This past winter, it’s been de rigueur for a series of stories to appear on how the Democratic Party has become an endangered species in most of rural America, or could even go extinct there. A scribe for Politico wrote that “Blue-collar diner stories about disaffected Democrats and independents who crossed over to support Republicans are so common they’ve become their own media subgenre.”
The trend actually started last November, following the Virginia gubernatorial race where Republican Glenn Youngkin, the winning candidate, ran up the score in the state’s rural counties with margins higher than Donald Trump managed in 2020, drubbing Democrat Terry McAuliffe by 80 to 20 percent blowouts.
Despite ample polling data that show rural voters in support of many Democratic policies on economic issues, the Democratic brand has become toxic in the hinterlands. And with Democrats flush with boatloads of cash due to their holding the White House and both houses of Congress, almost none of that money is finding its way to fund critical organizing and messaging initiatives designed to better compete for the affections of rural voters. The Democrats seem to be waiving the white flag in rural places these days.
Instead, local groups are trying to bootstrap their way to reversing a long electoral slide years in the making. The small metropolitan area of San Angelo, Texas, is the Angora goat capital of the nation. It’s also home base for Jon Mark Hogg, an attorney and former congressional candidate who founded The 134 PAC, named for the 134 counties in west Texas where it works. Founded on Texas Independence Day (March 2), last year, the organization is focused on recruiting Democratic chairs in the 39 counties of their region without them as well as candidates for down-ballot races such as county commissioner, county judges and county clerk.
“We’ve been a voice and advocate for rural Texas,” Hogg said in an interview, adding “the party is especially irrelevant here.” Hogg notes that “the state party doesn’t do anything in rural areas because they don’t understand rural areas anymore. Rural does not equal white – they don’t realize the huge diversity economically, religiously.”
While Democrats often overlook local races in favor of the sexier, high-profile fights for Congress and statewide office, the party suffers by not building a bench of officeholders to wage those contests down the line. “I may not get up off my couch to vote for Beto (O’Rourke) or Mike Collier (running for lieutenant governor) but I might vote for my buddy at the bottom of the ballot,” Hogg said, emphasizing that 30%-40% of the vote is Democratic for these county offices.
The 134 PAC is all-volunteer and funded with local and smaller contributions. “We don’t have big dollar donors,” Hogg said. In his Tom Green County, which has about 120,000 people, the only early voting location is in the county office building, Hogg said. And 90 of the 134 counties have no other early voting location than the county clerk’s office. For those working out on oil rigs and ranches, it is not just a few minutes’ drive to get to the courthouse. Hogg said his group is working to find 15 people per county to petition for extended voting hours. “Fighting voter suppression is done at the local level,” he said.
Back east in Virginia, another organization is trying to fill the void where the Democratic Party once helped build and maintain rural electoral infrastructure. Rural Ground Game began in 2019 as a co-op where for a monthly fee, candidates could have access to a range of campaign services including targeted field programs, volunteer recruitment and voter contact efforts, communications support, opposition research, earned media, debate prep and creation of digital ads and direct mail. The organization is helmed by an executive director, finance director and Lynlee Thorne, the political director.
“We recognize we got our butts kicked [in the governor’s race],” Thorne said in an interview. “Things are pretty bleak in a lot of ways, so we need to get our hands in the dirt. We’re in this mindset of what’s the next flashy campaign and we don’t have that luxury – we have to be doing this work year round, every cycle and the payoff will come later and rural people understand that,” adding “you prepare the fences for winter so the lambs don’t escape.”
Rural Ground Game got a boost last December when U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, who represents the suburbs of Fairfax and Prince William counties, gave $10,000 from his campaign committee in a challenge grant on the condition that RGG match it by the end of 2021, which they did. Thorne sees the bulging war chests and leadership PACs maintained by other Democrats in the state with safe seats and hopes they can replicate Connolly’s gesture. “Physically, the proximity to donors doesn’t exist, the access is an issue,” she sighs, pointing to the wealthy contributors in northern Virginia’s cities.
Thorne said RGG’s next projects also involve investing in growing and strengthening Democratic county committees. “I’m on these meetings every week with our rural Democratic committees and see the look of overwhelming demoralization,” Thorne said. “We don’t have the support to coordinate and choreograph our messaging across multiple regions. … We now talk to the state (Democratic) party much more frequently, but the party at any level is not the cavalry.”
Back in Texas, Hogg too is playing the long game. “We have to start building something for the next 30 or 40 years.”
Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.