Editor’s Note: Lawrence C. Levy is executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former columnist and editorial writer at Newsday who has covered eight presidential elections. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

In the spring of 2020, when there was still time for President Donald Trump to shift the focus of his re-election campaign, his attorney general, William Barr, reportedly offered the candidate sound (if expletive-laden) advice on the power and predilections of moderate suburban voters.

Lawrence C. Levy

According to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their tell-all book “Peril,” Barr told Trump: “There are a lot of people out there, independents and Republicans in the suburbs of the critical states, that think you’re an a——” and “don’t care about your f—— grievances.” Barr went on and told the President that if he didn’t soften his tone and turn his attention to concerns about Covid-19 and the economy, which these critical “swing” voters cared about most, he was going to lose the election.

Trump, however, refused to pivot – just like arch-conservative California recall candidate Larry Elder, who was similarly chastised by establishment Republicans who felt a moderate more in the mold of their party’s last governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Vermont’s Phil Scott, would have the necessary crossover appeal to have a shot in a Democratic state. And whether it was out of stubbornness or insensitivity or some other game plan, they paid a steep price for their insouciance.

Trump and Elder reaffirmed – for both parties – that turning competitive suburbs from “purple” to “blue” is very bad for Republicans’ business. As demographic shifts add to the Democratic advantage in these once-reliably Republican counties, such as Fairfax in Virginia and Montgomery and Delaware in Pennsylvania, alienating “swing” suburban voters could continue to cost them in national, state and local elections.

These voters, especially in competitive states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, remain the gatekeepers any presidential candidate must pass if they expect the keys to the White House. They also determine who bangs the gavel in the US House. Most of the 40 or so competitive districts are fought in the “Crabgrass Frontier” between city and country.

But moderating their views for suburban moderates and their votes doesn’t seem to be a priority for an increasingly large swath of the Republican party.

CNN’s latest poll shows that the GOP’s base is still enthralled with Trump, which indicates an embrace of Trump’s “f—— grievances,” on everything from questioning the seriousness of the pandemic to “stolen” elections and a rejection of increased support for education, environmental protections, abortion rights and other positions typically favored by middle-of-the road suburbanites.

Last year, of course, 50% of suburban voters chose Trump’s Democratic challenger – a reversal of the slim victory they gave him in 2016 over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Instead of an incumbent who sought to scare them with suburban nightmare scenarios, they chose Joe Biden, who tried to soothe and reassure them in the midst of the Covid-19 economic and health crisis.

And while California Gov. Gavin Newsom headed off recall by a large enough margin that no one bloc can be seen as decisive, it’s where he won – formerly Republican redoubts in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties – that bodes poorly for the GOP and other places like them.

What’s particularly significant is that a majority of suburban voters in California, who until recent years supported virtually any generic Republican for everything from president to dog catcher, said “no” to Elder only after Newsom “nationalized” or “Trumpified” the election by tying the conservative talk show host to his idol.

Nowadays, given the antipathy of many suburbanites for national Republican policies on abortion rights, environmental protection, immigration and most recently Covid-19 safety protocols, nationalizing an election is virtually the same as “suburbanizing” it.

But as CNN’s Harry Enten perceptively pointed out, Newsom didn’t win by all that much in California suburbs, where Republicans last fall took back two seats they lost in 2018. And Biden’s falling approval rating has significantly shrunk whatever advantage they had.

An added safety net for Republicans, in competitive districts and states everywhere, is that they’re not alone in failing to understand that whipping up the base isn’t enough to win. That there aren’t enough loyalists in either camp to get their man or woman over the top when enrollments or voting patterns are fairly even.

In throwing political and ideological red meat to rabid supporters – whether it’s “stolen election” conspiracy theories or abortion restrictions on the right and “defunding” law enforcement and promoting “socialism” on the left – Republicans and Democrats alike are limiting the chances of building bridges to the moderate suburbs from their urban and rural bases.

Overdoing it on extreme positions even risks alienating members of their own party.

Currently, Republicans are damaging their standing with suburban swing voters with some of the most extreme anti-abortion laws since Roe v. Wade. The same can be said for the perception that, against the backdrop of some of the worst storms, droughts, floods and fires in recorded history, the Trump administration and the GOP in general opposed many efforts to confront climate change.

In the upcoming special session of Congress, while Republicans need to be careful about being opposed to funding many programs and projects that the majority of independent suburban swing voters want, Democrats also must be mindful of being seen as turning the infrastructure and social spending bills into an endless progressive wish list. Suburbanites respond poorly to bloated spending bills, which they fear will lead to higher taxes.

“Members in competitive districts ran on the promise that the days of political self-interest were over and that, instead, we had a new government that would deliver on behalf of the American people. If nothing gets done, those leaders will return to their constituents empty-handed,” John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, wrote members of Congress last week. “Republicans will have ample ammunition to skewer their opponents and Democrats will lose.”

Sans expletives, Podesta is sounding a warning that isn’t all that different than Barr’s.

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    Even the perception of compromise would go a long way to assuring middle-of-the-road voters, a decisive number of whom live in the suburbs.

    Whether it’s because they don’t understand the power of the suburbs, or the sensibilities of its voters – or whether they simply don’t care because they run in deep red or blue districts – politicians who stray too far from the suburban middle put the future of their parties in peril.

    Just as Barr warned the now ex-president.