Suburban Voters Sour on Obama, Threatening Democrats' Hold on U.S. House

The Paisley Shop and Genes Urban Baby Boutique sit empty along a stretch of Lancaster Avenue in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where the median home price is more than $600,000.

The vacant storefronts in the Delaware County town serve as a reminder that not even the affluent Main Line suburbs by the Schuylkill River northwest of Philadelphia are immune to the economic pressures afflicting the rest of the U.S.

“It’s hard to get business,” said Donna Martella, 46, who owns Beethoven Wraps, a gift and gourmet food shop down the street from the two shuttered stores.

Philadelphia’s once reliably Republican suburbs, which have shifted course in recent years to provide decisive support for Democrats, from Governor Ed Rendell to President Barack Obama, are in play again this year.

While the jobless rate is lower than the 9.6 percent U.S. average -- 9.2 percent in Delaware County in July and 8.3 percent in Bucks County -- and household income in the counties is higher, million-dollar homes in places like Haverford can sit on the market for six months or longer. About one in 650 homes was in foreclosure in the two counties in August, compared with the state figure of one in 842, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a housing-data provider in Irvine, California.

That’s feeding broader fears about unemployment, record budget deficits and banks’ reluctance to lend.

Retaking the House

As a result, Democrats may lose two seats they picked up as part of the anti-Republican wave in 2006: those belonging to U.S. Representatives Patrick Murphy in Bucks County and Joe Sestak in Delaware, who is vacating his office to pursue an uphill Senate bid.

There are competitive congressional races this year in more than a dozen other suburban districts nationwide where Democrats beat incumbent Republicans in the last two elections. Republican victories in some of those races could help the party achieve its goal of picking up a net 39 seats to regain control of the U.S. House.

U.S. Representative Jim Himes is defending turf in the Connecticut suburbs north of New York City that Republicans held for 40 years before he won in 2008. Outside Chicago, Bill Foster and Debbie Halvorson face tough re-election fights. And fellow first-termers Alan Grayson and Suzanne Kosmas are clinging to seats in and around Orlando, Florida.

Reversal of Fortune

Two years ago, the Democrats had all the momentum.

Delaware, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties, the wealthiest in Pennsylvania, backed Obama in 2008, joining suburbs throughout the U.S. whose votes were central to his victory in the presidential campaign.

Obama won 50 percent of the nationwide suburban vote, up 3 percentage points from what Massachusetts Senator John Kerry garnered as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, according to a study of exit polls by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Obama benefited from a 6-point improvement among self-described moderates and an 8-point jump among households earning more than $100,000 a year, the study showed.

That same year, Democrats picked up Republican seats in the Detroit suburbs, New Jersey towns east of Philadelphia and in Virginia communities across the Potomac River from Washington.

In Delaware County, Sestak, 58, easily won re-election after a surge of voter discontent had swept him into office in 2006, unseating a Republican incumbent. This year, his seat is up for grabs after he decided to pursue a Senate bid, where polls show him trailing Republican Pat Toomey.

‘Buyer’s Remorse’

So, too, is the seat held by fellow Democrat Murphy, 36, an Iraq War veteran from Bucks County, where Democrats have a 44 percent to 40 percent edge in voter registration. A Franklin & Marshall College Poll released Sept. 23 showed Republican Mike Fitzpatrick with a 14-point lead over Murphy among likely voters.

“These are voters that care about debt and deficits,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster who conducted the poll. “Many of them are having buyer’s remorse.”

Dave Callahan, the owner of Newtown Hardware House, a 141- year-old business in Bucks County, “was really excited” to vote for Obama two years ago.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” said Callahan, 65. He said he would probably vote for Republican Fitzpatrick in the congressional election, after backing Murphy in 2008, to send a message to Obama.

No Jobs

He said his business was down 20 percent in July and August, compared with a year earlier, attributing the decline to a slow housing market.

Eleanor Gardener, an independent whose 36-year-old daughter just lost her health insurance, voted for Obama in 2008. She’s not sure what she’ll do this year, after watching “quite a few” members of her family lose their jobs.

“They keep saying the jobs are coming back, but I don’t know anyone who’s getting a job,” said Gardener, 61, an accounting clerk from Primos, as she waited for a morning train on a platform across the street from one of the Wawa convenience stores that dot the landscape.

Delaware County, where Republicans hold a 3-point lead in voter registrations, is a mix of working class and affluent. Republicans have controlled the local governments for a generation, even in the lower-income sections of the county, said Harvey Glickman, a professor emeritus at Haverford College.

Main Line Republicans

“Small business owners vote Republican because they worry the trash won’t get picked up if they don’t,” Glickman said.

The area spawned voters who became known as Main Line Republicans, those who favored balanced budgets. Their influence has been undercut by a migration of Democrats from Philadelphia, Glickman said. Other Republicans left the party because they were opposed to increased federal spending under former President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, he said.

Closer to the city, in neighborhoods like Drexel Hill, both Republicans and Democrats express alarm about the economy.

“People are angry,” Frank Havnoonian, 55, a Republican who voted for Senator John McCain, Obama’s 2008 opponent, said as he manned the counter of Drexel Hill Cyclery, a shop crammed with new bicycles and old parts that bears the scratches and grease stains of more than four decades in operation. “I say bring back the 1950s. It was an easier time.”

Losing Confidence

In Berwyn and Radnor, large stone cottages line leafy streets punctuated by small villages where mothers and high school kids shop and eat. The average household income was more than twice the national average in 2000, according to Census data.

“This is a swing district, so you have Republicans who had lost confidence,” said Pat Meehan, a Republican former U.S. attorney running to replace Sestak.

His Democratic opponent is Bryan Lentz, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq. His resume was tailor-made for the anti-Bush wave in 2006 and he won a seat in Pennsylvania’s House.

“It was a good year to be a Democrat,” Lentz said. “And it had a lot to do with people being fed up with what they saw going on in Washington.”

This year, he said, voters “are fed up with bios.”

Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. representative running to reclaim the seat he lost to Murphy in 2006, thinks the shifting mood will make the difference this year.

“It’s better to be on the offensive than the defensive,” Fitzpatrick said, citing Murphy’s votes in favor of the health- care overhaul and the $814 billion economic stimulus package.

Anti-Incumbent

Still, Murphy had about $1 million more cash-on-hand than Fitzpatrick as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Both Republicans Meehan and Fitzpatrick champion an extension of all Bush-era tax cuts, while pledging to bring down the deficit. Meehan released a seven-step plan to create jobs that included the extension or creation of six tax cuts, including those on capital gains and corporate income, and tax credits for businesses that hire new employees.

“My particular focus right now is that we do not talk about raising taxes in this kind of environment,” Meehan said.

Back in Wayne, a lot of voters are tired of politicians.

“I’m going to vote against every incumbent,” said Roger Galczenski, 64, the owner of Wayne Sporting Goods down the street from Beethoven Wraps. “I don’t care if they’re Republican or Democrat.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick O’Connor in Washington at poconnor14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.