Republican support continues to erode in the suburbs of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. This month’s elections offered more proof of the party’s struggles, as Democrats surged in suburban Washington, Philadelphia and New Orleans while gaining enough votes in the suburbs outside Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington to capture the Kentucky governorship.
Republicans looking to win back suburban voters should consider the issue of education. Over the past several years, the party has moved steadily away from advocating expanded government funding for both K-12 and higher education as its electoral coalition has become older, more rural and less well-educated itself. Republican leaders have recently enacted cuts in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Kansas and elsewhere that have incited popular opposition, and President Trump’s education policies are likely to attract Democratic attacks during next year’s presidential election unless Republicans choose a different course.
The Republican Party has faced this challenge before. Two decades ago, after Bill Clinton built two successful candidacies in the 1990s around targeted appeals to middle-class suburbanites, George W. Bush chose to prioritize public education as a major theme of his 2000 presidential campaign to improve his party’s performance with what had come to be known as the “soccer mom vote.”
Mr. Bush counteracted a longstanding Democratic advantage. In the 1996 election, according to an October 1996 Gallup survey, voters thought Mr. Clinton would do a better job handling education than the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, by a margin of 62 percent to 31 percent. But in a Gallup poll conducted in October 2000, Mr. Bush held a narrow four-point edge on the issue over his Democratic opponent, Al Gore. Once in office, Mr. Bush guided his education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, through Congress with bipartisan support, representing one of his presidency’s biggest legislative achievements.
But subsequent Republican leaders have not followed the same path. President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget marked the federal Department of Education for a 10 percent spending reduction. A number of recent or current Republican governors have proposed or presided over significant budget cuts to state education expenditures, including Matt Bevin in Kentucky, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Mike Dunleavy in Alaska.
This policy shift has been accompanied by a parallel evolution in the Republican demographic coalition. In 2002, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by similar percentages among white college graduates (54 percent to 40 percent) and white non-graduates (49 percent to 40 percent), according to Gallup data. But as of 2019, college-educated whites have collectively shifted to prefer the Democratic Party, 54 percent to 41 percent, while white non-graduates now lean Republican to an even greater degree (59 percent to 34 percent). The parties have also become polarized by age, with minor generational differences in partisan voting preference in the 2000 election widening to sizable gaps in recent contests.
The Republican Party has therefore become a less natural constituency over time for an expanded government role in education. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Mr. Trump’s support in the 2016 election came from voters without college degrees, and 65 percent came from voters over 50 — most of whom are past the stage in life of having school-aged children. Republican attitudes toward the educational system have also soured. Pew surveys found that the share of Republican-leaning voters who agree that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country” rose to 59 percent from 35 percent between 2012 and 2019.
Republican leaders like Mr. Trump who prefer mobilizing their own base to reaching outside the party for support have become much more aggressive at targeting education budgets for spending reductions. Yet this approach can be politically dangerous — even in normally Republican states. Mr. Bevin’s education cuts in Kentucky provoked a countermobilization among teachers and school districts, while his suggestion that universities eliminate some liberal arts programs alarmed the higher-education sector. His opponent, Andy Beshear, seized on the issue, suing to block a Bevin-signed teacher pension reform bill in his capacity as state attorney general, choosing a school administrator as his running mate and blasting the governor for “attacking all of the commonwealth’s children through his policies.” The veteran Kentucky political journalist Al Cross reported that the Democrats mounted their best “persuasion and turnout effort ever” to elect Mr. Beshear governor this month, “driven mainly by teachers and labor-union members out for revenge against Bevin.”
Other red-state governors have faced similar rebellions. Mr. Brownback’s education cuts set off a popular backlash against Republicans in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kan.; the populous, traditionally Republican Johnson County voted for the current governor, Laura Kelly, a Democrat, by nearly 17 points in 2018, after which several moderate Republican legislators switched to the Democratic Party. Mr. Dunleavy recently decreased the size of his proposed 41 percent reduction in state funding for the University of Alaska system in the face of an organized recall campaign motivated by his budget policies.
Education has not yet played a prominent role in the 2020 campaign; the issue doesn’t divide the Democratic presidential field as deeply as health care and taxes do. Once the general election begins, however, it is likely that the Democratic nominee will try to use education policy as a line of attack against Mr. Trump and his unpopular education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Democrats will hope to build further on their growing advantage in large metropolitan suburbs, where many residents already dislike the president and prize the perceived quality of their public school systems and state universities.
But for supporters of expanded education funding, these recent electoral victories should not obscure a larger challenge. The declining influence of college-educated voters within the Republican Party, combined with increasing suspicion on the right that teachers, professors and college students are left-wing ideologues hostile to conservative ideas, means that education has become one more policy area where bipartisanship and compromise is giving way to polarization and culture-war conflict. Winning political battles may be satisfying, but not needing to fight them in the first place is even better.