The House GOP Wants to Win Back the Suburbs

Is fighting climate change the way to do it?

If you want to catch a wave, you have to bring a surfboard. That, in effect, is what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his team are doing in rolling out a series of bills this year to deal with the impact of climate change. That might not sound like an obvious issue for the GOP to tackle, but that is kind of the point. The makeup of the party has shifted since Donald Trump won in 2016 and McCarthy wants to win back some of the voters who have turned away since then.

Democrats took the House in 2018 by securing wins in suburban congressional districts that used to be part of the GOP base. In many cases, these voters are not liberal, or even Democrats. In fact, 30 House Democrats now represent congressional districts that President Trump won in 2016. 

Democrats won these seats by drastically outperforming Republicans among two key demographics: women and younger voters. As the Pew Research Institute noted in its review of the midterms results, “the gender gap in voting preference is not new, but it is at least as wide as at any point over the past two decades … women favored the Democratic candidate in their district by 19 percentage points (59% to 40%) while men voted for the Republican 51% to 47%.” At the same time, Pew found that the “majorities of voters ages 18 to 29 (67%) and 30 to 44 (58%) favored the Democratic candidate.”

The weaknesses in the Republican coalition line up quite well with another Pew data set. According to a survey conducted in October 2019, younger Republicans and women are among the class of voters who think the U.S. government should do more to address the threat of climate change. Among Republicans, “adults in the ages 18 to 38 in 2019—52% think the government is doing too little on climate,” per Pew. By comparison, interest in action to address climate change falls to 41 percent and 31 percent for Generation Xers and Baby Boomers respectively. The results are equally stark across the gender divide: 46 percent of women think the government’s efforts on climate are insufficient, compared with only 34 percent of GOP men.

That is why the legislative proposals House Republicans are introducing to address climate change are critical to winning back key suburban seats. Taken on their own, the first four bills—extending a carbon sequestration tax credit, fostering carbon capture innovation, and planting a trillion trees—are sensible, if relatively modest. McCarthy has announced they will be followed with more robust measures on clean energy and conservation. But they already send a clear signal that climate change denialism is not the position of House Republicans or the new crop of House GOP candidates. 

In the wake of Democrats’ unsuccessful effort to impeach and remove President Trump from office, House Republicans’ 2020 election prospects are looking up. Contrasting the party’s sensible, market-based solutions with Washington Democrats’ and economically disastrous “Green New Deal” will help build on this momentum. 

A poll conducted for the NRCC earlier this month looked at voters in 95 competitive congressional districts (54 are held by Democrats and considered NRCC targets, 41 are held by Republicans and considered Democratic targets) and found 59 percent of voters believe this Democratic House has “accomplished not very much or nothing at all.” 62 percent even “agreed that Democrats’ focus on impeachment has hurt Congress’ ability to get more important things done for the country.”

There are reasons for skepticism, both politically and policy-wise. House Republicans have seen a huge number of retirements. On the policy front, these first bills may seem too small to address a problem as big as climate change. It is also hard to make news from the minority in the House, so it’s difficult to say how many voters will even be aware of the initiative. Plus, President Trump, who is more skeptical on climate change and the need to address it, remains a wild card. 

At this point, though, it is clear that McCarthy and House Republicans are making the politically smart calculation that fighting climate change without devastating our economy will be a core pillar of any successful attempt to win back the suburbs, and, with them, the House majority.

Michael Steel is a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and longtime Republican strategist.

Photograph of a woman voting with her child in Missouri by Scott Olson/Getty Images.