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Painting the Suburbs Blue

By E. J. Dionne

As Virginia goes, so goes the Senate -- and the nation?

The decision of former Virginia governor Mark Warner to run for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. John Warner is more than just bad news for the GOP. It reflects fundamental shifts in the balance of political power in the country, the growing force and volatility of suburban voters, and the fact that the old red-state-blue-state maps are becoming obsolete.

Republicans have never had much chance of recapturing the Senate in 2008, but Mark Warner's bid and the decision of Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to step down combined this week to make the difficult almost impossible.

If Bob Kerrey, Nebraska's former Democratic senator, decides to go for Hagel's seat, Republicans will have to defend two states they until recently could regard as bastions. And in Warner and Kerrey, Senate Democrats could add two ideologically unpredictable voices.

The Republicans are in danger of being pushed into a Southern redoubt. Their increasingly narrow regional and demographic base bears a remarkable resemblance to the old areas of Democratic strength during the Republican heyday after the Civil War.

The GOP controls both Senate seats in 17 states. Nine of these are in the South or border South, and four are in the inner West. (Three of those four states, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, are about as solidly Republican as any in the country.) There are two states far outside the Republican comfort zone where the party holds both seats, Maine and New Hampshire. And in both of those, an incumbent faces a serious challenge from the Democrats next year.

Democrats have both Senate seats in 18 states, counting the two independents who caucus with the party. Eight are in the East, and four are in the Midwest. But over the past two elections, they have begun an advance into what had been Republican territory, picking up Senate seats in Virginia, Montana, Ohio and Colorado. The map of the Senate is increasingly divergent from the patterns of those red-blue maps in President Bush's two elections.

But trends within the states are as important as national geography. Outside the Deep South, Democrats are on the verge of becoming the dominant party in the suburbs and are pushing into the exurbs. In Virginia, that offensive was central to the Democratic victories of Gov. Tim Kaine in 2005 and Sen. Jim Webb in 2006. But the implications go beyond a single state.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who headed the Democrats' 2006 effort in the House elections, regularly reminds his colleagues that 16 of the 31 Democratic pickups were in suburban or exurban areas. He has been talking about a new "suburban populism" or "metropolitan populism" that he characterizes as "a revolt of the center." The suburbs are changing demographically as more nonwhites move in, and many suburban voters are turned off by the ideological politics of the right, particularly the Christian right.

One politician who shares Emanuel's suburban obsession is Rep. Tom Davis. He happens to be one of the Republicans expected to seek John Warner's seat in Virginia.

The former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in the Washington suburbs, Davis has watched closely as the four big suburban and exurban counties in Northern Virginia have drifted toward the Democrats. Davis -- he is, with Emanuel, one of the House's shrewdest electoral tacticians -- warned his Republican colleagues before last year's election that they faced a revolt among suburban moderates. He was right.

Yet at the very moment when Republicans need unity against Warner, Davis could face an ideological showdown with former governor Jim Gilmore or, possibly, former senator George Allen, who lost narrowly to Webb last year. Both Gilmore and Allen are down-the-line social conservatives. This would give them an advantage in an internal party fight but would limit their general election appeal in the suburbs.

The outcome will determine whether Virginia Republicans define themselves as conservatives oriented toward the Deep South or as middle-state moderate conservatives comfortable with the rise of suburban politics.

Mark Warner, who combines popularity in the suburbs with strength in rural areas that's unusual for a Democrat, clearly had his own version of Emanuel's "revolt of the center" in mind when he announced his candidacy in a Web broadcast yesterday. He spoke of voters who were "sick to death of the bickering" in Washington and promised a "practical problem-solving approach" and "a bipartisan approach of change."

Safe, soothing and very suburban: These could be the characteristics of the new American majority. For now, Democrats have the better understanding of its rhythms.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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