The Democratic Party needs to find a new direction to regain its prominence as a national party. But it shouldn’t be with populism, which in my mind connotes elements of anti-intellectualism and centrally features complaints about elites, cronyism, and corruption. Clearly, a path must be found to appeal to the blue-collar voters who have historically been a pillar of the party’s support. But equally important, indeed I think essential, is reestablishment of the party’s historic foothold in rural America, which has now largely vanished across the nation.
The 2016 blue-red election map is illustrative of the problem. In Virginia, outside of the urban crescent that hugs the Atlantic Coast, the state was a sea of red, dotted by a few small blue islands of university towns. That pattern was generally repeated across the nation. In the critical battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the overwhelming majorities Donald Trump received in rural areas were enough to tip the balance in his favor, notwithstanding lopsided Democratic victories in the cities.
Until recent years the Democratic Party had broad rural support. In fact, its roots are rural and agrarian. In the years prior to the Republican sweep of 2010, Democratic US House majorities were enabled by long held Democratic seats in rural districts across the nation. Now few are left.
Over two centuries, the party has broadened its agenda to include urban populations, and today its appeal is primarily urban. Beyond the obligatory lip service, the party no longer has a meaningful rural component. Its candidates rarely appear in rural areas, and rural populations no longer feel a connection to the party, its principles, or its candidates.
With a largely urban focus, Democrats have reached historic lows in numbers of U.S. House seats, governorships, and state legislative chambers. There simply aren’t enough additional winnable metropolitan seats for Democrats to regain majorities in Congress or in many state legislative chambers. To achieve that goal and to prevent future presidential outcomes like the one we just witnessed, reestablishment of the party’s historic appeal in rural America is both necessary and achievable.
This is not an either/or choice. The party can maintain its strong base with minorities, women, and metropolitan residents while simultaneously creating a successful rural strategy. While the party may not regain the rural dominance it once enjoyed, it can certainly do far better than it’s currently doing and do well enough to win the local, statewide, and congressional races that are so critical to its future.
For 28 years, I had the privilege of representing, as a Democrat, the most rural congressional district in Virginia. Its leanings were Republican in presidential races, but capable Democratic candidates for statewide, congressional, and state legislative offices who demonstrated an understanding of the region’s needs and a genuine desire to solve problems won lots of elections. Occasionally, Democratic presidential candidates who conveyed an appreciation of rural needs, including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, carried the district. Historically, the district was fiercely competitive. In fact, its moniker is “The Fightin’ Ninth.” In this decade, however, the competition is gone, and like rural areas across the nation, the Democrats have largely surrendered the field to Republicans, who are now dominant at all levels.
There was a time in the recent past when the Democratic message for rural America resonated. It can resonate again, and as Democrats reflect now on new directions, here are some thoughts about what worked for me in Virginia’s most rural, red, and remote region, which this year gave Donald Trump 68 percent of its votes, more than 10 percentage points higher than in any other congressional district in Virginia.
It’s important to recognize that the dominance Republicans now enjoy across rural regions is based more on cultural than policy differences. Democrats have largely ignored the rural electorate when scheduling candidate appearances and don’t speak in their messaging to overarching rural concerns, like promoting economic growth and new job creation.
Rural voters notice the exclusion. Republicans by contrast structure their messaging around popular rural themes. They show up at county fairs and festivals, and voters respond. But beyond the worn rhetoric of tax cuts and less regulation, the Republican message, even in rural areas, is short on specifics. The reason they dominate elections is that they’re highly visible and constantly communicate that “we’re on your side and the Democrats are not.” They win the argument by default because Democrats aren’t around to offer a rebuttal.
Over the years, I’ve found that there’s very little policy disagreement between committed rural Democrats and committed rural Republicans. Democrats should not assume that rural voters are beyond their reach. For the most part, I maintained national Democratic positions on major issues, including environmental conservation, consumer protection, civil liberties, choice, and worker rights. On “gun control,” I was representational and aligned with gun owners who in my district by the tens of thousands are single-issue voters on that sensitive subject.
In a region where crime rates are low and firearms are in a high percentage of homes, there was no more culturally central issue than guns. In fact it’s pretty much a litmus test for whether rural Democrats are acceptable to voters. But with a solid record of support for gun owners, I was free to take more national Democratic positions on other issues that were secondary in importance for my constituents. Once I had aligned with them on the culturally appropriate side of guns, they were willing to overlook areas, such as choice, where by a large majority they disagreed with my votes. They even overlooked my role as a lead House defender of President Clinton in the impeachment fight and author of the censure alternative to removal from office.
My success was based on aggressive messaging about meeting the local need for creating jobs, for which I had a clear plan. That work, including our economic development success, was the focus of my reelection television advertising, and each year I hosted a number of district-wide conferences on various aspects of economic development to which thousands of local officials, regional planning agencies and business owners were invited. Typically, each of our conferences would have attendance in the hundreds and receive extensive local press coverage. I directly recruited companies to the district and could point to thousands of jobs those companies created in my region.
Since new job creation was the overwhelming priority shared by Democrats and Republicans alike, I was known for speaking effectively to the goal that most people wanted their elected officials to pursue. To some extent, I had to reinvent the traditional function of a congressional office by turning my district operation into an economic development agency, but I was reelected term after term while adhering to most core Democratic values. You don’t have to become a Republican in order to have rural appeal. It’s only important that you show that you care about local concerns and are working for solutions.
There’s nothing very complicated about connecting with rural voters. Success starts with simply showing up and demonstrating a genuine desire to learn. But the twice-in-an-election-cycle, 90-minute parachute drop to tour a factory, visit a farm, or hold a press conference will be seen as the political ploy that it is.
“Showing up” means returning repeatedly and listening more than talking. Rural residents have deep-seated concerns about persistent economic underperformance, the scourge of opiate addiction, and the struggle to build a modern infrastructure of roads, municipal water and wastewater systems, and broadband Internet access. They’re deeply interested in new approaches to job creation that harness identifiable local assets, including building eco-tourism and agro-tourism economies, encouraging venture capital funding for innovative business startups, and the building and operation of community small business incubators. Giving rural residents a chance to share these concerns and their ideas for addressing them will create the needed political connection and lead to the development of achievable policy proposals.
With 28 years in office, I had by 10 years the record for the longest tenure in my district, but in 2010 the Democrats faced a perfect storm of adversity, and the fury of the storm was nowhere greater than in rural Virginia. That was the first year of the Tea Party and of Super PACs. The Kochs and their kin spent about $2 million for two months blanketing our inexpensive local TV markets with negative ads tying me to national Democratic leaders who were unpopular, again for cultural reasons. My race was alone on the ballot, and in a small turnout election the enthusiasm gap highly favored the other side. It was an extremely unusual year with an outcome driven by special factors. It did not signal any fundamental change in rural sentiment.
As Democrats determine ways to broaden their base, rural areas offer a rich target. Beyond the devotion of financial resources and a portion of candidates’ time, realizing the opportunity is a no-lose proposition. A good place to begin is by understanding two key points: that adding a rural component to the strategy does not require any lessening of the party’s base among minorities, women, and metropolitan residents; and that to establish rural appeal Democrats don’t have to become Republicans.