BALLWIN, Mo. — For Heather Vaughn, a substitute teacher and graduate student, the decision last month to place the black sign with colorful lettering in her front yard — the one that said, “Black Lives Matter” and “Science is Real” — felt like an act of courage.
In previous years, such a placard might have drawn unwanted attention in her suburban, tree-lined neighborhood, where expansive homes with manicured gardens had been decked out with blue ribbons and signs of support for the police. But now it is one of three on her block that reflect support for nationwide protests against police brutality and a growing sense of unease with President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
A self-described independent, Vaughn, 41, had supported Rep. Ann Wagner, her Republican congresswoman, in past years, but more recently soured on her. This year, given her frustration and anger with Trump, Vaughn is confident she will not vote for Wagner and is wrestling with whether she in good conscience can vote again for any of the local Republicans down the ballot whom she would normally back.
“That is an issue that we’ve had my entire life and we still haven’t solved,” she said of the systemic racism that drove recent protests around the country, much as it did in 2014 in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. “It’s just going to get swept under the rug again unless we do something significant at the polls in November.”
Suburban districts like these have long been critical bases of Republican support, packed with affluent white voters who reliably chose Republicans to represent them in Congress. Democrats seized control of the House in 2018 by making inroads in communities like these, and Republicans have tied their hopes of reclaiming power to preserving their remaining footholds there. But as Trump continues to stumble in his response to the pandemic and seeks to stir up racist fears with pledges to preserve the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” such districts are slipping further from the party’s grasp, and threatening to drag down congressional Republicans in November’s elections.
Interviews with more than two dozen party officials, strategists and voters in areas like these help explain what recent polls have found: that Trump’s strategy is alienating independent and even some conservative voters — particularly women and better-educated Americans — who are turned off by his partisan appeals and disappointed in his leadership. From the suburbs of St. Louis to Omaha to Houston, they expressed deep concern about Trump’s approach to twin national crises, lamenting his confident declarations that the coronavirus was under control and his move to stoke racial divides after nationwide protests over police brutality against Black Americans.
One result is that House Republicans, who began the election cycle hoping to win an uphill battle to recapture their majority — or at the very least, claw back some of the competitive districts they lost to Democrats in 2018 — are instead scrambling to shore up seats that once would have required little effort to hold. Analysts at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently forecast that November could bring “a Democratic tsunami,” and placed once safe Republican incumbents on an “anti-Trump wave watch list.”
“We feel that we’re not only going to hold the House, we are going to grow the majority that we have,” Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chairperson of House Democrats’ campaign arm, said in an interview. “With each passing month, that number of seats that we think that we can gain continues to grow.
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for House Republicans’ campaign arm, contended in a statement that incumbent Republicans in those districts would be able to rise above the national trends and noted, “Voters don’t cast their ballots in July.”Republicans “can and will win no matter the environment, and this cycle will be no different,” McAdams said, “especially with President Trump turning out Republican voters who stayed home in 2018 and Democrats embracing an extreme agenda.”
Still, some voters who in the past supported Trump and his Republican allies said they had seen subtle shifts in recent months among their co-workers and friends. People who had once shied away from any political commentary were now openly criticizing the failures in the pandemic response, they said, or displaying “Black Lives Matter” signs and posters outside their homes.
Wagner, who last year began the House Suburban Caucus in part to be “a voice for the growing suburban areas in our country,” is among those facing a more difficult than expected reelection race.
In the suburbs of Douglas County in Nebraska, Derek Oden, 23, executive director of the local Republican Party, said he was working feverishly to expand his party’s outreach, acknowledging that the national rhetoric fueled in part by Trump’s inflammatory language “definitely convolutes things.” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., has recently begun to distance himself from the president, openly breaking with him by leading the charge to remove the names of Confederate figures from military bases, a move that Trump has condemned.
“I think they’re leaning away from what used to be Republican standards — instead of leading the culture, they’re letting the culture lead them,” Nora Haury, 87, said of Republicans in an interview outside her home in Omaha. “I feel a bit discouraged,” she added, though she said her concerns about how much the Democrats were influenced by their party’s left flank would keep her voting red come November.
Bacon will again face Kara Eastman, a progressive activist and nonprofit organizer, after defeating her by 2 percentage points in 2018. Armed with flyers and an arsenal of pork-related puns, the congressman spent one recent afternoon knocking on doors in blistering heat, trying to persuade moderate and independent voters that he deserved their votes.
Cheerfully reminding those who answered the door that their votes could make a difference, he made little unsolicited mention of the president, responding to entreaties to make the pandemic go away with reassurances about the promising, yet early, success of a vaccine trial and pointing to the $2.2 trillion stimulus law that Congress approved in March.
“I can just control my message and control my work ethic,” Bacon said, adding that he believed Eastman’s support for “Medicare for all” and other progressive proposals would repel independent voters. “Trump will be a factor in this discussion, and I don’t know where it will be in four months, so I can’t worry about that.”
In Texas, where Democrats are targeting five seats that once were Republican strongholds explicitly gerrymandered to capture large sections of the suburbs, some steadfast conservative voters are now preparing to cast their first votes for Democratic congressional candidates, infuriated by the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
Cass Mattison and his wife, Samantha Mattison, who live in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston, say they usually vote Republican, but they both plan to vote for Sri Kulkarni, a Democratic former Foreign Service officer running to replace Rep. Pete Olson, a Republican who is retiring. They cite their party’s “very poor handling” of the pandemic “from top to bottom.”
Samantha Mattison, who runs an in-home day care, said that she was particularly infuriated by how long Trump had waited to take the virus seriously, and upset that he refused for so long to wear a mask. “The lack of accountability kills me,” she said.As she and her husband watched hospitalizations skyrocket in Houston, they turned their attention to the election, and began to research the two Republican candidates in their district vying to succeed Olson, only to be disappointed.
“Houston was just out of control, and not one of those candidates talked about what we’re going to do about COVID,” Cass Mattison, an engineer and Army veteran, said in a phone interview.
Farha Ahmed, a lawyer in Sugar Land, said she has consistently voted Republican for the past 30 years and previously served as general counsel for her county’s local Republican Party. She plans to support Kulkarni in November.
“I don’t see a lot of leadership” from Republicans, she said in an interview. “The megaphone is really with the president and that is what has translated to all the Texas Republican leaders. It makes it very difficult for them to carry out what they need to do for health and safety reasons.”
In Houston’s northern suburbs, Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee who won reelection in 2018 by 5 percentage points, is facing a rematch from Mike Siegel, a progressive civil rights lawyer. Republican strategists say that McCaul’s campaign this cycle is far stronger, but privately acknowledge McCaul could fall if an exceptionally strong Democratic wave sweeps across the country.
They are worried about voters like Wade Miller, 51, in Cypress. Miller, in an interview, described himself as a longtime Republican, but said he was reluctant to support Republicans in the coming election, citing their response to the pandemic. He and his wife had stopped watching national television news because listening to the president’s talk “made us angry for a little bit there,” he said.
“I have always been a mostly straight-ticket voter — I don’t think I will be this coming election,” Miller said. “We’re talking about human lives here, and if people aren’t willing to do what it takes to save lives, what else aren’t they willing to do? I will definitely be changing my vote come November.”