Trump’s Nationalism Is Breaking Point for Some Suburban Voters, Risking G.O.P. Coalition


J. Mark Metts, a 60-year-old partner at one of this city’s prestigious law firms, had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate until 2016. Now he and some of his neighbors in the moneyed River Oaks enclave of Houston are about to oppose a Republican once again, to register their disapproval of President Trump.

“With Congress not really standing up to Trump, this election is becoming a referendum,” Mr. Metts said, explaining why he would no longer support the re-election of Representative John Culberson, an eight-term Republican.

Mr. Culberson is now running roughly even with the Democratic candidate, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll last week — an extraordinary development in a district that has not elected a Democrat since before an oilman named George H.W. Bush won here in 1966, and one that illustrates how difficult Mr. Trump has made it for his party to retain control of the House.

If the 2016 election hinged in large part on a rightward shift among working-class whites who deserted Democrats in the presidential race, Tuesday’s House election may turn on an equally significant and opposite force: a generational break with Republicanism among educated, wealthier whites — especially women — who generally like the party’s pro-business policies but recoil from strident, divisive language on race and gender.

Rather than seeking to coax voters like these back into the Republican coalition, Mr. Trump appears to have all but written them off, spending the final days of the campaign delivering a scorching message about preoccupations like birthright citizenship and a migrant “invasion” from Mexico that these voters see through as alarmist. He amplified his fear-peddling Wednesday night with an online video that is being widely condemned as racist, showing a Mexican man convicted of killing two California deputies with a voice-over saying “Democrats let him into the country.’’

In Republican-leaning districts that include diverse populations or abut cities that do — from bulwarks of Sunbelt conservatism like Houston and Orange County, Calif., to the well-manicured bedroom communities outside Philadelphia and Minneapolis — the party is in danger of losing its House majority next week because Mr. Trump’s racially-tinged nationalism has alienated these voters who once made up a dependable constituency.

Traditional Republicans warn that Mr. Trump’s conduct is further narrowing his party’s appeal on the eve of the election, catering to a rural base in conservative states like Missouri, North Dakota and Montana that will decide control of the Senate at the possible expense of the Republicans’ House majority and crucial governorships.

The divisiveness may play well in some parts of the country but it doesn’t play everywhere,” said the speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, who has sought to keep his party from drifting too far right. “It’s hard to grow a party when your whole approach is to incite the base.”

To see incumbent Republicans like Mr. Culberson or Representative Pete Sessions, whose district is in an affluent part of the Dallas area, locked in difficult re-elections “would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” said Mr. Straus.

More ominous for the G.O.P. is that the desertion of educated whites following Mr. Trump’s 2016 win could establish a new Democratic coalition in future elections, one that would certainly return to the polls in 2020. That would represent the mirror opposite of 1964, when Barry Goldwater lost the presidential race but made inroads into traditionally Democratic precincts among culturally conservative and economically prosperous voters — presaging Republican success further down the ballot in the years to come.

Just as Goldwater began unmooring conservative whites away from their Democratic roots, it is easy to see which demographic could shift most fundamentally on Election Day: college-educated white women, who were once fairly reliable Republican supporters. The impact of Mr. Trump with these voters is unmistakable: they supported Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by six percentage points in 2012, before backing Hillary Clinton by seven points four years later.

College-educated white women now say they prefer Democrats to control Congress by 18 points, according to a survey by Marist College and NPR.

In moderate areas, the Republican coalition has long depended on upscale whites casting aside their more liberal views on issues like gun control and abortion to support G.O.P. economic policies. Mr. Trump’s national message does virtually nothing to accommodate those voters.

“I’m not hearing anything helpful at all,” said Gene DiGirolamo, a moderate Republican state legislator from Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, where Republicans are struggling to hold on to a House seat and hold back Democratic gains in state races.

In his area, Mr. DiGirolamo said, Mr. Trump’s support “among independents has slipped dramatically from when he was first elected.”

Perhaps nowhere has Mr. Trump’s persistent use of inflammatory language become as much of an issue as in Pennsylvania, where Republicans were already bracing to suffer losses in some newly drawn House districts before a gunman fixated on immigration massacred 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday.

At a gathering in a tavern outside Philadelphia on Monday evening, supporters of Scott Wallace, a Democrat running in the state’s most hotly contested House race, denounced Mr. Trump for his “cruelty” and alluded repeatedly to the president’s rhetoric on race and national identity. Addressing a tightly packed crowd, former Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who used to represent the area, warned that “people who hate feel so emboldened to act on it.”

The suburbs around Philadelphia used to be a reliable Republican bastion. But Shelley Howland, a Republican who attended the pro-Wallace event, said Mr. Trump represented a breaking point.

A supporter of abortion rights and gun control, Ms. Howland voted two years ago for Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump, but stayed loyally Republican in the congressional election, supporting Mr. Wallace’s opponent, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, who is now seeking his second term. She said she would not support Mr. Fitzpatrick again.

“This year, it’s going to be a straight Democratic ticket,” said Ms. Howland, 65, lamenting “this whole movement to the alt-right, Steve Bannon in the White House, Trump in the White House.”

Mr. Wallace, an investor whose grandfather served as vice president, cast his campaign as an opportunity for Bucks County to repudiate a president who has unleashed a “Pandora’s box” of dangerous social turmoil.

“The tone that the president has set is absolutely toxic to relations between people of different faiths and different races and different sexual orientations,” Mr. Wallace said.

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