Updated Apr 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Dramatic realignment swings working-class districts toward GOP

Data: Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) office and Ballotpedia; Note: Districts where there was no opponent in the 2022 midterm election are not included; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

Nine of the top 10 wealthiest congressional districts are represented by Democrats, while Republicans now represent most of the poorer half of the country, according to median income data provided by Rep. Marcy Kaptur's (D-Ohio) office.

Why it matters: The last several decades have ushered in a dramatic political realignment, as the GOP has broadened its appeal to a more diverse working class and Democrats have become the party of wealthier, more-educated voters.

  • "Republicans were the party of the country club, and they're increasingly the party of country," lobbyist and political analyst Bruce Mehlman told Axios.
  • "We have seen an inversion of Democrat and Republican shares of the highest- and lowest-income districts — and the highest and lowest college degree-holding districts," Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman told Axios.

By the numbers: 64% of congressional districts with median incomes below the national median are now represented by Republicans — a shift in historical party demographics, the data shows.

  • Some of the highest-income districts have long voted Democrat, but growing inequality is widening the gap between them and working-class swing districts critical to winning majorities.
  • "Increasingly, districts that make up the majority of the Democratic caucus don't really reflect the middle-income districts where the House is won and lost,” Wasserman said.

Zoom in: Democrats are still competitive and have held on to a number of swingy, middle-income districts, including Kaptur's in Ohio. She is one of only five House Democrats representing districts won by former President Trump.

  • Kaptur often shows a similar chart ranking districts by median income to fellow Democrats — and has even given a version to President Biden.
  • "It's one way for her to highlight ... that there are still those districts, especially in middle America away from the coasts, that are not feeling the benefit of all the policies in place," a Kaptur aide told Axios. "That there is still work to be done to uplift these communities."
  • Kaptur also sees another interpretation: "The other way you could look at it is: how is it possible that Republicans are representing the majority of people who struggle?" she told Insider, which first reported on the chart.

Between the lines: The relationship between geography, education, income and politics is complex — and experts point to education as a stronger indicator of party affiliation.

  • "I suspect income is downstream of education and geography. Voters with college degrees or more earn higher salaries, live where homes cost more and increasingly skew Democratic," Mehlman said.

The big picture: Class politics has become a driving force in the past several elections, supercharged by Donald Trump's populist plea to middle-class, blue collar workers in 2016.

  • An increase in less-educated, lower-income GOP primary voters could benefit Trump as he seeks the 2024 nomination, as CNN points out.
  • Meanwhile, "the more the Democratic Party becomes defined or stereotyped by elites and coastal interests with a lot of money, the harder it is to win the middle-income districts that they need to get to 218 [seats]," Wasserman said.
  • Still, Democrats are hopeful that strong and sustained messaging on some of Biden's biggest legislative wins — and House Republicans' threats to cut popular social programs — could help them shore up some working-class voters.

What they're saying: “While House Democrats expanded broadband internet, capped the cost of insulin, and cut child poverty in half, Republicans did everything they could to stop them from helping middle- and working-class families," DCCC spokesperson Tommy Garcia told Axios, criticizing Republicans aims to cut federal spending.

  • On the other side, Kaptur as well as the other Trump-district Democrats are top targets for Republicans hoping to expand their House majority.
  • "Marcy Kaptur is well aware that Democrats like herself no longer represent the working class," NRCC spokesman Chris Gustafson said in a statement last month.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 12, 2023.

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