With the Republicans winning narrow control over the House in the 118th Congress, let’s look back at these midterms to see how Democrats acquitted themselves with respect to competing for the rural vote. In homage to Sergio Leone’s 1966 Italian epic spaghetti Western film, I break it down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Fetterman’s Rural Strategy
Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat was the linchpin of the Democrats’ plan to hold the upper chamber on Capitol Hill and Lt. Governor John Fetterman’s “Every county, every vote” strategy involved his repeated trips to all 48 rural counties in the Keystone State. Although he only won two rural counties, Centre County (home of Penn State University) and Monroe County, that candidate face time paid off as Fetterman moved the needle by improving on President Biden’s rural vote in the state by three points – from 26 to 29%.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette said it best: “Mr. Fetterman’s victory could offer the Democratic Party a new pathway to assembling a winning coalition in an electorate that’s undergone fundamental shifts since Mr. Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 presidential election. He has long advocated campaigning in deep-red areas full of white, working-class voters that have shifted toward the GOP in recent decades, not to win majorities there but to cut into Republican advantages by splitting their voting coalitions.”
Fetterman did something else that is exceedingly rare for any Democrat, he raised more money from rural Republican counties than his GOP opponent Mehmet Oz.
North Carolina Democratic Party Spotlights Representative Budd’s Anti-Rural Record
Many state Democratic parties don’t lift a finger to expose the voting records of Republicans with respect to how they screw over rural constituencies in their states and districts. This is important because most county-level parties and rural caucuses lack the specific information with which to write informed letters to the editor or post cool memes to social media platforms or lob-biting calls to talk radio shows that can skewer these GOPers for these votes.
But the North Carolina Democratic Party issued a series of press releases that shadowed Representative Ted Budd, the Republican nominee for Senate, as he fundraised across the state, like this one in Greenville that slammed him for voting against a series of programs and projects aimed at rural needs in the area. They also did one when Budd was in Atlantic Beach in rural Carteret County. These press hits are tiny, baby steps but activities state parties need to do more of year-round.
Don’t Insult Rural Folks You Hope to Represent as Your New Constituents
Way back in January after the new congressional district map was drawn, the man who will be my new federal representative was asked by a local radio host which was his favorite part of the district. The congressman replied “I love all my communities and I look forward to getting to know the people in the new towns added to the district and hearing what is on their minds.” The reality was that the town in which the congressman’s 2018 and 2020 Republican opponent resides in was surgically removed. But the congressman gave a smart and diplomatic answer.
Sadly, this was not the case with Representative Susan Wild, a two-term Democrat from Pennsylvania who faced a tough re-election after rural and Republican-leaning Carbon County was added to her Lehigh Valley district centered in Allentown. During a virtual meet and greet on July 18, Wild said “Carbon County has many attributes, but it is a county that – although it was once an Obama county – it since has become a Trump county,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what was in their heads because the people of Carbon County are exactly the kind of people who should not be voting for a Donald Trump, but I guess I might have to school them on that a little bit.”
In playing the elitist card, Wild might as well have told her audience that her favorite perfume is Eau de I’m-better-than-you. But these kinds of intemperate cracks go viral very fast and contribute to the continuing damage of the Democratic brand across rural America. Wild wound up winning her race by 1.6% or just over 4,700 votes and (full disclosure) I produced digital and print ads for My Rural America Action Fund as an independent expenditure which were all targeted at voters in Carbon County and three rural hamlets in southwest Monroe County to try and keep her losing margin manageable in the new turf.
Just Not Deep in the (Rural) Heart of Texas
On September 2, the Texas Democratic Party issued a press release announcing their statewide “Democrats Deliver for Texas” tour. The problem was that all nine of the stops were in cities. This drew the ire of The 134 PAC named for the 134 counties in west Texas where it works. In tweets the next day, The 134 said “And nothing in The 134. Typical. A stop in Amarillo or Wichita Falls would have been nice.” Upon seeing these tweets, I commented “even if rural counties were added, a tour is ephemeral. It would mean more if they invested money in building year-round electoral infrastructure in rural TX.” To which The 134 replied “Exactly. Ephemeral is the right word. Media tours are a waste of time and money. They vanish like the morning mist.” At some point, the original press release was updated to one dated September 8 with a tour stop in the east Texas town of Madisonville (about halfway between Dallas and Houston) where the focus was billed as “Democrats Deliver for Rural Texas Communities.”
Rural Strong…in Taiwan?
On August 6, the Democratic National Committee unveiled its “Rural Strong: Building Homegrown Prosperity Together,” campaign. The centerpiece of the effort was a new logo which the DNC described as “a framework designed to focus on shared values that connect with our friends and neighbors on the ways Democratic policies help our communities. This effort will help provide important training and tools for building Democratic power from the ground up. The Rural Strong logo is a visual tool that can help create opportunities for conversation about being a Democrat, engaging on the issues facing us, and electing Democrats working to build a better America for all of us.” Rural Democrats were urged to fill out a form listing how much swag such as yard signs, bumper stickers, flags, baseball caps, T-shirts, and postcards all plastered with the logo they would like.
The first thing that caught my eye about the Rural Strong logo was the icon of the sun which bore a striking resemblance to the one on the flag of Taiwan. And Taiwan was just in the news as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had just taken a controversial trip to the island on August 2. My second thought, as the son of two artists, was too much blue and no green to symbolize the verdant fields and forests of rural America. After sharing the DNC logo with a prominent Democratic rural strategist from the Midwest, his response was “I’m shaking my head. With all the challenges facing rural Dems, they’re designing a flag? If that’s their big priority, the color of the flag should be white.”
Madison and Milwaukee Alone Won’t Elect a Senator
The Senate race in the Badger State offered Democrats their best chance to unseat a sitting Republican – two-term incumbent Ron Johnson, who won his 2010 and 2016 races over Russ Feingold by margins of 51.9 and 50.2%. Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes emerged from the Democratic primary as the nominee carrying all kinds of baggage from his stands on defunding police and abolishing ICE. September was a pivotal month for Barnes as he was napalmed by an onslaught of attack ads from the Senate Leadership Fund (the super PAC allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell). Barnes never recovered and Ron Johnson eked out a 50.4% win.
Barnes swept the vote in large and medium metro areas, rolling up margins of two to one or more in those urban demographics. But Johnson dominated in the suburbs and got his highest vote share of more than 61% in the rural counties which comprise a third of the state’s voters. Democrats would have been smart to clear the field for Tom Nelson a former state legislator and county executive from Outagamie County who had all the progressive bona fides without Barnes’s liabilities.
Most of the Barnes attacks on Johnson were centered on abortion and saving democracy with some chunks of red meat on Social Security and Medicare. Like Feingold before him, Barnes failed to prosecute Johnson’s abysmal record on issues of concern to rural communities such as the fact that Johnson voted against the Farm Bill three times in 2012-2013, opposed reforming federal milk marketing orders so important to “America’s Dairyland,” and voted against reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools Act to provide full funding for Payments In-Lieu of Taxes for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest which covers more than 1.5 million acres of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Barnes also never hit Johnson on his record with veterans, like his vote to limit Agent Orange claims at the VA or against expanding Tricare coverage to include behavioral treatment for autism spectrum disorder for the children of service members when prescribed by a doctor. The television spots for Barnes like one on taxes showing him making peanut butter and jelly sandwich reinforced an image of a lackluster doofus and were skillfully turned against him by the Republicans.
The day after the election, Paolo Cremidis of The Ourun Coalition, tweeted “Barnes losing is a perfect example of why we don’t let national level progressive orgs run your campaigns. He could have been talking about agricultural policy, economic development. Instead his dumbshit DSA staffers made him tweet about eating churros and wearing Birkenstocks.”
Beasley comes up short in North Carolina
Unlike Ohio and Missouri, the open Senate seat in North Carolina held some hope for Democrats that it could be flipped if things broke their way. In Cheri Beasley, Democrats got a capable if somewhat cautious nominee who was matched up against three-term Republican Representative Ted Budd. For Beasley to win, she was going to have to cut the GOP margins in 78 of the 100 counties which are rural – North Carolina is America’s 12th most-rural state at almost 41%. She didn’t.
She did carry eight rural counties in the NC-1 district in the northeast part of the state as part of the 11 rural counties she won statewide. But Beasley never laid a glove on Budd for a series of votes with a profound impact on rural North Carolinians. Some examples would be Budd’s 2019 vote against the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a big deal as agriculture is the Tarheel State’s largest economic sector. Budd also voted against funding in 2019 for disaster aid for the victims of Hurricane Florence, which ravaged much of the eastern part state in late summer 2018. PFAS has contaminated drinking water supplies in Pender, Harnett, Chatham, and other rural counties but Beasley never made an issue of Budd’s 2020 vote against the PFAS Action Act to deal with these “forever chemicals.” In the last few years, North Carolina has received almost $53 million from USDA’s ReConnect rural broadband grant and loan program which has served more than 13,800 households for high-speed broadband infrastructure. In 2019, Budd voted against an appropriations bill that boosted ReConnect money by $55 million, but Beasley didn’t say boo.
Why don’t Democratic candidates attack Republicans for stabbing their rural base in the back? Often times their handsomely compensated consultants are totally clueless about issues that can motivate some rural voters to cast their ballot for a Democrat. “I don’t think she had the best team around her,” said one longtime North Carolina operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly of the Beasley campaign. And nobody has mastered the fine art of “failing up” like these inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls from the Democratic consultant class. After the candidates they advise go down in flames, they are rewarded with new campaigns to mess up in the next election cycle.
Thomas Mills, a native of rural Anson County and editor of the PoliticsNC blog, said of Beasley “She needed to beat the hell out of Budd down the stretch and she didn’t do it. She lacked money, though. I also think we have bigger problems in rural North Carolina with white voters refusing to vote for any Democrat.”
So now it’s on to the 2024 cycle where the rural hill will get even steeper for Democrats with challenging Senate seats to defend in Montana (Tester), Ohio (Brown) and West Virginia (Manchin) and Republicans sitting in rural House seats in AZ-2 (O’Halleran), IA-3 (Axne) and WI-3 that once belonged to Democrats.
Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.