIES FEEL UNDER ATTACK"
Out are hot-button issues such as gay marriage and immigration control that divide suburbanites. Instead of homeland security, the suburban agenda focuses on security close to home: protecting kids from online sexual predators and parents from identity thieves, combating suburban gang violence, and creating new family tax breaks. A proposal by Fitzpatrick would force schools and public libraries to block access to popular Web sites frequented by pedophiles, such as MySpace.com. A bill by Representative Jon C. Porter (R-Nev.) would give schools access to databases listing sexual offenders as they screen potential hires. And Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) wants to give schools broader authority to search students to keep classrooms free of guns and drugs.
"Suburban families feel under attack, and they want a voice in Congress," says Kirk, whose Chicago-area district was carried narrowly by Kerry in '04. "This reflects a need to update the lens through which we look at our country."
The core of the GOP's suburban appeal remains pro-growth economic policies, from lower tax rates on capital gains to an end to inheritance taxes. One new proposal pushed by Kirk would create family-friendly "401-kid" accounts, modeled on the popular tax-advantaged savings accounts offered by many employers, which a family could use to pay for college or a first home. Republicans also hope to win back wavering suburbanites by warning them that a Democratic Congress might raise their taxes. "We just have to come back to what matters to these suburbanites and what would happen if they took over" Congress, says National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). "Do they want tax increases? No."
Democrats dismiss the GOP agenda as recycled tax breaks and empty promises. But the Dems have their own to-do list for suburbanites, from automatic enrollment in corporate 401(k) plans to an infusion of federal cash for school construction.
Dole concedes that "the wind is in our faces" now. To reverse those gusts, Republicans will need to convince anxious suburbanites that they have a plan, while a Democratic Congress would result in higher taxes and even higher anxiety.
By Richard S. Dunham