In all the slicing and dicing of the 18th congressional district of Pennsylvania during the immediate wake of the March 13 special election, we’ve heard a lot about its recent Republican character, its strong support for Donald Trump in 2016, and its “Trump country” character as a place with both a large white working-class population and upscale suburbs. But as Ron Brownstein points out, there’s something even more basic about Pennsylvania’s 18th district that’s of interest:
Whites comprise nearly 94 percent of the district’s total population — a share that’s greater than all but six districts’ nationwide.
Indeed, notes Brownstein, in 2016 Trump won 42 of the 45 congressional districts with a white percentage of over 90 percent of voters, and Democrats hold only 7 of them in the House.
Toward the other end of the spectrum, there are (as of 2015) 122 congressional districts where a majority of voters are nonwhite, and Republicans hold only 20 of them. Democrats definitely represent the kind of diverse coalitions that should make them increasingly powerful in the future.
But for the more immediate future, the ability to compete in lily-white districts (presumably without sacrificing any basic progressive commitments) could definitely help Democrats win and maintain a House majority.
One of the big adverse trends Democrats have been fighting is a slide in the heavily white areas of the upper Midwest, especially during the 2010 and 2014 midterms. In the latter year, for example, Democrats lost a Senate seat and two of the four House districts they previously controlled in 92 percent white Iowa. In 2016, Iowa, which had gone for Barack Obama twice, voted for Trump by a shocking 9 percent margin, with its racial (and to some extent educational) composition being the most obvious explanation. The slide of 86 percent white Wisconsin into Trump’s column, and the near loss of 87 percent white Minnesota, also showed how much Democrats were beginning to struggle with these monochromatic areas.
And the trend is not confined to the Midwest: In 2014, the 96 percent white second congressional district of Maine elected a Republican for the first time in 20 years, and then in 2016 the same district was carried by a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1988.
So while Democrats trying to pick off red-state Republican members of Congress or win Republican states in presidential elections are mostly putting together the classic coalition of a significant minority “base” and then just enough white “swing” voters to get across the finish line, there are places where that strategy’s just not available. The special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district shows that they can again win in such territory under the right circumstances. It helps if a strong labor-movement infrastructure is in place, and if the GOP finds ways to lose its advantages.