EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Yonder reached out to people who were involved in designing the program described in this commentary. A response is included at the bottom of this article.

The recent news that once again the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would not have any leadership roles focused on rural voters reinforced the sad reality that despite all the talk about competing for votes in the hinterlands, it’s all just talk – none of the Democratic party committees have invested a dime in rural outreach this election cycle.

Given the strong headwinds of gerrymandered districts and Republican-passed voter suppression laws which will buffet Democrats in 2022 and beyond, this lack of investment in rural electoral infrastructure is appalling, considering the challenges Democrats face in flipping Senate seats in heavily rural states like North Carolina and Wisconsin and defending them in New Hampshire and Georgia along with governor’s offices in Maine and Kansas.

Enter Movement Labs, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm with a pricey plan to “create tech-forward ‘county-party-in-a-box’ packages suited to specific rural county contexts,” according to a strategy memo obtained by the Daily Yonder. The initiative, which, as of earlier this summer, had already secured $1 million of a $3.7 million budget for 2022, aims to raise the Democratic vote share across 250 counties by 3%. The timeline calls for an initial pilot program launch in several counties this summer and fall with a national roll out in March 2022.

This rural party-building project raises several questions related to the use of funds as well as the backgrounds of some of the confirmed members of the Program Design Committee who are going to make sure it is accountable to the rural communities and organizers it hopes to serve.

The lion’s share of the budget, $2.5 million, goes to “county leadership team stipends” of $10,000 each for the 250 teams, with another top-heavy $600,000 for “overhead and management.” Then there is the $400,000 for “mass SMS support” which will buy 20 million texts at 2 cents a pop. Is texting a smart strategy considering that cellular connections in 81% of small counties were below the FCC’s minimum standard? There is also the question of spam texts. If I receive a text that is not from a family member or friend, I delete it because otherwise my phone would overfill with texts from purveyors of porn to solicitations for money from every candidate and group under the sun.

Barbara Leach, an Iowa native and founder of the communications nonprofit  MyRuralAmerica, notes that being “personal matters. Texting isn’t personal and does not buy either respect or friendship. Both are necessary if we are to be victorious in rural America.”

Leach cited data from the Pew Research Center that found 70-75% of rural adults get all or part of their news from Facebook, “so we need to get serious about using it as a priority communications tool,” she said. “Right now, it is MyRuralAmerica’s number one priority.”

The Movement Labs plan does mention helping local leaders create Facebook pages and events, but there’s nothing about the role of the platform in shaping local political debate. The plan allocates only $200,000 to digital media, and that amount also has to pay for ad buys and phones. It’s the smallest line item in the entire draft budget.

Several of the Program Design Committee members also raise eyebrows. Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party chair Ken Martin has seen two congressional seats flip to the Republicans in 2018 and another in 2020 while the GOP continues to make gains in greater Minnesota at the state legislative level under his watch. Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, hails from the hamlet of Seattle, population 724,000.

And then there is Mike Lux of the D.C. firm Democracy Partners. Back on January 26, 2010, I attended a much-ballyhooed confab called by Lux at his office in  Washington, D.C., where he pledged to seek financial support from the Democratic donor community for a host of organizations engaged in rural electoral work. Some 30 plus rural strategists were present in person with another 30 or so joining via speakerphone from around the country. This was the start of a midterm election that would claim the scalps of dozens of rural lawmakers in Congress and in state capitals and wound up making the Blue Dogs the endangered species they are today. Lux promised to write an extensive report that he would distribute to the meeting participants. I never received a copy of the report, nor did others I know who were at the meeting. None of us heard of him raising funds for the effort, either. Lux has written about the importance of rural voters, but his resume does not include work on outreach to rural or small-town voters.

Robin Johnson questions why not many rural state legislators (save for one from Texas) are being invited to help shape the Movement Labs project. Johnson, who teaches political science part time at Monmouth College in Illinois, co-authored an authoritative 2017 report documenting the frustrations of more than 70 state lawmakers, many the last in their chambers from the rural parts of their states. “I won’t speak for them, but texting certainly wasn’t mentioned as an effective way to communicate with voters among rural legislators I spoke with,” Johnson says, adding “many use billboards, yard signs, radio and newspaper ads in addition to mail and TV. Political operatives are trained to focus only on the latter along with digital and apply this to rural districts as part of a cookie-cutter approach to all campaigns. Many candidates simply ignore them and invest in what they know works best for them locally.”

Perusing the bios of the team at Movement Labs, none of the staff seems to be from rural places. Lots of Yale and Amherst, no land grants. There is a troubling sense that rural constituencies are viewed through a lens of commodification by these denizens of the consultantocracy comfortably ensconced in the nation’s capital. (Movement Labs declined to be interviewed about their rural party-building project.)

Says Leach, “If the architects of a rural strategy are distanced socially and economically, the strategy likely limps forward with both hands tied behind its back. To be effective, rural strategies need to be crafted by people with successful rural history organizing experiences, and that usually means they have lived there or worked there successfully.”

Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.

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Lauren Gepford is the interim director of the program in rural party building at Movement Labs. The Daily Yonder described some of the key points in Matt Barron’s commentary. This is her response:

“I’m excited that we’ve built an initial design committee of Party leaders, rural experts and on-the-ground rural organizers, and others with deep experience in progressive causes. We’re led by Secky Fascione of Democracy Alliance, Yoni Landau of Movement Labs, and George Goehl, previous Executive Director for People’s Action, along with several State Party Chairs, Rural Caucus Chairs, and Rural County Party Chairs. (the full list is below). I’m also continuing to meet and add more folks to the advisory committee and am committed to ensuring that those who the program is intended to serve, rural constituents and rural organizers, are deeply involved with the program design and leading the program. The pilot program local teams we work with this fall will act as advisors too, and they will all be on-the-ground local rural organizers. 

“We’re not making the claim that texting is the most effective strategy, but it is definitely one strategy that has shown to have a positive impact in past experiments and campaigns, and I have heard from local county parties that they could help with texting. Our past work with Contest Every Race has taught us that reaching people via text can significantly increase how many Democrats run for office in previously uncontested races that had only Republicans running, so we’ll be providing a texting program for the local teams to customize and use for their local organizing efforts. Overall though, we’re going to be utilizing a variety of outreach methods in the pilot program, from texting to tele-townhalls to state fair booths and community service and social media, and will be testing the efficacy of the various methods and huddling with our local teams to learn together about what strategies work and are helpful in different local rural contexts.”

Gepford also sent the following roster of project advisers:

Party Leadership:
1. Ken Martin – President, Association of State Democratic Committees; Chair, MN Democratic Party 
2. Brad Martin – President, Association of State Democratic Executive Directors; ED, OR Democratic Party 
3. Lavora Barnes – Chair, MI Democratic Party 
4. Ben Wikler – Chair, WI Democratic Party
5. Tina Podlodowski – Chair, WA Democratic Party
6. Tom Sullivan – former County Party Chair, Author 
7. Mary Gonzalez – Rural TX State Rep, Chair of TX Mexican American Caucus 
8. Kelly Dietrich & Jocelyn Hunt – National Democratic Training Committee 
9. Erik Richardson – Chair, MO Democratic Party Rural Caucus
10. Nate Timm – Chair, WI Democratic Party Rural Caucus
11. Ben Meers – ED, KS Democratic Party
12. Tara Logan – Secretary, MO Democratic Party Rural Caucus; former Rural Director, MO Democratic Party
13. Bill Crawford – Multi-County Coordinator, WI Rural Counties
Progressive & Rural Leadership: 
1. Sarah Jaynes – Rural Democracy Initiative
2. Wanda Mosely – Field Director, Black Voters Matter
3. Isaac Wright – Rural Voter Institute
4. Stephen Smith & Katey Laurer – West Virginia Can’t Wait
5. Heather Booth & Mike Lux – Democracy Partners
Experimental and Program Design:
1. Pete Backof – Camden Strategy
2. Aaron Strauss – OpenLabs, former Analyst Institute Executive Director

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Mike Lux responds:

“My view is that we in the Democratic Party and progressive movement are in a such a deep hole on rural organizing that we need a wide range of different kinds of organizing projects in the space. This project is one worthy experiment but certainly not the only thing we need to be doing.”

Lux also said he doesn’t remember the 2010 meeting that Barron refers to. “I have been an advocate of the party and progressive movement doing more to organize and message in rural America ever since I came to D.C. in 1992, and have been in scores of meetings on the topic but don’t remember anything about the meeting Matt is referencing in 2010.”