The results of the 2020 election solidified the urban-rural divide as the defining heuristic of contemporary American electoral politics. But just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse for rural Democrats, the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election demonstrated that it was still somehow possible for Democrats to perform worse in rural areas than they had done during the previous five years, both in the commonwealth and beyond. Nationally, the Democrats’ density woes have hamstrung their ability to pursue their legislative agenda, as their now routine majorities in terms of raw vote totals are rarely distributed in such a way as to produce a governing majority. Democrats must find a way to disrupt the nationalized political narrative both for their own sake as well as that of American democracy more broadly.
Many Democrats would prefer to ignore their rural problem since making a play for rural voters might require compromises in the pursuit of their progressive agenda. Others, under the sway of a simplistic interpretation of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis that their inevitable, demographics-driven political dominance is just around the corner, think that chasing rural voters is both a fool’s errand and unnecessary. As The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey has reported, a large faction of the party thinks it’s “crazy” to woo rural voters. According to this line of thinking, “rather than tying themselves in knots chasing a deeply conservative electorate that loves guns, opposes abortion, and is firmly in the GOP camp, Democrats need to focus on driving up enthusiasm among people who share their values.”
If it weren’t for the U.S. Senate, which provides equal representation for every state regardless of population, Democrats could arguably indulge such preferences. But given that they only won control of the chamber this year by relying on Vice President Kamala Harris’s ability to break ties, the filibuster-proof majority necessary to pass the party’s more ambitious goals is out of reach for the foreseeable future.
So it’s not only dubious as a matter of civics to write off the nation’s rural voters—it’s a serious strategic error that imperils Democrats’ ability to hold the Senate, let alone dominate it. Democrats should also keep in mind that states are not uniformly “rural” or “urban”: Competitiveness in rural areas would enhance the party’s prospects in more populous states, too. If Democrats could avoid handing over so much of the rural vote to Republicans in key battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they would have a near-lock on the Electoral College. Democrats—not to mention rural America and the country as a whole—would be better served by the party considering what it would take to be competitive in states that actually exist.
We focus here on five Western states that highlight the Democrats’ problem. While Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas account for less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population, their senators wield the same collective power in the upper chamber as those hailing from the five most populous states of California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. And if one party were able to corral those five big-box states in flyover country, it would already be one-fifth of the way to a Senate majority before it even looks to the other 98 percent of the country’s population. As it stands, the Republican Party has nearly accomplished the task. As recently as 2008, the parties split those 10 seats, but, today, Montana’s Jon Tester is the lone Democrat.
That relatively recent past, however, reveals how Democrats could regain a foothold in those states, as well as other rural parts of the country. Our nationalized political environment is a central problem that Democrats will have to confront head-on to be competitive in rural areas. Indeed, the nationalization of elections, political media, and (by extension) public opinion in recent years has replaced the localized institutional logic of American democracy—characterized by contextual nuance and the particular characteristics of local candidates—with national partisan brands and stereotypes. There are two core approaches that they must take simultaneously to mitigate the nationalization that has rendered them noncompetitive in rural areas, one defensive and one offensive. First, Democrats running in these areas need to play a little defense in obvious ways, like actively rebranding themselves on mainstay political issues like the Second Amendment and abortion. This isn’t a new or particularly difficult plan to implement, but it’s one that Democrats seem to have abandoned in recent cycles because efforts to neutralize these hot-button issues requires taking policy positions that are out of step with Democrats elsewhere, particularly those in the party’s activist base. But such defensive tactics will also only go so far. The second and more important key is to go on the offensive to creatively localize their races by adopting popular positions on issues that don’t cleanly map onto national partisan cleavages. This offensive strategy allows candidates to offer tangible help to rural communities while also carrying the pleasant upside of facing far less intraparty pushback since focusing on these issues would not conflict with national Democratic priorities.
A Tale of Five States: Democrats’ Rural Problem
Every state, of course, has its own unique contours. Yet the five states we focus on here are similarly situated geographically and have all seen a sharp drop in partisan competitiveness.
South Dakota Democrats are facing something approaching an existential crisis. Apart from the relatively close 2018 gubernatorial election, in which Republican Kristi Noem beat Democrat Billie Sutton, the situation has been getting steadily worse over the past decade. As recently as 2011, Democrats held 40 percent of seats in the state senate and 34 percent in the House. Yet following the 2020 elections, those numbers have slid to all-time lows of 8 percent and 11 percent respectively. At the congressional level, the transformation has been even more dramatic. Between 1963 and 2005, Democrats George McGovern and Tom Daschle occupied the state’s Class III U.S. Senate seat for all but six years. Meanwhile, Democrats held the other Senate seat for more than half of the period between 1973 and 2015, including Tim Johnson’s three terms from 1997 to 2015. South Dakota’s at-large House seat had also been kind to Democrats. From 1983 through 2011, Democrats held it for 12 of 16 Congresses.
The wheels started to come off in 2004, when Republican John Thune unseated Daschle by less than 5,000 votes in what was considered a shocking upset. Johnson declined to seek reelection in 2014, clearing the path for Republican Mike Rounds, while Democratic Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin lost her bid for a fifth term in 2010. And it’s been all downhill since: Democrats haven’t seriously contested either Senate seat since Daschle’s and Johnson’s departure and have only crested 40 percent of the vote in two of the U.S. House elections over the last decade.
The utter collapse of Democrats in South Dakota isn’t an isolated case. Idaho was an early mover and foreshadowed the red wave that eventually overtook the region. A 14-year stretch in Idaho, from 1980 to 1994, provides another startling illustration of how quickly things can unravel. At the beginning of this period, Democrats were the clear minority party in the Gem State, but they were still competitive. Both U.S. House seats had been held by Republicans since the mid-1960s, and Republicans had long had a stranglehold on the legislature. However, two legendary Democrats—Frank Church and Cecil Andrus—loomed over Idaho politics and helped keep the party competitive. In 1980, Senator Church was running for a fifth term and Democrats were in the middle of a 24-year run of holding the governor’s office, anchored by Andrus’s four victories. Church’s razor-thin defeat in the Ronald Reagan-led 1980 wave election to a candidate who at the time was thought of as ultra-conservative was a stunning blow and a harbinger of things to come. Even so, Democrats continued to hold the governor’s office. What wasn’t necessarily clear at the time, but is evident with the benefit of hindsight, is that when Andrus retired in 1994, the bottom fell out for Idaho Democrats. In the 26 years since, Republicans have thoroughly dominated the state’s politics, and they have only extended their power over the last decade.
The key point here is that particular individuals with their own brands can obscure partisan shifts in the electorate (often driven by the nationalization of politics). Church and Andrus played this role in Idaho and allowed Democrats to appear more competitive than they really were. Once these iconic figures leave, the partisan dynamic of the day asserts itself. Similar examples of politicians outlasting their party’s sell-by date can be clearly seen in the other states we examine here, such as Senator Tim Johnson in South Dakota or Senator Jon Tester in Montana. Even so, it’s important to bear in mind that these partisan dynamics are not predestined, but rather are the consequences of decisions made and actions (not) taken.
South Dakota and Idaho are illustrative examples of just how quickly the Democrats’ demise has unfolded in some states. Yet in other places where the party’s performance has declined, it may indeed never have been very competitive in the first place. In Wyoming, the nation’s most Republican state for each of the past two cycles, Democrats have had very little success statewide over the past 40 years. Throughout the ‘90s and up until 2008, however, Democrats consistently held about one-third of the seats in the state House, and they even occupied the governor’s mansion from 2003 to 2009. Since 2010, however, Democrats in the Cowboy State have seen their numbers in the legislature more than halved, and none of their candidates have managed to garner more than 30 percent of the vote in major statewide races.
While Idaho and Wyoming may be easy to dismiss as helplessly Republican states that continue to burn slightly deeper shades of red, that characterization most certainly does not apply to North Dakota or Montana (or South Dakota, discussed above). Democrats in North Dakota held a monopoly on the state’s congressional delegation from 1987-2010, anchored by Senators Quentin Burdick, Kent Conrad, and Byron Dorgan, as well as Representative Earl Pomeroy. Over the past decade, however, North Dakota has veered about as hard to the right as any other state over the same period. Apart from Heidi Heitkamp’s sub-1-point victory in the 2012 Senate race, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, Heitkamp’s 10-point loss in her 2018 reelection bid was what now passes as a strong showing for North Dakota Democrats; the party’s standard-bearers have routinely suffered staggering losses of 50+ points in most other major statewide contests and have seen narrow Republican legislative majorities (for example, a five-seat advantage in the state Senate in 2010) quickly morph into overwhelming supermajorities. Heitkamp’s loss is a poignant example of how her party’s national brand has doomed Democrats across the region. She was among the most conservative Democrats in Congress and tactfully navigated hot-button issues during her tenure. She even voted in line with President Trump’s preferences a majority of the time. Heitkamp didn’t become too liberal or out of touch in the eyes of North Dakotans, but her party did.
Of all the states in the region, Montana is the one that should most concern Democrats, since it’s the state where the party has had the most success in the twenty-first century. It offers a prime example of Democrats’ collapse in rural America in an era of hypernationalization.
While the Treasure State once appeared to be an anomaly amongst its neighbors, the similarities have become increasingly apparent. In 2008, Democrats swept nearly all statewide offices and won a one-seat majority in the state legislature’s 100-seat lower chamber. Though the state House majority was very short-lived (Republicans gained 18 seats in 2010), Montana Democrats otherwise held their ground throughout the Obama era. As recently as 2014, Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats (including the one Max Baucus had held since 1978), the governor’s mansion, and a smattering of other statewide offices. But following last year’s elections, Tester is the last holdout, and he increasingly appears to be the kind of unique figure—like Idaho’s Andrus—who can withstand the partisan dynamics of his state. Even so, the margins of Tester’s three wins have ranged from razor-thin to narrow. By contrast, Montana Republicans running statewide almost always cruise to double-digit wins. Last year, this once proudly independent state that routinely elected Democrats was fully captured by a red wave. The GOP easily swept seven statewide races, winning all but one by double digits. Those victories were cemented by overwhelming margins in rural counties.
All told, there is a clear pattern across these five largely rural states: Democratic fortunes have tanked in the last decade. This is true in Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, states with strong Democratic traditions that have been transformed into Republican strongholds. And it’s true in Idaho and Wyoming, where Democrats were always the minority party but have nonetheless seen their fortunes plummet to new depths. The transformations have been rapid and suggestive of Republican dominance for the foreseeable future.
Nationalization and the Urban-Rural divide
At the national level, Democrats’ collapse in rural areas has been every bit as harrowing. As political scientist David Hopkins has documented, the urban-rural divide broke open in a significant way across the whole country in the mid-1990s and has been growing ever since, reaching its zenith in the Trump era. The results of the 2018 midterms provide the most compelling evidence. That year heralded a so-called “blue wave” in which Democrats flipped 36 House seats, regaining the chamber for the first time since 2010. Yet a closer look revealed that the wave only hit urban and suburban America; it scarcely made a splash in rural areas. In fact, of 61 “purely rural” House seats held by Republicans, Democrats only picked up one (and even that victory probably would not have materialized if not for Maine’s newly enacted ranked-choice voting system). 2020 saw Democrats’ rural collapse extend still further as they lost 13 House seats in purely rural or semirural districts. And the bleeding still hasn’t stopped. Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race should serve as a warning to Democrats that things can, in fact, still get worse for them in rural areas, as Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe was pummeled from the piedmont to Pulaski by even greater margins than Biden in the state’s hinterlands.
While the media has acknowledged the existence of the urban-rural divide and frequently dispatch coastal, metropolitan-based journalists out into the “boonies” to try to understand the exotic worldviews of aggrieved country folk, political scientists have been more skeptical. They observe that the purported urban-rural divide may not have anything to do with ruralism or urbanism per se but may simply be attributable to differences in the demographic (race, gender, socioeconomic status) composition of urban, suburban, and rural communities. But new research sheds light on this question directly, showing that while demographic composition clearly matters, so too do feelings of geographic resentment. In other words, the urban-rural divide is real. Importantly, however, as research by Kal Munis and Nicholas Jacobs reveals, geographic resentment appears to impact only Democratic candidates. That is, resentment of urban areas by rural people is a significant factor in rural votes against Democrats. For these rural voters, the Democratic Party and urbanity appear to be fused. Resentment of rural areas is not, however, a significant predictor of vote choice among urbanites and suburbanites; rather, preference for Democrats in these areas appears to largely be an artifact of demographic composition.
This means that there is major asymmetry in how the parties must navigate the urban-rural divide. For Republicans, grappling with the divide is less complex, at least theoretically: Perform better with demographic groups that disproportionately live in nonrural areas, such as minorities (which they appear to have done in 2020), and they will make gains. Democrats, on the other hand, must make inroads with various demographic groups while also confronting the complex cultural disconnection that they have with rural Americans. That disconnect separates them from rural residents of various backgrounds, as resentment of cities is widespread in rural areas, cutting across many other demographic divides, including racial identity, partisan identity, and ideology. Making this task even more tricky is the fact that Democrats need to do all this while maintaining their appeal with growing urban-based demographic groups.
Confronting party stereotypes, such as the notion that Democrats are the party of snobby, wealthy, urban, coastal elites, is complicated by the nationalization of American politics. At its core, nationalization is a byproduct of our homogenized political communication. One key driver of nationalization has been the withering away of local news sources, a problem that is particularly acute in rural areas. Historically, parties and candidates alike have relied on local news to help carve out distinct local brands. Without local considerations to draw upon when evaluating politics, voters default to national considerations, including party stereotypes. For example, research by Joshua Darr and Daniel Moskowitz shows that local newspaper closures and a lack of access to televised local news are both linked to subsequent increases in straight-ticket voting in those areas. Importantly, researchers Gregory Martin and Joshua McCrain have found that voters desire the local considerations that local newspapers, television, and radio have historically provided; when national media conglomerates purchase local television stations and nationalize their content, viewers express lower satisfaction with the content overall, and a nontrivial number of people tune out altogether. Notably, for the donor class, this problem also presents an opportunity. Philanthropists could do a real service to rural America and the country as a whole with a project to revitalize local news outlets by either subsidizing or purchasing small newspapers and television stations. For parties and candidates, however, the decline of local news is largely outside their control.
The Democrats’ Lacking Response to Their Rural Problem
Mainstream Democrats’ response to their rural problem comes in three main varieties. The first response is grounded in The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis. For many Democrats (as well as Republicans), this theory came to take on a prophecy status that allowed them to believe that the country was on the verge of a post-partisan era in which Democrats would reign supreme. The popular understanding of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s 2002 work exaggerated some of their actual claims, but believers were sure that demographic tides were destined to elevate Democrats to overwhelming and more-or-less permanent majorities for the foreseeable future. In this understanding, Republicans are little more than pitiful dinosaurs destined to go extinct very soon. The upshot is that Democrats don’t need to do anything to appeal to voters; the country will naturally come to them in short order. Nearly 20 years on, and with no enduring Democratic majority in sight, many analysts—including one of the original authors—no longer endorse key tenets of the theory, although its hold on the imagination of many Democrats and affiliated activists remains strong to this day.
A second response has been aggrieved hopelessness and self-pity. Democrats in this mode lament the undemocratic structural barriers facing their party—the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court—and decry the unfairness of it all, recognizing that it is all but impossible for sophisticated progressives such as themselves to appeal to the “deplorables” in the countryside. Much of this exasperation is understandable. Indeed, looking at this reality through the prism of some of democracy’s core tenets regarding voting and representation, it is ridiculous that the Dakotas, with a combined population of 1.6 million residents, get four senators while California’s nearly 40 million residents get two.
A third response has been a more optimistic offshoot of the second. Taking their bearings from the inherent unfairness of the system, Democrats in this camp have been more optimistic that structural overhauls of the American political system are possible and have placed their hopes in various schemes to alter those institutions that are working to their disadvantage. To deal with the Republicans’ current head start in the Electoral College, they propose a national popular vote. To address the now solidly conservative Supreme Court, they advocate term limits for justices or “packing” the Court. And to tackle the rural bias in the Senate, they suggest adding new, solidly Democratic states. Yet, as political scientist Steven Teles argues, while the objections about the unfairness of our system may be logical and some of the proposed reforms seem intriguing, they are also a dead end strategically because seriously pursuing them would only further alienate large swaths of the country (including some who may still be neutral), to say nothing of the infeasibility of their adoption in many cases due to constitutional and other institutional roadblocks.
The good news for those Democrats who are ready to put down their frayed, decades-old copies of The Emerging Democratic Majority is that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They can look to the not-too-distant past in which they were competitive in rural America. To be sure, that competitiveness didn’t necessarily produce majorities in congressional delegations or state legislatures, and it didn’t mean Democratic presidential candidates carried rural states, although sometimes it did translate into those things. But even when it didn’t, maintaining a degree of competitiveness paid dividends. Margins matter; there’s a big difference between losing rural counties 55-45 and the all-out collapse that has been increasingly common. In mostly rural states like those we focus on here, stronger Democratic showings at the statewide level, even in losing efforts, can also buoy the prospects for co-partisans down the ballot, such as state legislative candidates. And healthy minorities in state legislatures are able, with the help of a little defection from moderates across the aisle, to have a shot at preventing the most fringe right-wing bills from passing. Recent legislative sessions in Montana, for example, have featured a working coalition of “Conservative Solutions Caucus” Republicans joining with Democrats to pass key budget bills and Medicaid expansion over the objection of hardline Republicans who constitute a majority in their caucuses, but not in the chambers as a whole. And in battleground states with some blue urban areas sprinkled amidst a sea of red, keeping the rural margins in check makes it far easier to carry statewide offices and the presidency. In, for instance, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Democrats don’t need to win rural counties; they only need semi-respectable showings to stay in the hunt before the urban centers seal the deal.
Speaking to Rural America with Substantive Policy
Donning bolo ties and condemning Wall Street elites may help rural Democrats look the part. But it’s more important to recognize that messages that play well on the coasts often just don’t resonate in much of rural America, even if the messenger is wearing a cowboy hat and adequately investing in digital advertising. As Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and other swing-district Democrats have noted, the Green New Deal and defunding the police aren’t as well received in Manhattan, Montana, as they are in Manhattan, New York. Cultural differences are part of the reason, but these and many other priorities of the national party are either wholly urban issues or often cast that way. Democrats need to realize that rural areas have unique policy concerns that aren’t satisfied by platitudes on abolishing ICE and the urgent need to usher in new gun control measures.
A national Democratic Party linked to that agenda is, to put it mildly, not helpful to candidates running under that party’s banner in most rural areas. With Trump on the ballot, the 2020 election was probably destined to be intensely nationalized, although the progressive agenda playing out in the background certainly didn’t do Democrats in Montana and surrounding states any favors. There is, of course, only so much rural Democrats can do to combat perceptions that they openly or secretly support far-left proposals. It’s the worst of both worlds: They suffer from their perceived links to activists who are strident and off-putting to rural America, yet they have no control over them. Indeed, many prominent elected Democrats—notably including President Biden—vocally oppose the measures that are embraced and amplified by activists. But hoping that rural voters see, believe, and remember Biden pushing back against, say, defunding the police isn’t sufficient. For one thing, voters are unlikely to hear Biden’s message in its proper context because it is being filtered through partisan media.
However, the situation isn’t hopeless. It could even be a useful opportunity for rural Democrats to define themselves rather than letting their opponents characterize them as cookie-cutter liberals with San Francisco values, or whatever is the preferred pejorative of the moment. They have to be aggressive about building their own brand and dissociating themselves from the left’s activist class. Doing so need not be as dreary as dental surgery. Indeed, it might be even be liberating to abandon the default notion that one ought not criticize anyone on the same half of the ideological spectrum. And there is certainly no shortage of opportunities for rural Democrats to draw some distinctions or even pick a fight or two. Concerns about alienating the base by drawing such distinctions can be overblown, at least for Democrats. As many former GOP office holders can attest, Republicans have legitimate reason to be worried about poking the MAGA base. But Democratic voters have repeatedly demonstrated that electability is a priority even if it requires sacrificing some ground on policy. And they’re right; there’s a big difference between a Biden Administration and a second Trump Administration. Rural Democrats seeking to put some serious distance between themselves and leftist activists aren’t asking anything more of their voters than the calculation that many Democrats in South Carolina and elsewhere made in the 2020 presidential primaries. Big Sky Country’s recent history offers a general roadmap and two key lessons that could facilitate the Democrats’ return to competitiveness, both in Montana and in rural areas across the country.
The most obvious, but also more difficult, part of the answer is to rebrand. That means campaign messaging built around culturally conservative themes. And while this may be a bitter pill for progressives to swallow, guns are the cultural elephant in the room. However, as the Niskanen Center’s Matthew Yglesias has recently shown, the tradeoff needn’t be as vexing for progressives as they often assume. The truth of the situation is that gun control legislation is extremely difficult to pass, and the go-to proposals wouldn’t do much good at combating the problem anyhow. In a nation in which mass shootings have become common, that’s a frustrating realization. But it sits alongside another reality that is just as clear: Democrats pay an enormous political price when their candidates running in rural America get tagged as anti-gun.
It would be best for Democrats to allow their rural candidates to be pro-gun; they’re simply too psychologically powerful as a cultural and identity symbol. It should be noted, however, that stressing their Second Amendment bona fides won’t be a panacea for Democrats because these are issues that Republicans already effectively “own.” So while Democrats running in rural districts should make their pro-gun stance clear, this is largely a defensive strategy because no Democrat is going to convincingly “out-gun” a Republican opponent.
Abortion is another sensitive issue on which national Democrats would be well-served to permit a greater degree of diversity. It’s not necessary for rural Democrats to pretend to be zealous pro-lifers, but it would be helpful if candidates could signal some cultural distance from the national party by, for instance, dropping the euphemism of “women’s health,” opposing late-term abortions, and dusting off Bill Clinton’s old formulation of “safe, legal, and rare.” Of course, this is a particularly fraught moment in the abortion wars, with considerable uncertainty regarding the future of women’s ability to access abortion services and the political fallout from the Supreme Court’s upcoming Dobbs decision. But the issue’s heightened saliency is all the more reason for some Democrats running in some districts to tactfully deemphasize the issue. Single-issue abortion voters aren’t going to be swayed. And mild heterodoxy on abortion is, like guns, a purely defensive tactic aimed at only partially defusing a toxic issue at the margins. But even partially neutralizing abortion would be beneficial.
This kind of rebranding is challenging because it runs counter to the party’s dominant ethos and risks internal acrimony. Many party activists will no doubt object. Still, Democrats have managed to navigate these waters in the recent past and should attempt to do so again.
But while that kind of rebranding is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. To win back votes from Republicans in the countryside, Democrats must offer something more than Republican Lite. Rural Democrats would do well to lean hard into their roots as a populist, working-class-oriented party fighting on behalf of the little guy against an unfair economic and political system. They should also look to local issues and concerns to show that they are capable of delivering on issues and problems close to home.
Recent polling by John Ray and colleagues at YouGov reveals that nearly half of rural voters are alienated from the political system and place little trust in it. Of this subset of voters, many of them are not necessarily hostile toward Democrats, even if they rate Republicans a bit more favorably. These voters are, in other words, within reach. Even more encouraging is that they are receptive to issues that Democrats are well positioned to champion from a populist left angle, including raising the minimum wage and expanding rural broadband.
Democrats who have been successful in Montana over the last couple decades provide an additional model. Namely, they have gone on the offensive by offering something more substantive than strategic positioning on dicey cultural issues. They have been able to identify and champion salient issues that are important to their electorates but that have escaped the attention of the national parties. In other words, successful Democrats in Montana tend to “go local” both in terms of style and substance. The good news on this front is that there are many potential opportunities in this space and that they carry none of the intraparty baggage and resistance that goes along with the kind of rebranding we propose on issues like guns and abortion. In other words, this part of the puzzle is both easier to implement and more effective at reaching rural voters.
Here are four substantive things that can blunt the forces of nationalization and help Democrats be more competitive.
Defending Public Lands
In recent decades Montana Democrats have had success in positioning themselves as defenders of public lands access. While largely neglected in national political discourse, this “local” issue has been a silver bullet against the forces of nationalization that created a downward spiral for Democrats in other rural states.
Public lands access was (and may remain) a great issue for Democrats in Montana because it allowed them to define the narrative for an issue that neither national party has ownership over, but that has a cross-cutting partisan appeal in the Montana electorate. Indeed, Montanans of all demographic backgrounds rely on public lands for recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and camping. Environmentalists, a part of the national Democratic coalition, are certainly well-represented among these groups, but so is the conservative-leaning “hook and bullet” crowd. For example, the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a grassroots hunting and fishing conservation group whose membership includes far more self-identified Republicans and independents than Democrats, has recently taken several high-profile GOP members of Congress to task for proposals that the organization deems hostile to public lands access. The upshot: Championing public lands has long been an effective issue with crossover appeal for independents and weakly aligned, nominally Republican voters.
In 2020, Republicans in Montana rhetorically embraced the issue for the first time, which may have temporarily neutralized Democrats’ public lands advantage. However, COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for Democrats to reclaim the issue. Specifically, the virus seems to have precipitated a large influx of ultra-wealthy outsiders looking to social distance in Montana’s wide-open spaces. Many of the newcomers will buy parcels adjacent to public land and, if history is any guide, will seek to close access to these lands for locals. Democrats could seize on these new class-based and geographic in-group vs. out-group dynamics in order to pair the public lands issue more forcefully with their party’s old-school reputation of standing with regular folks against the rich.
Taking on Big Agriculture
Montana Democrats and their co-partisans in the region need new issues neglected by the national parties to champion alongside public lands access. Agriculture is ripe for the picking. Across Big Sky Country, family farms and ranches still lie at the symbolic, cultural, and economic heart of most communities. It’s an article of faith in these areas that farmers and ranchers are not getting a fair shake and are being held hostage by meatpacking and grain-trading corporations. It’s easy to see why this is an area of concern for rural communities: The four largest meatpacking firms in the United States (two of which are foreign-owned) control roughly three quarters of the market, while the four largest grain-trading companies control 90 percent of that business. Folks in farming and ranching communities allege that this level of consolidation has led to price-fixing and other ills associated with de facto monopolization. We have had occasion throughout the pandemic to see consolidation affect consumers, who have borne major price hikes and a scarcity of meat products due to kinks in supply lines wrought by COVID-19.
There is a strong desire in rural communities for government to address this problem. Even radical solutions, such as antitrust action, enjoy substantial support. Democrats are arguably better positioned than Republicans to take up this fight, given that one of the more universally appealing aspects of their historic brand includes a willingness to stand up to “big corporations” and “economic elites” on behalf of “the little guy.” That populist style often resonates in rural America and we echo many others in recommending that Democrats lean into class-first populism, rather than identity politics, wherever and whenever possible. Conveniently, addressing the perceived abuses of Big Ag could fit nicely into that populist platform and deliver real help to rural communities. More fundamentally, however, this issue offers Democrats an opportunity to substantively engage rural America because, like public lands, the issue hasn’t yet been clearly claimed by either national party. And while defending public lands may have particular resonance in the West, taking on Big Ag could prove fertile ground for enterprising Democrats across the country, including some of the Midwestern Electoral College battlegrounds.
Taking Up Hyperlocal Issues
It would also be advantageous for Democrats to identify additional localized and contextually particular concerns that are unique to their own states and districts. This might mean making a truly one-off local issue a focal point, such as when Max Baucus prioritized the plight of an asbestos-ravaged Libby, Montana. Or it might mean pushing back on overreaching plans from Washington, D.C., as Cecil Andrus did when the federal government targeted Idaho as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.
Yet another option would be to do a more effective job of framing orthodox Democratic policies, such as those on health care, in terms of the positive effects they have for rural communities. There were some major missed opportunities to do precisely that in Montana in 2020. For example, Governor Steve Bullock’s Medicaid expansion was a boon for rural hospitals, but most voters didn’t know that, and Democrats ought to recognize that it’s political malpractice to rely on voters to make these connections for themselves.
There are a number of other potential issues that don’t map cleanly onto the national parties. Veterans are disproportionately located in rural areas and have an array of concerns that are important to them, as Tester has recognized and attended to since his first days in the Senate. Wildfires are a persistent issue in the rural West, and they don’t discriminate based on partisanship. Suicide and opioid abuse also disproportionately afflict rural areas. Apart from pointing out the impracticality of private schools in sparsely populated areas, championing public K-12 education and pushing back against Republican efforts to divert public funding toward private and charter schools is a potential winner in rural areas, where a great deal of community identity and pride is vested in local school systems and their high school sports teams. Further, positioning themselves as defenders of public school funding and casting it through a rural lens could help Democrats reclaim their natural edge on this issue following GOP success in leveraging “critical race theory” and various COVID-related school policies to their advantage in many rural communities.
Investing in Party Infrastructure
Finally, as important as policy platforms and messaging strategies surrounding those platforms are, to maximize the effects of these changes, Democrats should also invest in building a permanent, durable party infrastructure that allows them to have a meaningful presence in rural communities. The effort might combine the retro with the contemporary, consisting of one-part Howard Dean circa 2005 and one-part present-day Stacey Abrams. Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chair, championed a “50-state strategy” on the premise that building the party up everywhere would eventually allow Democrats to make inroads in places they’d previously written off as hopeless. A 2.0 version of this approach could emphasize both building up state parties, as Dean did ahead of Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008, and the community organizing that Abrams spearheaded in Georgia that paid off in last year’s runoff victories in U.S. Senate elections. Abrams forged synergistic relationships between the party and aligned movement groups. Together they engaged in sustained, on-the-ground organizing that helped Democrats register voters, fix the candidate pipeline problem, and craft and disseminate a distinct local brand aligned with constituent needs.
Ultimately, however much some urban Democrats might gripe about making a play for rural America, the reality is that under the system we actually have—as opposed to the one they might wish we had—running up the margins in Silver Lake and Park Slope is not going to cut it if Democrats ever hope to wield the legislative power necessary to enact their preferred agenda. To have an actual governing majority, Democrats need to reverse their rural free fall. And that would be positive not only for the Democratic Party, but for all who hope to recapture a healthy, dynamic, and functional political system.