In The Trenches
Have Democrats Turned Their Back on Rural America Forever?
November 13, 2016
The crushing defeat that Donald Trump delivered to the Democrats, mostly from a beat down in the boondocks has many in my party asking if they should even bother trying to woo white working class and rural voters anymore. The thinking among coastal elites is that with coming demographic changes in the years ahead, the “coalition of the ascendant” that powered Barack Obama to the White House will turn red states blue. This mindset is deeply flawed.
Even if the 2016 presidential campaign is the last old white guy’s election, Democrats can’t expect to be a viable national party if they only hold mostly urban turf in the Northeast, California and the Ecotopia of the Pacific Northwest with an Illinois and Virginia as side dishes. The Trump wave’s greatest damage was down-ballot in Senate and House races.
Warning Signs That Flashed Were Ignored
The successful cycles of 2006, where Democrats flipped the U.S. House and 2008, where they added to their congressional wins by re-taking the Oval Office (thanks in no small measure to then-DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy), included victories in rural precincts thanks to aggressive competition for rural votes.
The House Democratic Rural Working Group and the Senate Rural Outreach arms of the Democrat’s steering and policy committees were critical pieces of messaging infrastructure designed to listen to and communicate with folks in the nation’s hinterlands. Entities like the Obama Agriculture & Rural Policy Committee (full disclosure – I was an active and charter member), not only produced a comprehensive Rural Plan but helped bring that vision to life in the 2008 presidential race with full-throated constituency outreach to small towns and rural communities.
After the disastrous 2010 midterms, things began to change. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid dismantled their rural policy shops and Obama never pushed to keep a rural voter component at the DNC. At the party campaign committees, outreach desks were created for almost every minority, ethnic and interest group except geographic minorities. In the states, most state parties had no rural caucus and the handful that did were given no support in financial or human capital. This lack of basic rural electoral infrastructure started to cost the Democrats more losses in 2012 and 2014. At this summer’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, pleas from a Pennsylvania U.S. House candidate for Democrats to embrace rural voters’ values fell on deaf ears.
Mr. Secretary Had No Clue
Hillary Clinton stood before a giant gleaming John Deere tractor in Iowa as she rolled out her Future of America’s Rural Economy plan on August 26, 2015. The white paper (pretty much a carbon copy of her 2008 rural plan) garnered some positive press and the Rural for Hillary Twitter feed picked up a few more followers. Then Madame Secretary wiped her hands and walked away from rural America. Most of the effort to woo rural voters was left to surrogates at a couple of debates and forums with Trump representatives on the other side of the stage and a handful of upstate New Yorkers who testified that Clinton paid attention to them as senator and helped push some initiatives that benefitted Empire State agriculture. The candidate herself told people to go to her website to read her position papers. For millions of rural residents without access to high-speed broadband, that is hard to do. On November 8, the Rural for Hillary Twitter page had a total of 783 followers. 783 Twitter peeps? As they say on Monday Night Football, “C’mon man!”
As the media scratched their heads at why Trump was holding rallies far off the beaten path in places like Lisbon, Maine, Atkinson, New Hampshire, Fletcher and Selma, North Carolina, Clinton never deviated from a schedule that looked like a rock band’s tour of major urban centers. Clinton never ventured out to a county fair or commodity-themed festival to meet rural voters where they are and sell her rural policy vision on the stump. A woman at Trump’s Selma, NC stop told a reporter “Hillary would never come because we’re not important enough to her. She doesn’t care about us.” Indeed, in their battleground state thread-the-needle strategy of turning out their base voters, campaign stops like this were vetoed by the brass in Brooklyn. This violates the first rule of competing for rural votes – showing up in the sticks.
On September 27, the morning after the first presidential debate, The Daily 202’s James Hohmann of the Washington Post talked one-on-one with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The former Iowa governor – who Hillary Clinton considered as a potential running mate – shared his take on the debate, including how the candidates were resonating with rural voters.
There are some very revealing responses from Mr. Secretary in this interview. When Hohmann says “you’re sort of the point person for rural America,” Vilsack responds “I’m the only one.” Vilsack then admits that “we (Democrats) don’t do as good a job of speaking directly to rural voters,” and “There’s no question Democrats have a hard time talking to and about rural voters.”
I submitted these two questions to 202 Live via Twitter which Hohmann asked:
How come Dem Senate candidates in AZ, NV, NH, NC, etc. are not hitting GOPers on their bad rural votes (farm bill, broadband, etc.)? Vilsack says “That’s a good question.”
How come the DNC, DSCC, DCCC have no rural outreach desks? How can Ds compete for rural voters when they don't have a game plan? Vilsack says “That’s a good question and its one I don’t know I have a very good answer to.”
After the election, former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who was slated to be charge of Clinton’s White House transition team, was asked by The Hill about Clinton’s failure to reach and connect with rural voters and his response is as vapid as Vilsack’s. “Democrats have not done very well in rural America and I don’t understand why that has happened. The broader question is how to have a Democratic Party that can attract those working men and women,” Salazar said.
Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” dig at the Trumpers was her riff on Obama’s faux pas from 2008 when he was caught complaining about those “who cling to guns and religion” and it did not go over well in flyover country. Anyone with any doubts that Democrats have become the party of the professional class should read the spot-on book by Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal - What Ever Happened to The Party of The People? Maybe Salazar and Vilsack will get a copy in their Christmas stockings this year.
Don’t Drink the DSCC’s Kool Aid – It’s Brewed by Folks Who Don’t Have Any Dirt Under Their Nails
If white working class voters and rural folks distrusted Clinton (e-mail server), thought she was a flip-flopper (being against ethanol and biofuels as a senator and then for them once she made her White House runs) and found her not relatable to them (more comfy giving six figure speeches to Wall Street executives), it was the Senate races where Democrats failure to engage on issues near and dear to those in the countryside wound up costing them dearly.
Going into this cycle, there was reason for some optimism at retaking the upper chamber of Congress that was lost in the Dempocalypse that was the 2014 midterms. The Democrats had the map to their advantage, had recruited some solid candidates to challenge Republicans and in Sen. Jon Tester, had a farmer from Big Sandy, MT running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. There was some hope that the abysmal records on an array of issues directly impacting and affecting rural voters by GOP incumbents would get exposed. It was not to be.
In Arizona, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick led Sen. John McCain 43 percent to 39 percent among rural voters in a Rocky Mountain Poll from April 15, 2016. Kirkpatrick’s House district is majority-rural (52.4%) and she sits on the Agriculture and Transportation & Infrastructure Committees, so she should be intimately familiar with the meat and potato issues that come before these panels that hit rural Arizona. But instead of going after McCain’s horrific rural record (which Obama used to his advantage in 2008), against farmers and ranchers (opposing multiple Farm Bills over the years), his votes to kill rural broadband and rural air service and against several highway bills, she gulped the DSCC Kool Aid and made McCain’s opposition to a new Supreme Court justice a centerpiece of her campaign. Worse, in 2011, McCain led the effort in the Senate to obliterate rural postal service by doing away with Saturday mail delivery and closing thousands of rural post offices across the nation. If you don’t live near a pharmacy and you are part of the 80 percent of rural Arizonans who lack rural broadband, then you depend on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver your medications and magazines. Kirkpatrick never mentioned this issue in her campaign let alone cut a radio spot to drive it home. By autumn, her lead had slipped and McCain won handily by 12 points. Kirkpatrick won only four rural counties and among the rural counties she lost – four were in her own AZ-1 district.
In the Show Me State, Jason Kander, one of the party’s brightest new stars, was beaten by Sen. Roy Blunt who benefited from the Trump wave in outstate Mizzou’s rural counties. Kander won none of them, not even the handful that Blunt’s 2010 opponent Robin Carnahan had carried in the Lead Belt, in the southeast part of the state where there had been some historical Democratic strength from union lead miners. Kander did make his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal a prominent part of his platform. But he never hit Blunt on supporting the Korea Free Trade Agreement from 2011 that saw the state’s trade deficit in the top 10 exports (everything from leather products to transportation equipment), grow 62% under the first three years Korea FTA was in effect and resulted in a drop in turkeys and soybeans, (two of the top five ag exports) falling 49% and 2% respectively. Kander hit Blunt relentlessly on his fancy Washington, DC house and that his family were all lobbyists but never mentioned Blunt’s opposition to biofuels and that he voted in 2012 against federal payments in-lieu of taxes for rural counties that host huge swaths of tax-exempt acres as part of the Mark Twain National Forest. Those federal bucks help pay for schools and local law enforcement where the tax base is thin because of Uncle Sam’s green footprint. Like Kirkpatrick and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania and Deborah Ross in North Carolina, Kander let Blunt off the hook on dozens of votes that have specific resonance in rural communities.
The Wisconsin race between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold was supposed to be a layup for the Democrats until Feingold fumbled the ball. Johnson, a freshman who came in on the 2010 Tea Party wave was deeply unpopular and Feingold supposedly had learned from his defeat six years earlier that he had to put much more stock into winning in places outside of Madison and Milwaukee. Feingold got the showing up part right – he stumped in all of the Badger State’s 72 counties. But he again messed up on his rural messaging. Not only did Johnson vote against the 2014 Farm Bill but he opposed key amendments to that omnibus legislation affecting WI commodities like milk and cranberries. Alfalfa illustrates this point. Johnson voted against a measure by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to carry out research and development for a crop insurance program for alfalfa. This is kind of a big deal in a state that has America’s Dairyland on its license plates. In 2015, Wisconsin grew 1.2 million acres of alfalfa with a value of $756, 985,000. Feingold (who spent some time on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry during his first Senate term) really could have made some political hay with some paid media hitting Johnson for being out of touch with his state’s signature economic sector – and possibly won more of the rural vote that should have been his.
Even in Nevada, where Catherine Cortez Masto hung on to hold outgoing Sen. Harry Reid’s seat, she did it only by running up the score in Las Vegas and Clark County. Cortez Masto made a brief three-day swing through rural Nevada in mid-July showing her face in places like Ely, Elko, Pahrump and Winnemucca. But then she pretty much focused only on Las Vegas and Reno. Cortez Masto lost the rural cow counties by just under 54,000 votes – a bigger blowout than the 40,000- vote rural defeat ex-Rep. Shelley Berkley suffered in her 2012 loss to Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who beat her 46% to 45% statewide. Cortez Masto was so focused on parroting DSCC talking points on abortion rights and the Supreme Court vacancy that she never hit suburban Rep. Joe Heck on his anti-rural and anti-libertarian record that could have appealed to rural Nevadans.
What Can the Party of Jefferson and Truman Do Going Forward?
There are a number of takeaways for Democrats to learn and act on if they have any hope of competing for the hearts and minds of rural Americans:
* Create a rural desk at the DSCC and DCCC so that Senate and House candidates can have access to opposition research and policy data on rural issues that affect rural/exurban constituencies in their respective states because every state in this nation contains some rural precincts. Make the DNC’s Rural Council more than an entity that only meets for two days every four years at the national convention.
* Revive the Senate Democratic Rural Outreach shop within the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee that was closed down in 2010 and staff it with folks who know how to do messaging to the hinterlands and the boondocks. Even though he is up in the 2018 cycle, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would be a natural to lead this effort. Revive the House Democratic Rural Working Group in the House to do similar work. Rep. Cheri Bustos who represents a swath of western Illinois that is 47% rural would be a perfect fit.
* Learn that in candidate recruitment, carpetbaggers are not good messengers in rural places. House contests in ME-2 and NY-19 showed that voters don’t like people like Louisville, KY native Emily Cain (who Mainers politely refer to being “from away”) or Seattle-born and New York City transplant-to-upstate Zephyr Teachout, and it shows at the ballot box. Organic to the district works better when all the votes are counted.
* Start hiring campaign managers, staff, and campaign consultants who have some direct connection to rural America and know that alfalfa is a forage crop and not the most famous and popular member of the Little Rascals comedy shorts series. Democrats need more people with some dirt under their nails advising candidates up and down the ballot that they cannot ignore stuff that animates rural people.
* Work with the urban Democratic donor community to support and endow state-branded/rural-focused/grassroots driven super PACs to fund cost-effective voter contact messaging for rural folks such as dirt-cheap rural radio spots and print ads in rural weekly newspapers to reach rural voters where they are.
See You in September (Not) June 17,2014
The news out of June 14ths state Democratic convention that two of the contenders in the gubernatorial race did not make the ballot overshadowed the lone candidate for lieutenant governor who won’t make it to the primary election on September 9.
First some full disclosure. This past winter and spring I served as western Massachusetts campaign director for James Arena-DeRosa, running his electoral operation in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties. I’d known James for 30 years and having worked with him in former Secretary of State Mike Connolly’s office in our youth, I knew he was the most qualified candidate for LG.
Running statewide is a daunting task for any first-time candidate and James had entered the race very late because he did not want to leave his post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service last fall during the shutdown of the federal government.
As someone who has spent a career working on the issues of food and agriculture, James’ core message of “ending hunger while creating jobs” was music to my ears. Many who said his candidacy was narrowly focused on a single issue failed to digest his Renewed Deal white papers because they contained more policy protein than any of his other three opponents combined.
On a sub-freezing day in February, Arena-DeRosa trekked out to Ashfield to tour a sawmill and learn about the challenges facing the forest and wood products industry and also the opportunities around Combined Heat and Power biomass. He was the only statewide candidate to attend Agriculture Day at the State House and talk about expanding farm-to-school programs and getting Bay State-made food and beverages into the stores at the Massachusetts Turnpike service plazas and at Logan airport’s terminals. In April, he went to the White Farm in tiny Hawley to shine the spotlight on some idiotic nutrient management regulations that state bureaucrats had concocted without consulting the experts at UMass Extension that threatened to put struggling dairy farmers like Tedd White out of business with huge fines if they spread manure in the wrong month of the year.
So you would think that farmers, locavores, nutritionists and other foodies would have embraced Arena-DeRosa’s bid and stepped up to help him win the Democratic nomination. After all, at USDA he had gotten Secretary Vilsack to put Crasins on the menu of the school breakfast program helping our cranberry growers and had overseen SNAP and WIC funds to people battered by the great recession that began in 2008. Conservatives and moderates should have hailed him as the guy who forced Gov. Patrick to crack down on EBT card fraud. Well you would be wrong.
It is exceedingly rare in an urban state like this for a candidate to feature food security and helping farmers as the centerpiece of their campaign. I know because I worked for the only full-time farmer in the Legislature back in the late 80s and early 90s and it took 22 years to elect the next one.
As Arena-DeRosa sought support and aid from food bank directors, Buy Local promoters, Ocean Spray executives and school food service managers, he was given the cold shoulder. During his stint at Oxfam America he created a public advocacy program as his legacy to develop and hone the organization’s strategy at influencing public policy and in a cruel irony, he watched as too many potential allies on hunger, sustainable agriculture and the state’s food and farm network failed to engage electorally on his behalf.
These advocates and activists often like to complain about their legislative and issue agendas not being advanced on Beacon Hill but when given a chance to put a champion of theirs into the suites at the corner office they blanche at running for delegate, hosting a meet and greet or making a campaign donation.
So now as front runner Steve Kerrigan, Mike Lake and Leland (Please Don’t Notice I was Once a Republican State Legislative Nominee in Virginia) Cheung hit the summer circuit of parades, steak roasts and senior center luncheons, Arena- DeRosa who Boston Magazine pundit David Bernstein called “an interesting activist who we won’t get to learn more about for now,” won’t be joining them on their quest to be the next Mr. Second Banana.
2014 Senate Races – 10 Rural States at the Fore November 16, 2012
Welcome to the 2013-2014 election cycle, a wonderful feature of the permanent campaign. As the ink has dried on the redistricting maps drawn after the 2010 federal census, it is now clear after the results of November 6, 2012 that Republicans should be locked into their majority control of the House for the balance of the decade, barring a tidal wave election along the lines of the 1974 post-Watergate tsunami. This built-in Republican advantage means that the GOP only need to win 28 of 99 swing districts/seats in any given election between 2014-2020 to remain in control of the House.
That again brings the focus to the Senate races which will be up in the 2014 midterms. While the various political handicappers are already prognosticating the outlook for the 20 Democrats and 13 Republicans up for re-election in two years, I will add my analysis on the basis of the impact and relevance of the rural nature of many of the states where these Senate fights will occur. States are ranked by % rural population:
Maine – 59.3% (2nd most-rural)
Sen. Susan Collins heads into her election for a fourth term as the Pine Tree State’s senior senator with the retirement of her longtime colleague Olympia Snow. Collins is the only Republican up in 2014 from a blue state. A strong case can be made that Collins is the Senate’s last Republican moderate. I’ll define GOP moderate as a member with an ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) score of 30% or more and Collins pulled a 40% in 2010. Collins, who hails from the potato-growing county of Aroostook in the far north, has been very responsive to parochial interests such as fishing, blueberries and the forest and wood products sectors (even though she was among a handful of senators to oppose the 2008 Farm Bill) and won her 2008 race by a comfortable 61%. But Collins, who got married at 59 this year, may decide that life in the minority in a more polarized and hyper-partisan Senate is not where she wants to be anymore. If Collins runs again, she is a lock for re-election.
West Virginia – 53.6% (3rd most-rural)
Here is a sobering fact for Mountaineer Democrats: Obama lost every county in WV on November 6, the first time that has ever happened to a major party nominee. The state has gone more and more Republican since 2000 when George W. Bush hit Al Gore hard on the issues of coal and guns. At the top of the retirement worry list for Democrats is Sen. Jay Rockefeller who is 76 and has held his seat since 1984. Rockefeller has been a champion for rural health care and has used his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee to push for upgrading the nation’s rural broadband infrastructure. If Rockefeller steps down, look for Republicans to push hard for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito to win the seat.
Mississippi – 53.1% (4th most-rural)
Today, Democrats are on retreat in the Magnolia State faster than the defeated Confederates during the Civil War. The party only has one statewide elected official (Attorney General Jim Hood); not exactly the bench with which to challenge Sen. Thad Cochran who sits at the desk once used by Jefferson Davis. In the new Congress, Cochran may decide to use his seniority over Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts to reclaim the ranking member slot on the Senate Agriculture Committee because Southern cotton, rice and sugar growers feel that Roberts has sold them out on the issue of price supports as the Senate crafted and passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill last June. Cochran is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, where he can direct morsels of pork to one of the nation’s poorest states. Color this seat bright red.
Arkansas – 47.7% (5th most-rural)
Much has changed since Sen. Mark Pryor won his second term in 2008 crushing a little-known Green Party challenger with 80% of the vote. In 2010, Republicans captured two Democratic House seats while holding the open seat that John Boozman vacated as he defeated Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who was chairman of the Agriculture Committee by 21 points. This year, the GOP took over control of the state legislature and picked up the open House seat in AR-4 that had been held by Blue Dog Mike Ross. For much of the last two years, Pryor was Majority Leader Harry Reid’s point man on rural outreach for the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee before being replaced by Alaska’s Mark Begich. Expect Republicans to come after Pryor with either sophomore Congressman Tim Griffin or freshman Rep. Tom Cotton who took Ross’ seat.
South Dakota – 47.6% (6th most-rural)
When you look at a map of South Dakota and see those little islands of blue counties amid a sea of red, know that they are mostly Indian reservations. The Native American vote has been critical to the electoral fortunes of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson who has not said if he will seek a fourth term in two years. In his 2002 race, Johnson beat Republican John Thune (now the state’s junior senator) by 524 votes thanks to the turnout on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2006, Johnson was sidelined for months after an almost-fatal brain hemorrhage which has left some lingering health effects, although he rebounded in 2008 to win re-election with 62%. Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds has already filed the paperwork for an exploratory committee and Democrats now suffer from Thin Bench Syndrome in this state that once sent George McGovern and Tom Daschle to represent them in the Senate. If Johnson steps aside, Democrats may prevail on ex-Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin or Matt Varilek, a former Johnson staffer to carry their banner in an open seat. Varilek was handily defeated by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem for the state’s lone House seat; two years after Noem beat Herseth Sandlin in 2010.
Montana – 46.4% (7th most-rural)
Big Sky country could see another competitive race when Sen. Max Baucus runs for his seventh term as is expected. Baucus, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, has drawn the ire of progressives for his deep-sixing of the public option during his drafting of Obamacare and his advocacy of free trade deals does not sit well with labor. Baucus spent north of $11 million in 2008 to win 73% of the vote against a Republican nobody. That was before Citizens United. Money will not be a problem for Baucus given his support for Big Oil, health insurers and other lobbies seeking loopholes and adjustments to the tax code. Baucus is also a major player on the Agriculture Committee where he authored a permanent disaster title in the 2008 Farm Bill to help his wheat growers and livestock producers cope with the ever-fickle weather of the northern plains. There is talk of a primary challenge by outgoing Gov. Brian Schweitzer but Schweitzer is more often mentioned as a dark horse presidential candidate in 2016.
Alabama – 45.2% (8th most-rural)
Crimson Tide. I know, you’re thinking it’s the nickname of the 2011 national champions in college football from that campus down to Tuscaloosa. You would be correct. It is also could be used to describe the color of the political geography that continues to sweep across the Heart of Dixie. AP recently reported that the GOP’s November 6 Bama beat down was so big that it swept away the last Democrat to hold statewide office and racked up wins in some rural counties that had long been Democratic bastions. The state’s Republican Party chair is now setting his sights on the Democratic sheriffs and other county courthouse offices for 2014. This is the environment that Sen. Jeff Sessions will see as he sets his re-election effort on cruise control for a fourth term. Sessions has won with 52% (1996), 59% (2002) and 63% (2008) and Democrats will be hard pressed to recruit a credible challenger to take him on in two years.
Kentucky – 45% (9th most-rural)
“Kentucky woman, If she get to know you, she goin' to own you.” Oh how Democrats in the Bluegrass State would love for those lyrics in that Neil Diamond classic to ring true in the person of actress Ashley Judd. Judd, (currently a Tennessee resident) who spent much of her childhood in Kentucky and is a University of Kentucky grad (and avid Wildcats hoop fan), opened the door to a possible run at Sen. Mitch McConnell on November 9 when she was quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal as saying “I cherish Kentucky, heart and soul, and while I'm very honored by the consideration, we have just finished an election, so let's focus on coming together to keep moving America's families, and especially our kids, forward." A Judd-McConnell race would be the marquee Senate battle of 2014. McConnell (who sits on both the Senate Ag Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Ag and Rural Development), only won his 2008 race with 53% and recent polling had his disapproval rating at 42% back home. Still, even a well-funded celebrity like Judd (who has been talking with EMILY’s List), would have her hands full trying to oust McConnell who would likely label her as a rich, educated, liberal, carpetbagging-elitist. Judd has called mountaintop coal removal “the rape of Appalachia,” and being perceived as anti-coal is a dangerous position for any Kentucky pol. Just ask outgoing Rep. Ben Chandler. I’ve always wondered why voters in the coalfields elect Republicans who go to Washington and work at weakening mine safety and health rules and defunding Black Lung benefits. Another school of thought is that Judd should pass on McConnell and instead run against Sen. Rand Paul in 2016. As one of my Democratic contacts said of Paul “that man isn't popular (because even hillbillies think he's crazy, and he's named after an atheist). He could be beaten.” Other Democrats getting mentioned for a challenge to McConnell are Gov. Steve Beshear who can’t run again in 2015, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abrahamson and Matthew Barzun, an Obama bundler.
New Hampshire – 42.5% (11th most-rural)
Over the last several cycles, politics in the Granite State has looked like a broken voltage meter with Democrats having big years in 2006 and 2008 and Republicans staging a sweeping comeback in 2010. The results of 2012 indicate more of a Blue Hampshire trend re-emerging with Democratic women winning both House seats and the governorship. This bodes well for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen who will be up for her second term. There is talk that ex-Sen. John Sununu will seek a rematch with Shaheen who defeated him 52%-45% in 2008 after losing to Sununu by five points in their first race in 2002.
North Carolina – 40.7% (12th most-rural)
Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan is on every pundit’s list of most vulnerable senators. In 2008, when Hagan knocked off Elizabeth Dole, Democrats flipped the Tarheel State to Obama, won the governor’s office and nabbed the House seat in NC-8 (birthplace of Jesse Helms). However the Democrats reversal of fortune began swiftly in 2010 as Republicans captured both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the 1890s and claimed victory when Rep. Renee Ellmers knocked off six-term Democrat Bob Etheridge in the majority-rural district NC-2. The GOP’s radical re-map caused two moderate Democrats to head for the exits in NC-11 and NC-13 (both open seats resulted in GOP pickups) and Rep. Larry Kissell was defeated in his re-drawn NC-8 seat. Highly unpopular Gov. Bev Purdue did not run for re-election, opening the door to the man she bested in 2008, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, to win the keys to the governor’s suite in Raleigh. Hagan is a centrist but her job approval is in the toilet with a November 2012 survey by NC-based Public Policy Polling finding a 37% disapproval compared to 35% who said Hagan is doing a good job. Republicans seem to be looking at House Speaker Thom Tillis, a former IBM executive from Mecklenburg County (2012 site of the Democrat’s national convention) or Congresswoman Ellmers as their favorites to make Hagan a one-term wonder.
Drilling Down Into the 2012 Rural Vote
Rural Americans left some interesting and confounding footprints across the electoral landscape of 2012 in races up and down the ballot. While the mainstream media and punditocracy likes to neatly categorize rural voters as Republican, the results paint a more nuanced picture.
What IS the matter with Kansas?
For many elections now, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans take rural folks for granted while Democrats ignored them. That began to change a bit in the 2006 election and in 2008 when Obama won 7% more of the rural vote than John Kerry did in 2004. Obama’s rural gains came from executing a focused rural strategy and devoting resources to that effort.
However, Obama’s share of the 2012 rural vote dropped to 37% on November 6 as he lost eight of the 10 most-rural states to Romney and 15 of the 19 states that are more than one-third rural to the former Massachusetts governor.
This is somewhat odd in that it can be argued that much of rural America has thrived under Obama’s first term. The agriculture and energy sectors are strong with net farm income up for most crops and commodities and increased domestic production of oil and gas creating booming economies from Texas up into the Great Plains. Obama has invested heavily in rural broadband and pushed through trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama that he hopes will expand exports.
Yet folks in the hinterlands were not happy with the president according to pre-election polls. One survey by Agri-Pulse drives this home with several WTF data points. This poll of 319 likely farmers who cultivate at least 500 acres, found a 77% disapproval of Obama with 78% saying they planned to vote for Romney. But get this, 46% of these farmers blamed the Democrats for failure to pass a new farm bill with only 19% saying Republicans were at fault. For the record, the Senate (controlled by Democrats) passed their farm bill back in June, while the GOP-run House has blocked action on a farm bill that passed the Agriculture Committee in mid-July. Even though they dislike Obama, 50% of these producers strongly or somewhat approve of the job that Tom Vilsack has been doing as agriculture secretary. Other head scratchers included 47% who said reducing the federal deficit was the most important issue for the new president to tackle. Do they remember that Bill Clinton left office with the first surplus since 1969 which was pissed away by George W. Bush by putting two wars on the credit card and cutting taxes for the most wealthy? Lastly, in this year of record drought and era of ginormous forest fires, only 7% cited climate change as the biggest threat to the future of their farming operations. Go figure.
In the Appalachian coal counties, Romney appeared before hard-hat clad miners promising to stop “Obama’s war on coal” ignoring the fact that as a U.S. Senator, and now as president, Obama had championed coal (southern Illinois is coal country) much to the irritation of environmentalists and that as Bay State governor, Romney had once pledged to shutter the Salem Harbor Power Plant, one of the state’s “Filthy Five” coal plants.
As the political chattering class has breathlessly reminded us, the Republicans do have a demographic problem in their off-putting messaging to communities of color, women and younger voters. As Sen. Susan Collins (the last surviving GOP moderate?) told the New York Times on November 7, “Republicans cannot win with just rural, white voters.” However, the other side of that coin is, can Democrats claim to be a viable national party by losing white voters (still 73% of the electorate) where Obama’s share of the white vote shrunk from 43% in 2008 to 39% in 2012?
The Senate – Where Every State Has Some Rural
Several races for the upper house stand out for the influence of rural voters. In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester narrowly held on to win a second term against Rep. Denny Rehberg in the nation’s seventh most-rural state. Tester, the Senate’s only farmer, has championed the needs of rural veterans, fought for preserving postal service for small towns and authored a key provision of the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act that protected family farmers. His victory in Big Sky County against a flood of outside special interest and super PAC money is heartwarming for all residents of this nation’s boondocks.
Next door in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp appears to have held off freshman Republican Rep. Rick Berg, to hold the open seat vacated by retiring Sen. Kent Conrad for the Democrats. This was a race that all the know-it-alls said would go to the GOP just because of the ruby red hue of the Peace Garden State which Romney would carry easily. But Berg was clearly hurt by the fact that House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor chose to not bring the farm bill up for reauthorization before the 2008 law expired on September 30. Few states are as dependent of agriculture as North Dakota and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee cut TV spots hammering Berg for leaving his state’s farmer’s high and dry going into the next planting season and it had an effect at the polls. This race is also significant because North Dakota does not have a deep bench of Democratic talent and Heitkamp should bring a strong dose of prairie populism to Washington in the Nonpartisan League tradition of ex-senators Byron Dorgan and Quentin Burdick.
Massachusetts is only 9.4% rural but eyebrows were raised in October 2011 when consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren was quoted by AP as saying that she was “going for the hick vote here” and that “I think I’m in a new category, the elite hick.” Over the course of the next year, Warren proceeded to avoid rural precincts of the Commonwealth like the plague, never campaigning at any farms, sportsmen’s clubs, gun ranges or county fairs. Incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown by contrast was often seen in the cranberry growing counties of southeastern Mass and made numerous forays into rural communities in western Massachusetts that he lost in the 2010 special election. On election day, Brown won 90 of the state’s 172 rural towns (with a population of 10,000 and less) to 82 for Warren, with the Harvard professor winning all of Berkshire County and taking most of Franklin and Hampshire counties in the upper Pioneer Valley, a swath of Baja Vermont and liberal college towns derided as “People’s Republics” by a well-known columnist for one of the Boston daily papers. Brown’s haul included sweeping the rural parts of Hampden County in the western part of the state and Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth counties in eastern Mass., all home to many ‘Reagan Democrats.’
Arizona’s Senate contest between Rep. Jeff Flake, the Republican and Democrat Richard Carmona, was a race where the rural vote proved critical – and costly for Carmona. At almost 18% rural, the Grand Canyon State is not a place that most people think of as all that rustic. But 13 of the state’s 15 counties are rural and for the 12 years Flake has served in the House, he had gone out of his way to vote against their interests on issue after issue. Carmona, a Vietnam vet and former cop who served as surgeon general under President George W. Bush, was a huge recruiting coup for the Democrats. Early on, Carmona’s primary opponent dropped out, while Flake had to battle a free-spending developer to win the Republican primary in late August. When you look up the definition of the word extremist in the dictionary, it says Jeff Flake. This guy is an opposition researcher’s wet dream. On lob-sided votes where the minority side is recorded in single digits (out of 435 members), that is where you will find Mr. Flake. Carmona had a strong September and began to hit Flake (who had never worn the uniform) hard for his sorry record against veterans. By early October, several polls showed Carmona leading or tied and Democrats began to feel as though they could elect a centrist in the mold of Dennis DeConcini. Then it all went horribly bad. Carmona made some rookie mistakes but he never aggressively went after Flake’s record of hurting rural Arizonan’s on the issues of agriculture and rural development, health care, transportation, renewable energy and water. The low point came on October 25 at a debate on rural issues at Arizona Western College in Yuma. Carmona had known that he would be asked about health care, water policy, and farming and ranching among other topics. Instead of skewering Flake over his votes against two farm bills, clean water infrastructure, funding for distance-learning and telemedicine grants and community and rural health centers, Carmona let the smarmy Flake wriggle off the hook. Carmona compounded this problem by failing to attack Flake on rural radio, airing a boilerplate spot that promised voters he would be “an independent voice” rather than spelling out how in his messianic zeal to cut every last penny of federal spending, Flake had ravaged his state’s small towns and rural areas that depend on vital droplets of largess from Washington. Flake handily won nine of the 13 rural counties on Election Day.
The House – Black and Blue Dogs Take Another Beating
When Democrats took back the House in 2007, things were downright giddy in the Democratic caucus. The infusion of freshmen moderates, many recruited and hand-picked by then-Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the DCCC that cycle, meant that the liberal old bulls would regain chairmanships on powerful committees. Progressives like David Obey (Appropriations), Barney Frank (Financial Services), John Conyers (Judiciary) and Charlie Rangel (Ways & Means) would once again wield gavels on their panels and it was made possible largely by victories from newbies from districts that were at least one-third rural. Interestingly, most of these new moderates were not from the south but from places like upstate New York, northeastern Pennsylvania, Appalachian Ohio and Iowa and Minnesota.
The Obama wave election of 2008 added more rural Democrats in purple-turning states like Colorado and North Carolina. Then came the 2010 midterms. Blue Dogs were clubbed to death like baby seals on an arctic hunt. In 2011, rural voters got the government they deserved (at least in the House) when the Tea Party class began to get down to the work of screwing their own base. From essential air service for rural airports to agricultural research and extension to mine safety and Social Security and Medicare, these programs all had to be cut back so “we can get our country back” according to the Tea Party mantra. With the Republicans back in charge, the surviving rural Dems suddenly didn’t feel the love from their urban and suburban colleagues. In the Tea Party wave to capture the U.S. House, many state legislatures also fell yielding crayon boxes with which to control redistricting for the 2012 elections. Faced with both a miserable life in the minority and drastically re-drawn rural turf, many Blue Dogs headed for the exits this cycle creating lots of new GOP pick-up opportunities in open seats. Some, who stayed, faced head-to-head death matches with better financed Republicans like the race between Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R) in IA-3.
Now as the smoke from November 6 has cleared, the casualties litter the map across the nation including: AR-4, IN-2, IA-3, KY-6, NC-8, NC-13, and OK-2, all Republican wins. Democrats were able to pick off seats in IL-17, MD-6, MN-8, NY-24 and TX-23. Congressman John Barrow of Georgia hung on to his seat and is now the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the House.
Going forward, it will be hard to remain successful as a national party if Democrats cannot be
competitive in huge swaths of the nation such as the Deep South, Appalachia and the Great
Plains that include rural political geography. Last year, Democrats lost the Virginia state Senate and the Mississippi House. On November 6, Democrats in Arkansas (the nation’s fifth most-rural state) lost control of their state House, for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats had controlled both chambers since the post-Civil War period ended in 1874.The Republican dominance in state legislative chambers is now complete all across Dixie.
Where is the professor? - February 10th, 2012
There was a great story on Boston’s WBUR the other day http://bit.ly/AojX7k about how U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has been avoiding her two remaining Democratic primary opponents by blowing off appearances with them at debates and forums.
As the frontrunner, Warren’s strategy is to ignore her underfunded primary challengers and focus on the November match with Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent.
However the ‘BUR piece also went on to note that Warren has also been a no-show at a number of Democratic town committee events. The money quote is from Maynard DTC Chair Maura Flynn who says “Warren is sending the message that “she’s too good for everybody. This is the feeling that I get. This is very elitist to me to when I hear that she’s too busy.” Bingo!
The narrative that Brown has been pushing is that Professor Warren is a Harvard elitist, who knows a lot about navigating the ivory towers of academe but not so much about Joe Shmoe. And Warren has been pushing back with her big paid media effort including her intro TV bio spot that showed her growing up “on the ragged edge of the middle class” in the Sooner State.
But Warren has been saying and doing things that reinforce all of the negative things that the Brown campaign is doing to try and define her in the early stages of the race.
Last fall, Warren failed to participate in a U.S. Senate Rural Issues Forum (full disclosure: I helped organize the event) in Chesterfield and then blew off a similar event up in the North Quabbin region of central Massachusetts. Then on October 17, 2011, Warren was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying she was pledging to seek the “hick vote,” and that “I think I’m a new category, the elite hick.” The state Republican Party pounced on the gaffe saying that the rookie candidate’s statements revealed a “prism into Warren’s elitist and arrogant worldview.”
Warren’s scheduling pattern has been heavy on visits to what the Boston Herald’s Howie Carr sarcastically calls “People’s Republics” communities – liberal enclaves and college towns such as Amherst, Brookline, Cambridge, Northampton, and Williamstown. While it may make sense to spend time in these localities for fundraising, they are not going to provide the winning margins to defeat Mr. Barn Jacket because these are Democratic base communities.
Last November, Chris Matthews from Hardball was in Springfield to give a lecture and was asked by a local TV reporter for his take on Brown-Warren. Matthew said “if she runs a bread and butter campaign, she will win but if she runs as a Boston elitist she’ll lose.” So far it has been more Chablis and brie than water roll and buttah from the professor.
Brown on the other hand has been stepping up his game connecting with the Bay State’s everyman in the Commonwealth’s hinterlands, something he had down pretty good in the 2010 special election. During the fall cranberry harvest, Brown graced the front page of the Herald one October day in a full body wader with Ocean Spray’s logo as he stood in a flooded bog surrounded by the crimson berries. The message was clear, your junior senator is aware of a major industry in southeastern Mass and Cape Cod. This winter, Brown has also stopped at the Wachusett Mountain ski area in Princeton to highlight a key driver of seasonal tourism in rural Massachusetts, the ski industry.
Warren’s strategy could end up hurting her in the long run. So far, her issues mantra has been somewhat Johnny One-Note, with a focus on consumer protection and banking regulation. But there are other matters that one must deal with on the senatorial plate and failing to get around the state from its dairy farms to its dying mill towns could wind up biting you at the ballot box.
Take the issue of trade. On her website, Warren has some boilerplate about fair trade, pledging that as senator, she “will look hard at any trade agreement to determine how it would impact jobs here in Massachusetts.” Brown just voted for three “free” trade deals that were negotiated by George W. Bush and rubber-stamped by Obama with Korea (a known currency manipulator), Colombia (where they murder labor leaders) and Panama (a tax haven and narco-trafficking mecca). The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that the Korea deal alone will cost Massachusetts more than 66,000 jobs, mostly in the electronics and metals sectors. Has Warren visited places like Brookfield Wire Company in West Brookfield whose employees jobs could be put at risk from Brown’s vote?
Where is Warren on the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama wants to put before the Senate? If this “NAFTA of the Pacific” is passed, you can kiss the jobs at New Balance in Boston and Lawrence goodbye as they won’t be able to compete with footwear makers in Vietnam. And our hardscrabble dairy farmers, (those hicks that Warren wants to vote for her), will be put out of business by the flood of milk imports from Fonterra, the multi-national dairy co-op that is New Zealand’s largest company and responsible for 30% of the world’s dairy exports. Even Deval Patrick got his wingtips dirty in cow shit when he first ran for governor, earning brownie points for trekking out to Colrain and shooting the bull with some Franklin County dairy producers.
Savvy scheduling can be used to highlight major issue contrasts with Brown that Warren can hammer home with second-tier earned media outlets like small town weeklies and local radio that would be tickled to have some face time with the woman from Oklahoma. But if you can’t give Hollywood beautiful people like Alec Baldwin more than 15 minutes, how ya gonna sit through an ed board with the Ware River News.
The bottom line is that for Warren to defeat Brown, she is going to need to peel off big chunks of independents in the exurbs and not rubbing shoulders with the great unwashed in places like Douglas and Dighton, Russell and Rochester, and Wales and West Newbury could cause the professor to flunk her big test on November 6.
A Must Read - January 10th, 2012
With the Democrats suffering yet more losses in rural America last November, including the Mississippi House and the Virginia Senate, I recently read Joe Bageant’s book Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.
The book takes place in Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, VA at the northern end of the Shenandoah’s and is an earthy and telling tome about how the party of Roosevelt and Truman has lost the support of white working-class voters.
Bageant (who died in fall 2011), takes us inside the Rubbermaid factory where workers toil away making plastic dishpans and trash barrels amid monotony and noise. To get through the day, they wear headphones and through them listen to the angry rants of Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talk jocks that slam all government programs as evil and wasteful. Then on election days, they go out and vote Republican, helping to elect people who then whittle away at their health care, Black Lung benefits and OSHA regs that are there to prevent injuries in the workplace.
There is some of Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter with Kansas thesis in Bageant’s view from Winchester. His friends tell him that too many Democrats are elitists who look down on people who drink beer from a can or grab a shotgun off their living room wall to go out into the woods and put meat on the table.