Earlier today, The Washington Post published an article to their website with the headline “Should Democrats bother reaching out to rural America?”. While the content of the article was not completely terrible and included mentions of some efforts by various Democratic political figures to connect with rural voters and address political issues affecting rural America, as someone who lives in an incorporated village in east-central Illinois with not much more than 3,000 permanent residents, the article’s headline comes across as insulting to people in rural and small-town America.
I personally believe that it would be a tragic mistake for the Democratic Party to categorically write off rural America and completely concede rural America to the Republican Party.
In most states, Democrats need to win a sizable percentage of rural voters in order to win statewide. Given the urban, and, in some parts of the country, suburban political base of the modern Democratic Party, there is a big difference between getting 35-45% of the vote in rural areas and getting 15-25% of the vote in rural areas; in a lot of states, that is the difference between a Democratic candidate winning or losing a statewide race. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats like Gretchen Whitmer in the Michigan gubernatorial election, Nicole Galloway in the Missouri auditor’s election, Tim Walz in the Minnesota gubernatorial election, and Tammy Baldwin in the Wisconsin U.S. Senate election won their elections, while not necessarily winning the vast majority of rural counties in their respective states, but by winning a high enough percentage of the rural vote in their respective states to win statewide.
It’s also important to note that not all rural areas are created equal, and that not all rural communities are created equal. Some rural areas are built around growing corn, soybeans, wheat, and/or other grains. Some rural areas are built around raising cattle, pigs, chickens, and/or other farm/ranch animals. Some rural areas are built around industries based on the extraction of oil, coal, and/or natural gas. Some rural areas are built around logging forests for lumber. Some rural areas are home to many small towns, while other rural areas are sparsely populated.
Also, not all rural voters are white people. In fact, a not-insignificant minority of rural voters in America are people of color:
The media often conflates rurality and whiteness in this country. But this is a false — and misleading — narrative.
Roughly one-fifth of rural residents in this country are people of color, and their interests and political views are as diverse as they are. When coverage of rural areas dismisses or otherwise ignores this fact, actual political consequences follow: The specific concerns of certain communities simply fall out of view.Source
In some parts of the country, rural and small-town people of color have played a significant role in getting Democratic candidates elected. In 2012, Heidi Heitkamp won an open-seat U.S. Senate race in North Dakota by a narrow margin, with Native American voters providing the votes that Heitkamp needed to win that year. In a 2017 special election, Doug Jones won election to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, where voters in rural, predominantly-black counties provided the votes that Jones needed to win. In 2012 in North Dakota, Heitkamp, the Democratic-NPL nominee, defeated Republican nominee Rick Berg by 2,936 votes statewide. In Sioux County and Rolette County, two predominantly-Native American counties lacking any cities with more than 2,500 residents, Heitkamp won both of the counties by a combined 3,538 votes, more than her statewide margin. In 2017 in Alabama, over two-thirds of Jones’s statewide winning margin of 21,924 votes came from six counties: Greene, Sumter, Bullock, Lowndes, Perry, and Wilcox, where Jones’s combined margin from those six counties was 15,114 votes. All of them are located in the Black Belt, and the largest town in any of those counties, Union Springs in Bullock County, has less than 4,000 residents.
There is a greater-than-zero chance that Wisconsin could provide the 270th electoral vote for one major party’s presidential nominee or the other in next year’s presidential election. In Wisconsin, rural and urban voters matter virtually equally. That’s because a winning Democratic coalition in Wisconsin involves getting high turnout and large Democratic margins in cities like Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Madison, La Crosse, and Eau Claire, getting large margins in the Democratic-leaning suburbs surrounding Madison, winning the mostly rural/small-town areas in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, and getting a high enough percentage of the vote in the rest of the state to pull off a statewide victory.
I believe that Democratic candidates, and the Democratic Party as a whole, should make a good-faith effort to advocate for policies designed to benefit rural and small-town communities and the people who call rural and small-town America home. More importantly, Democrats don’t have to give up on supporting social justice, economic justice, voting rights, and other core progressive goals in order to win support from rural and small-town voters who are open to voting for Democratic candidates.