Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s victory in last week’s runoff for the Georgia U.S. Senate has Democrats rightly celebrating. Not only did they expand their Senate majority, giving them the most seats outright as opposed to the 50-50 split of the current Congress, but they defeated a manifestly unfit and unqualified Trump-backed candidate in Herschel Walker. They also proved that Georgia, once ruby red, is now a pretty purple state in which Democrats can not only compete, but win.
A closer look at the map, however, proves that the Democrats should be cautious of celebrating too much. While Walker failed to turn out sufficient numbers of rural Republicans to overcome Warnock’s urban advantage, the Democrats still failed to perform well in the state’s heartland. Instead, Warnock rode to victory on votes from Georgia’s cities – Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Athens, and Macon.
A win is a win no matter where the votes come from. Still, given the uniquely terrible candidate the Republicans picked, Democrats should have done better in rural Georgia. Supporting strong farm policies, robust labor unions, and pro-family tax policies, the Democrats used to be the natural home of rural voters. Georgia itself once sent a Democratic peanut farmer – Jimmy Carter – to the White House!
Yet, as the party moves to one of urban and suburban college-educated voters, it has lost touch with its former base. That is an increasing problem the party must reckon with. Not only should Democrats want to be competitive in rural districts – because rural voters, just like urban voters, deserve to have their concerns taken seriously by our party and because there are votes to be won here in the countryside – but because they have no choice.
Republicans have gerrymandered much of the electoral map. In Kentucky, the last Democratic state representative in the Central Time Zone, Patti Minter of Bowling Green, just lost her seat after the Republican legislature redistricted her out of office by giving her a larger share of rural voters. This is happening across the country, with Democrats at the state and federal levels alike finding themselves competing on a playing field designed to give Republicans a rural advantage.
We can debate whether partisan actors should be drawing electoral maps until the cows come home. The fact remains they are, and we must compete in the districts that exist. Therefore, if Democrats want to have a chance to take back the U.S. House in 2024 and even reclaim some state legislatures, they must begin taking the concerns of rural America seriously and adopting policies that address the needs of rural voters.
The good news for Democrats is that this is not as much of an uphill task as one may think. They performed better than even the party expected in the midterms and are eying rural voters in 2024. Still, 65% of rural voters have an unfavorable view of Democrats, a Morning Consult poll found earlier this year.
Clearly, there is work to be done. That is why Democrats should adopt a bold and revolutionary platform for rural America, one that addresses not only the issues of optics and trust the party has with rural voters but one that puts the interests of rural communities and residents at the heart of the party’s agenda in this Congress and in the next election. By doing so, Democrats can once again become the party of the working class – urban and rural – and begin to compete in places Republicans have for too long taken for granted.
Unfortunately, things are not off to a good start. The election of Congressman Hakeem Jeffries as the next Democratic leader in the House of Representatives is historic – Jeffries will be the first Black person to lead a party in Congress when he assumes the leadership – but represents a missed opportunity to promote a rural Democrat, such as Bennie Thompson of Mississippi or Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, to lead the party.
Leger Fernandez has only been in Congress since 2021, however, and Thompson will be 75 next month. The fact that there aren’t any younger rural Democrats in Congress who could lead the party into the next generation is cause for concern. While Leger Fernandez and Thompson – who excellently chaired the January 6th Select Committee – should both have active roles in leading the party by dint of their experience and ability to win rural constituencies, we need to do more to promote new rural talent in the Democratic Party.
State-level races are where you do that. The party must begin identifying candidates, like State Senator Chloe Maxmin in Maine, whose book Dirt Road Revival I reviewed earlier this year. In it, Maxmin recounts how she managed to become the first Democrat to win her rural district in 2018, doing so with good old-fashioned retail politics and a shoestring budget absent much support from the state and the national party. In 2020, Maxmin shocked the political establishment again, unseating the Republican leader in the Maine Senate and becoming the first candidate to unseat a party leader in The Pine Tree State since 1992.
Candidates like Maxmin can and do exist in every state and territory. Democrats need to spend resources identifying them and, when they run, supporting them. Investing solely in places where the political calculus suggests you have the best chance of winning might seem common sense, but it is extremely shortsighted. Electoral dominance is not built in a single cycle; Republicans didn’t gerrymander America overnight. Democrats need to start playing the long game, and that includes spending money in places where the odds are not in our favor.
We can’t just do this at election time, though. Democrats – and the left more generally – must become a constant presence in rural areas. We need to show up not just at elections, but all year long. We need to be organizing in those areas along the issues that matter. We need to be actively campaigning against rural hospital closures – 183 such closures since 2005 – and demanding investment in rural health, including funding for drug treatment centers in opioid-ravaged areas and in recruiting specialists to practice in rural areas.
Meanwhile, we need to address the unique environmental concerns of rural America. Whether increased risk of floods in Appalachia, contaminated water on the coastal plain, or wildfires in California, rural America needs robust environmental protections and investment in infrastructure and resources to withstand climate change. Organizations like the Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) in Tennessee and Kentuckians For the Commonwealth – which emerged from the 1988 campaign to protect citizens from coal companies abusing broad form deeds to strip mine their land – provide a model that other progressive organizations and indeed the Democratic Party itself could follow, organizing communities around grassroots issues. These organized communities can then be used to get out the vote in rural areas. Democrats should consider investing not only in elections but in community organizers who can build an effective ground game in rural areas and also report back to the national party what is needed in rural communities.
In doing so, voters will begin to realize that we have more in common than what divides us. This is crucial because right now it can seem that politics is all about difference. This is not to say that we should not talk about issues of great importance to LGBTQ Americans (like myself), Black Americans, women’s rights – especially women’s reproductive rights – and other issues. We must continue fighting for these issues, not only because it is the right thing to do but because LGBTQ, Black folks, and women (including those who claim multiple or all of those identities) also call rural America home.
The emphasis, however, must be on what unites us – not what divides us. As I have said before, the Black bus driver in Chicago has more in common with the white logger in Kentucky than she does with Oprah Winfrey, and that white logger has more in common with that Black bus driver than he does with Donald Trump. Democrats like Pennsylvania’s Senator-elect John Fetterman understand this, which explains his success in not only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh but his shockingly good performance in rural parts of the Keystone State.
Similarly, Joe Biden – a man who understands salt-of-the-earth people better than any president since Bill Clinton – knows how to make this case. He won the Democratic Primary because a rural state, South Carolina, voted for him, yet it was the cities that delivered him the general election. This is instructive both because it shows the importance of coalition building and it reminds us that “rural” does not mean “white;” rural Black voters in South Carolina saved Joe Biden and, in my mind, the country by helping us defeat Donald Trump.
Biden repaid rural voters by delivering big. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 will expand broadband access in rural communities, reclaim abandoned mines, rebuild and repair bridges and roadways, invest in water infrastructure, and more. Democrats should consider proposing and passing more laws like this, attracting bipartisan support where they can and daring Republicans to vote against rural Americans where they can’t. Make the Republicans in the House of Representatives go on-the-record in opposing the things that will benefit rural communities.
These things are manifold. Democrats should consider subsidizing rural hospitals in danger of closing, investing directly in rural school districts which too often have reduced tax bases, and putting federal dollars into the hands of not only local nonprofits but local entrepreneurs by expanding Small Business Administration loans and introducing grants and subsidies for businesses which create new jobs, pay a living wage, and are locally owned and operated. This will not only help local communities build up their own economies independent of multinational corporations, but it will make American capitalism more egalitarian and equitable by breaking the stranglehold national chains such as Walmart and McDonald’s currently have on rural economies.
Another way of doing that is making available funds for rural communities to build on the resources they have, including their natural beauty, to create branded destinations for travel and leisure. From the Grand Tetons to the Great Smokey Mountains, rural America contains some of this planet’s most beautiful and iconic natural wonders. Allowing local communities to develop these tourist destinations to attract more ecotourists, adventure tourism, and even those just seeking a break from the hustle and bustle of the city will bring much-needed jobs and revenue to local economies.
Rural America cannot depend on tourism alone, though. From farming to logging to mining to fishing, rural communities are already providing the raw materials major corporations rely on. Democrats, in turn, should consider creating federal incentives for major corporations to locate their operations in or near the rural communities providing those raw materials. For example, though Appalachia is known as one of the premier global regions for wild ginseng, no ginseng processing factories exist in the region. Instead, the ginseng is shipped across the country and the world.
That makes no sense. Instead, we should incentivize companies to set up factories near the rural communities providing those goods. This not only cuts the carbon footprint of transporting materials across continents and oceans, but it brings good paying – ideally, union – jobs to rural communities.
Again, we should do this because it is the right thing to do. But Democrats should also consider this because it is the only way they can ever hope to win and win big in the areas they once held by comfortable margins. Only by developing a truly robust agenda for rural America, and by investing time and energy in rural communities, can Democrats hope to regain a competitive advantage in rural America.
As decades of Republican domination of rural politics have proven – the GOP has no interest in building up and investing in rural America and the people who call it home. Absent of anyone else to advocate for them, rural voters need the Democratic Party almost as much as the Democratic Party needs rural voters. It’s time, then, for Democrats to build some bridges – quite literally, in this case – and reclaim its stake in rural America.