In November 2018 the Democratic party reclaimed control of the House of Representatives, thanks to . The party won 43 seats from Republicans, 18 of which were among the richest 15 percent of congressional districts nationwide. In twelve different states, the richest House district flipped from Republican to Democrat. In five states, the top two richest flipped. The richest 15 percent of House districts are now represented by 56 Democrats and just 10 Republicans. In 2018, voters in America’s wealthiest counties, cities, and neighborhoods made a decisive turn toward the Democrats, and now America’s traditional party of the left—whether it admits it or not—is the party of the rich.
The November 2019 elections have only accelerated this trend. Democrats claimed majorities in both houses of the Virginia state legislature for the first time since the first Clinton administration. Kentuckians elected a Democratic governor despite supporting Donald Trump by 30 percentage points three years ago. Local elections in the Philadelphia suburbs turned out a big blue wave. And in each case, Democratic victories were built on the support of the richest electoral districts.
In Virginia, Democrats captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1995 and will hold the coveted trifecta—control of the state senate, state house, and governor’s office—for the first time since 1993. Before the 2017 election Democrats held only 34 of the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. After the 2019 election they will hold 55, and it was the richest districts in the state that made a blue Virginia possible. Of the 21 seats that changed hands between 2015 and 2019, 16 were in the richest half of districts state-wide and 13 were in the richest third. In 2015 Virginia’s 27 highest income districts elected 15 Democrats and 12 Republicans. In 2019 they elected 26 Democrats and 1 Republican. While far less change occurred in the Virginia senate, Democrats also took that house’s last remaining suburban Washington, D.C., Republican seat. At the state level, the very wealthiest Virginia districts are now represented only by Democrats.
The same story played out in the Philadelphia suburbs. Pennsylvania’s four wealthiest counties—Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware—ring the city to the north and west. All excepting Montgomery County have long been bastions of Republican party power, but no more. In 2019 a veritable blue wave swept over all four, and Democrats now dominate local government throughout the state’s leafiest suburbs. County commissions in each of these four counties will now be controlled by Democrats, something that hasn’t occurred in Bucks County in thirty-five years and in Delaware County since the Civil War. Chester County Democrats won every county-level race, and both Chester and Delaware Counties elected their first Democratic district attorneys in history.
It is important to note the rich state-poor state aspect to this partisan story. Democrats are increasingly becoming the party of the rich in the country’s richest urban and suburban areas. Yet even in a relatively poor state like Kentucky, the richest districts are swinging strongly to the Democrats.
In 2015 Kentucky voters elected Republican Matt Bevin as governor by a comfortable margin of nearly 9 points. Four years later and despite—or perhaps because of—President Trump’s strong backing of Bevin, Kentucky voters threw their support to Democratic candidate Attorney General Andy Beshear (because of Beshear’s close margin of victory, Bevin has not yet conceded and an official recount may occur). In the 2015 gubernatorial election, Kentucky’s twelve richest counties all voted Republican. In 2019, however, four voted Democratic. Moreover, the two richest counties in the state by far—Oldham County in suburban Louisville and Boone County in suburban Cincinnati—even though they still voted Republican in aggregate, saw vote swings to the Democrat of over 10 percent each, respectively the second- and third-largest swings in the state. Two other well-off suburban Cincinnati counties—Kenton and Campbell—did flip to the Democrats with the fourth- and sixth-largest vote swings of the election.
All this is part of a great political transformation. Throughout the West, parties on the right are renouncing their former devotion to neoliberal economic policies. As they do so they draw what some would call “populist” voters into their ranks from the working and middle classes. The short-term problem with this electoral strategy is that populist appeals alienate professional- and managerial-class voters that were once such parties’ electoral pillars. In the United Kingdom the upper middle class increasingly bolsters the resurgent Liberal Democrats. In Germany they fuel the rise of the Greens. In the United States they caused the Democratic party’s triumphs of 2018 and 2019.
By backtracking to an agenda of tax cuts, welfare-state austerity, liberal immigration policies, and foreign wars, the Republicans may win back the support of many members of the top 20 percent. But if the party is not to be caught out without its skin like the frog princess in the Russian fairy tale, it should follow the lead of Senators and , and transform the party into a working- and middle-class party in pursuit of the . A platform oriented around the dignity of work, the restoration of the family, and the bonds of citizenship is unlikely to win back the votes of Orange County and northern Virginia. Reaching out instead to voters of every race and region in need of such a program is the only worthwhile path forward.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.