Watch CBSN Live

A Congress of Mayors

This column was written by Fred Barnes.
Mark Kirk is a worried Republican who represents a House district in the suburbs north of Chicago. In the 1960s, the seat was held by a young Republican named Donald Rumsfeld, now defense secretary. Once safely Republican, the district has been drifting Democratic for years. The last Republican presidential candidate to win the district was George Bush Senior in 1992. George W. Bush lost there by four percentage points in 2000, by six in 2004. In races for state and local offices as well, Democrats now dominate.

Kirk, a 46-year-old moderate, has had little trouble holding his congressional seat. He got 64 percent of the district's vote in 2004 compared with Bush's 47 percent. But all around him, Kirk sees the Republican party crumbling. And it's a pattern in the Midwest and East (not the Deep South or Plains).

Older, close-in, inner suburbs or "inurbs," as Kirk calls them, began to vote Democratic in the 1990s, and the trend has continued into the new century. The latest example was the Virginia governor's election in November. The populous northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., voted lopsidedly for Democrat Tim Kaine: Arlington (74 percent), Alexandria (70), and Fairfax (60). Kaine won.

In political terms and in lifestyle, the suburbs have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Cities have spilled into suburbs, which are now densely populated and filled with singles, minorities, and people with an urban temperament. By the millions, families with children have migrated to the outer suburbs or located there in the first place. "The Republican party is doing very well in the exurbs," Kirk says, "but not so well in the inurbs."

He has a pet theory that partly explains why the exurbs are more conservative and vote Republican overwhelmingly while the old suburbs have become less conservative and more Democratic. The exurbs are home to entrepreneurs and managers who run family-owned companies or are in sales. They deal constantly with government — IRS, regulatory agencies, bureaucrats of all types — and find the experience frustrating. They vote for Republicans who would trim government. Professionals — lawyers, architects, professors — tend to live in the inner suburbs and they have few conflicts with government. They vote for Democrats on lifestyle issues such as abortion and gun control.

To cope with the transformed suburbs, Kirk has formed a "suburban strategy caucus" among House Republicans, 22 of them at the moment. And he has developed an agenda of what he calls "20 defining issues to win the suburbs and keep our Republican majority" in the House. These include the use of federal databases for background checks on teachers and a federal law requiring filters to block pornography on computers in schools and libraries.

Kirk had the 20 issues tested by pollster John McLaughlin in the inner ring of suburbs around Chicago. Twelve of the issues polled over 80 percent positive, and only two polled under 70 percent (while still receiving majority support). The top four were approved by 90 percent or more: teacher checks (95 percent), tax credits for small businesses that provide health insurance (93), portability of health insurance (93), and mandatory Internet filters (91). "If we talk about stuff like this," Kirk says, Republican strength in the suburbs will "snap back quickly."

To Kirk's surprise, one major issue in the exurbs — reducing traffic congestion — didn't register favorably in the suburbs. Asked if they wanted privately built toll roads, "voters said they'd rather the highways not be there."

Many of the issues reflect the advice of Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman that House Republicans act like a "federal mayor" stressing issues of local concern rather than foreign or national economic policy. "Why do people like mayors? Mayors solve problems."

The key, Kirk says, to advancing this agenda is making it appealing to conservatives. If Republican conservatives dismiss it, Kirk's suburban agenda will have no chance of passage in Congress and will not be taken seriously by voters.

So a number of his suburban issues have a strong conservative imprint. The 14th-highest polling issue (79 percent approval) was barring states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. The 20th was a flat tax at 20 percent to replace the federal income tax. Fifty-seven percent favored it, 55 percent of swing voters.

The most immediate task for Republicans in the suburbs is to protect the 14 House members whose districts were won by Democrat John Kerry in 2004. These include three from the Philadelphia suburbs (Mike Fitzpatrick, Curt Weldon, and Jim Gerlach). Kirk believes Bush lost Pennsylvania because of a poor showing in the suburbs and that he won Ohio because of his better showing in the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus suburbs.

One of the 14 vulnerable seats is currently held by Bob Beauprez, who represents the suburbs of Denver. He is retiring to run for governor of Colorado. His district is regarded as the most vulnerable Republican seat in the nation. The most vulnerable Democratic seat? That belongs to Melissa Bean, whose Illinois district is adjacent to Kirk's. She defeated Republican Phil Crane with 52 percent of the vote in a district Bush won with 56 percent. A dozen House Democrats represent suburban districts captured by Bush last year.

Kirk says his poll-tested suburban issues must be put in the form of legislation in the next few weeks. Otherwise, they'll have no chance of passage in 2006 or of even being seriously discussed. The stakes are high. Should Republicans regain ground lost in the suburbs, their slim national majority would suddenly become secure.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes