OPINION: Politics’ ‘suburban woman problem’: She’s not who you think she is

03/01/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-Lilburn) opposes HB 531 in the House Chambers on day 25 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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03/01/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-Lilburn) opposes HB 531 in the House Chambers on day 25 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Monday, March 1, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgia state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, hosts a weekly podcast with two other suburban moms, one from Ohio and one from Virginia, called “The Suburban Women Problem.

The title comes from a quote from South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who declared to Fox News the day after Republicans lost the House in the 2018 midterm elections, “We’ve got to address the suburban women problem, because it’s real.”

Graham’s concern came from the fact that Republicans lost wide swaths of suburban areas in 2018 that they had won two and four years earlier, driven largely by the flight of female voters in suburban counties from the GOP to Democrats.

Georgia was a perfect example. Lucy McBath flipped the 6th Congressional District from Republican to Democrat less than two years after Tom Price had won by 23 points.

Two years later, Republicans lost the 7th Congressional District, too, when Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux won.

Nine weeks later, Democrat Raphael Warnock flipped one of Georgia’s two Senate seats, too, thanks to his strength in the suburbs of Cobb places and Gwinnett County.

While the late Johnny Isakson won Gwinnett in 2016 by 6 points, Warnock carried it by 21. Likewise, Jon Ossoff defeated then-U.S. Sen. David Perdue in Gwinnett County by roughly the same margin.

Republicans’ problems with suburban women became so acute under former President Donald Trump that Trump made an October plea directly to them ahead of his own election in 2020.

“Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, ok?”

What could possibly have gone wrong? Plenty, starting with a fundamental misunderstanding of who “suburban women” are, a problem that’s not unique to any political party.

The shorthand of lumping suburban women into one homogenous group really got started during the 1996 presidential elections, when the New York Times pegged “Soccer Moms” as “the most sought-after voters of the campaign season.” They were white, affluent, married, “comrades in the minivan brigades.”

Soccer moms became “security moms” in 2004 and eventually simply the “suburban women” shorthand campaigns and the media use today.

By any name, those women have long been assumed to be the same kind of suburban dweller — white, married, with children, and maybe or maybe not employed outside the home.

But times have changed since the original soccer moms in 1996, as have the once-GOP stronghold suburbs of Atlanta, and the women who live there.

Rep. Clark herself is a perfect example. The Gwinnett-based mother of two holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and is a lecturer in microbiology and human anatomy at Emory University. She describes her Gwinnett district as “like a tapestry.”

“The suburbs are not a homogenous sea of white people. That’s what people think of, but it is actually very diverse and dynamic,” Clark said.

“We have over 100 languages spoken, lots of different cultures and traditions, races and ethnicities, all right here, and I’m just talking about my neighborhood, not all of Gwinnett.”

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat based in Johns Creek, is another example. The anesthesiologist represents the same district that was held by GOP Chairman David Shafer until 2018. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger represented the area in the state House before that.

“My district, in particular, is sort of at the forefront of the way that we’re seeing the suburbs, particularly northeast of Atlanta, really changing,” Au said. The movement is not just political, but racial and ethnic.

“I grew up in Manhattan and this is more diverse than the area where I grew up,” she said. “People often think of Georgia in a certain way, especially if you don’t live in Georgia. But I want people to let that go, because that’s really not the reality we’re seeing here on the ground.”

It hasn’t been all bad news for Republicans in the suburbs.

GOP candidates in Georgia have continued to dominate Atlanta’s fast-growing exurban counties like Forsyth and Paulding. And Gov. Glenn Younkin’s recent win in Virginia, fueled in part by issues around education and curriculum in schools, may have given GOP candidates and legislatures a blueprint to make up ground among suburban voters, especially moms, in 2022.

Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State address to announce a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and bonuses for school nurses and bus drivers, and he praised their “heroic efforts” during COVID.

But he also promised to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught in Georgia schools, even though administrators say its tenets are not a part of the Georgia curriculum. He also alluded to ensuring “fairness in high school sports,” largely understood to be a promise to keep transgender athletes from competing in some areas of athletic competition.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, said she’s never heard from a parent in her suburban Cobb district about CRT.

But she hears constantly from the diverse moms in Cobb about health care access, caregiving, keeping kids in school safely, and quality education.

“Expanding access to Pre-K would be tremendous,” she said. “That would be a huge thing for mothers in my community and mothers across Georgia.”

Rep. Clark said she’s heard no complaints about CRT, but does hear from voters about lack of health insurance coverage, prescription drug costs, and class size.

Sen. Au said CRT has never been brought to her as a concern, unlike crime, public health and safety, and the disruptions to schooling that COVID caused, which she hears about frequently.

All three said getting out and talking to suburban women is the key for any politician to understand who they are, what they’re struggling with, and how to win their votes in the future.

“I think that is the issue a lot of times when politicians are so removed from the reality of their own constituents that they put their constituency into a bubble that doesn’t actually match the people that they’re representing,” Clark said.

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