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Like oil and water, the Iraq war and the Northeast suburbs do not mix. The war will inflict most of its political casualties in these suburbs. In the center of the firestorm is Chris Shays, with three Philadelphia Republicans not far behind.
Research Fellow John C. Fortier
The Northeast suburbs were once a bastion of Republican strength. The old Protestant elites entrenched themselves there, leaving the cities to the emerging political power of Irish and Italian immigrants. Later, demographic shifts brought families from the cities looking for a better life. These trends made the suburbs Republican territory, while Democrats prevailed in cities. While some of these trends are still present in fast growing metropolitan areas in other regions and in the exurbs, the Northeastern suburbs have changed since their Republican heyday.
David Brooks describes a class of new, prosperous residents of these suburbs as “bobos,” bourgeois bohemians, professionals earning good salaries, but socially liberal. And with the rise of this class, Republicans’ political dominance waned, and now is almost nonexistent.
In the biggest cities, up and down the East Coast, one has to stretch to find suburban districts represented by Republicans. There are none in Boston, and in New York only Sue Kelly in distant suburbs and Peter King in the Long Island towns that upwardly mobile ethnics moved to after World War II. In New Jersey, there are Rodney Frelinghuysen and Mike Ferguson, who represent constituencies with long commutes to New York. There are no suburban Republican districts around Baltimore, and around D.C., only Tom Davis’s, although a couple others include parts of the farthest exurbs over twenty miles from the White House.
Add to these the four most vulnerable on the war issue, Shays in Connecticut, and Mike Fitzpatrick, Jim Gerlach and Curt Weldon in the Philadelphia area, and you get a total of nine primarily suburban Republicans in a region with about 37 million people.
Chris Shays’s district is perhaps the most emblematic of Republican troubles with the war. His opponent, Diane Farrell, launched her first television ad accusing Shays of giving Bush a “blank check to run an open-ended war.”
In other parts of the country, Democrats will campaign against Bush and his competency in running the war, but they will have to tread carefully not to seem too strongly captive of the anti-war movement and to the Republican charge of “cut and run.” Karl Rove and other strategists know that Republicans are vulnerable on the war, but hope that they can mitigate the damage by portraying all Democrats as Ned Lamont acolytes.
The Fairfield County suburbs represented by Shays, however, are also the home of Lamont, and the identification of Democratic candidates with Lamont’s strong anti-war stance is likely to be more of a help than a hindrance. Shays’s challenger, Farrell, is likely to benefit from the Lamont crowd. Republicans know this, which is why they have thrown their own senate candidate, Alan Schlesinger, under the bus. They are hoping that enough Republicans will turn out for Lieberman to save Chris Shays from the very energized anti-war movement turnout that Lamont will generate.
The Philadelphia-area races are also deeply affected by the war. Jim Gerlach, in the wealthy Chester County suburbs, is the most vulnerable. Curt Weldon and Mike Fitzpatrick face Democratic challengers with military backgrounds, who bolster their credibility by pointing to their service, while calling for aggressive timetables for withdrawal of troops. All of these Republicans have started to stress their independence from Bush.
In normal times, Northeast Republicans’ moderate message can win over districts in suburbia, but the war may knock off a significant number in 2006.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.
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