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Why Won’t Democrats Move Left in the Suburbs?

They could win with more progressive candidates, but the leadership insists on cautious moderation.

Jennifer Wexton marches in a July 4 parade in Leesburg, Virginia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty)

The sprawling 10th district of Virginia stretches from the conservative West Virginia border to the wealthy and more liberal D.C. suburbs. With a median household income of more than $120,000, it is the third-wealthiest congressional district in the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won it, 52 percent to 42 percent, but its Republican congresswoman, Barbara Comstock, a former lawyer and congressional staffer with an estimated personal net worth of nearly $1.3 million, was narrowly reelected. Two years later, though, it looks as if Comstock might lose. Early polling shows her Democratic challenger, Jennifer Wexton, with a 10-point lead, and Democrats are starting to believe they can win this seat for the first time since 1978.

The path to a Democratic House majority goes straight through upscale suburban districts like VA-10, places where Hillary Clinton outperformed the local Democratic congressional candidate two years ago, and where enough Republicans are unhappy with Donald Trump and the GOP that their partisan allegiances are up for grabs. The average median income across districts that voted for Clinton but sent a GOP member to Congress in 2016 is just over $75,000. The average median income across all other House districts is just under $60,000. Arguably then, a simple math holds for the Democrats: To take back the House, they have to win wealthier districts.

At what cost? How much will Democrats have to compromise the party’s liberal economic and social principles? My own analysis, published last year by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, suggests that it won’t be that much. Disaffected Republicans who supported Clinton aren’t just anti-Trump; they’re also worried about economic inequality, generally supportive of social welfare programs, and willing to accept higher rates of progressive taxation—perhaps not as much as core Democrats, but still, far more than typical Republicans.

The implications are clear: The party, in all likelihood, could safely move left on economic issues and still win the suburbs—and with them, the House. But the party establishment seems to have drawn different conclusions. Democratic power brokers don’t seem to be debating whether their candidates would do better if they embraced more left-leaning fiscal policies. Instead, in these pivotal suburban swing districts, the party has consistently supported corporate-friendly candidates who can raise tons of money (often because they have personal networks of wealthy friends and business associates) and who present a “moderate” face to upscale suburban voters. They’re people like Jon Ossoff, the fiscal and social moderate who ran (and lost) a special election in Georgia, and Angie Craig, a medical device executive in the Twin Cities, whose experience running her company’s corporate PAC made her the leadership’s pick to run for Minnesota’s 2nd district. Such candidates have left the party once again out of step with its voters and grassroots organizers, as Democratic strategists continue to chase after suburban Republican moms who, they believe, would vote for a Democrat, if only Democrats didn’t want to regulate the big banks quite so much.

How did the suburbs become so pivotal? Democrats and Republicans once competed equally in the cities and in the countryside, because both national parties were really just loose coalitions of state and local parties that spanned the ideological spectrum. In 1960, for example, almost every state was competitive, regardless of how urban or rural it was.

Following the civil rights era in the 1960s and the subsequent cultural backlash of the 1970s, the parties began to align along more consistent cultural lines, and the geographical alignment of the parties shifted, too. Democrats became the party of cosmopolitan values, secularism, and diversity, and therefore the cities. Republicans became the party of traditional values, and therefore the conservative countryside. As a result, the suburbs became pivotal battlegrounds. Districts like PA-4 (outside Philadelphia) and CO-6 (outside Denver), situated at the swing-y intersection between the country and big-city suburbs, earned an increasingly coveted place as the deciders of elections. A suburban vote had become worth more than an urban one.

These shifts have not been good for the Democrats. The Republicans, as the rural party, have a distinct advantage. There are very few congressional districts that are all country. But there are many districts that combine small-to-medium cities with countryside, or that combine big-city suburbs with countryside (like VA-10). Republican voters are simply spread more efficiently across congressional districts.

In 2016, there were 62 overwhelmingly Democratic congressional districts (where Clinton won 70 percent of the vote), but just 23 overwhelmingly Republican districts (where Trump won 70 percent of the vote). This is partly because of Republican gerrymandering since 2010. But the consequence, by most analysts’ estimates, is that Democrats will have to win the popular vote in the 2018 midterms by a good 6 or 7 percentage points to win a majority of seats in the House. It’s a similar story in the Senate, where there are more red states than blue states, although there are slightly more blue voters than red across the country.

This situation is more than just unfair. It influences how Democrats position themselves to win: Structural disadvantages push the Democrats toward more conservative candidates, and structural advantages allow Republicans to be even more conservative and still win. The fact that wealthy suburbs are so pivotal only makes the problem worse. American political institutions hinge on a key swing voter who is both a little more conservative and a little more affluent than the average voter. It’s up for debate just how conservative that key voter actually is, but what’s clear is that the current system dictates the kind of fights the party is having, and gives those who want to pull the party to the right more leverage than they’d otherwise have.

For the moment, Democratic voters, however much they want left-leaning candidates, might be stuck with cautious moderation. Their leaders don’t yet seem ready to gamble on candidates with more liberal economic stances. But if Democrats do take Congress, they should use their power to implement a fairer system that treats all voters equally, regardless of where they live.

Most advanced democracies have some form of proportional representation, but few started out with it. America’s current antiquated electoral system was imported from the British countryside more than 200 years ago, applied unthinkingly by colonists who didn’t have the benefit of knowing about modern, fairer voting systems. The Framers did, however, give Congress the power to determine how states elect their representatives. And there are models for reform. The Single Transferable Vote (STV), for example, a form of proportional representation that has been used successfully in Ireland for almost 100 years, doesn’t have any single-member districts. Each district has between three and five representatives. During an election, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate is the overwhelming choice in a particular district, some of her “overhang” votes are then redistributed to second-choice candidates. Candidates are eliminated from the bottom up. The top three to five are elected. The result is that all districts are competitive, and therefore all voters matter equally. No party could take an unfair geographic advantage.

Admittedly, such significant electoral reform is a long shot in the United States. But it’s not impossible. In Maine, voters this year reaffirmed their 2016 choice to implement statewide ranked-choice voting, a variant of STV. That made Maine the first state in the nation to abandon the old system.

If applied nationally, such a change would effectively create a multiparty system in which left-wing politicians could run as left-wing politicians without needing the blessing of Democratic Party. For now, however, the only way to make districts like VA-10 obsolete is to win them.