Dee Davis on Rural America and the Midterm Elections | Everywhere Radio|  Season 3 Episode 7
Watch the full interview with Dee on the Rural Assembly YouTube channel.

This week, Whitney Kimball Coe recorded a special episode of Everywhere Radio the morning after the election. She talked with Center for Rural Strategies President and Daily Yonder Publisher Dee Davis about the midterms, rural voters, and the cultural and economic forces driving political trends.

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Check out the episode above and continue on to the full transcript below if you’d like to read it all.

Transcript

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

On this special episode of Everywhere Radio, we’re talking to my colleague Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, right on the heels of the midterm elections. The results are still rolling in as we speak, but there are some things we know for sure, and I wanted to ask Dee to name some of those, especially what we know from rural battleground states and get his analysis on rural voters and rural futures in general. Dee follows national and state politics almost as closely as he does Kentucky basketball, which means he takes it seriously. You can find out more about Dee and our organization, the Center for Rural Strategies at ruralassembly.org. How’s it going, Dee? 

Dee Davis: 

It’s good. I’m glad that you gave me that introduction because for weeks, I’ve been really paying attention to this election and then in the last few days, I just shut it down. I couldn’t watch anymore. I was just getting confused, and then last night, as the results started pouring in, I just put on the recording of the last Kentucky basketball game and I watched that instead and about 10 o’clock, I decided I got to find out what’s going on, and so, I flipped over, but I do think in some ways, I feel like a coach. I know what’s the right thing to do and what’s the wrong thing to do, and I don’t understand why the professionals don’t follow my whims, but yeah, so- 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I’m glad you went back to the election results because otherwise, I would’ve been telling you what happened last night. 

Dee Davis: 

Or I would just be making it up, which I might be anyway. It was a surprise election and there are always surprises in elections and people liked to be judged against expectations, so you have expectations that come from historical precedent, for example, when Obama came in with two houses behind him in 2008, he rode a blue wave and then lost historic amounts two years later in the midterm, 63 votes, I think he got… I mean the house flipped over and the Republicans had a huge lead. Then Trump lost about 40 seats, I think, after his big win in ’16. There was a lot of anticipation that Biden was going to take a shellacking, that the house was going to go 40, 50, 60 votes to the Republicans, and then the last minute, the last projections that the Senate would flip to the Republicans by as many as three. 

None of that quite happened according to script, but things aren’t exactly clear in the fog of war right now. One of the things I did in trying to avoid the run-up to the election, I turned on a movie. I watched a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and there’s a character who says, “The event has not named a winner yet,” and I think this is where we are. The event has not named the winner yet, but we’re beginning to see some things and some of the things that we see are slightly beyond precedent, and that is how active the women’s vote seems to have been. 

The greatest of all unicorns for people who look at elections is youth vote. It’s always going to flip elections, but it never does, but it may very well have been so intense, not in numbers, but in commitment that we saw in lots of places where Republicans were strong, that the force of women upset with the Dobbs decision or reversal of Roe v. Wade, that all of a sudden, we saw a different kind of participation, even in states like Kentucky where Rand Paul won going away as a Republican senate candidate and the veto proof Republican house even became more veto proof. 

We saw a ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment move to the pro-abortion side, that there was a failure of a constitutional amendment to deny abortions in all cases. That’s where we are right now. It appears that the Republicans are going to have a slight majority in the house and McCarthy will start out as the speaker if this goes according to projections right now. A lot of that’ll be because of a court case in New York where the courts decided how to reapportion the congressional districts whereas in a lot of other states, we saw gerrymandering from the parties in power, and so, that may have given Republicans a slight advantage there. We’re still waiting and we’ll be for days waiting for the California votes to be counted and some votes out west in Arizona and Nevada. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

And Georgia too, it sounds like. 

Dee Davis: 

Yeah, I think that the Secretary of State in Georgia has indicated that he is preparing for a runoff election. That means that they do not see that Warnock will get to 50%. In a lot of southern states, you have this rule about runoffs and part of that was to make sure that candidates of a different color were going to get a plurality, but not a majority of the vote and take office, so the idea being that certainly, with one party rule in a lot of the states that there was a feeling that if we could keep this rule about a 50% plus one, that that would keep the status quo, and so, in Georgia, we’re going to have to see a runoff more than likely. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

You’ve offered us an overview of what happened last night, even as you watched some old basketball and in a movie, and I’m curious if that big takeaway, if you can whittle it down to the role that rural voters were playing last night. 

Dee Davis: 

Yeah. We track rural voters pretty closely and it’s not always the first data that you see, and oftentimes, when you watch the networks explain what’s happening, they’ll point to clear suburbs and think that they’re rural voters or they’ll indicate that they’re rural voters, so you get mixed up a little bit, but we did some polling just a couple of weeks out looking at rural voters in battleground states, that is swing states, those states where it could go either way, and we saw some pretty startling data. 

Someone who’s looked at a lot of rural voter polling over the years, I was surprised. What we saw was that rural voters are more and more conservative, indicating that their preference is Republican and that’s not a real surprise, but about half the voters were there. About 25% were Democrats and about 25% were non-affiliated or independent, but what was amazing in this data was just how pessimistic rural voters found themselves at this point in American history. 

Always before, you would see even in times of great distress or despair, rural voters would have an optimistic view of the future or they would say, “I’m going to be okay. I just worry about my kids,” but what we’re seeing here is you had about 25% of the rural population say that the economy was working well or very well for them, and that’s pretty low, and then, “In the next 12 months, do you think your personal situation is going to get better or worse?” We have 51% think it’s going to get worse and only 15% think it’s going to get better. I think for me, what really shook me is, “In general, do you think the next generation will be better off, worse off, or about the same as people in your generation?” Only 5% of rural voters in these swing states said that things were going to be better off. Now that is- 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Wow- 

Dee Davis: 

I wouldn’t say it’s not American, but I’ve looked at a lot of polls and we always have this general optimism that thrives even in hard times and this kind of thinking that what’s around the corner’s got to be better, and that’s why we go to school and that’s why we work so hard, because it’s going to be better off and if it’s not going to be better off for me, it’s going to be better off for my kid. This is vanishing here. Maybe it’s just one moment, one snapshot, but it was some cause for concern. 

If you take the next step, what our polls showed was that among rural voters, there was this real sense of economic populism. Not the Donald Trump populism of throwing journalists in jail, but more the kind of populism of dislike of corporations. They probably would throw the CEOs in jail if they had a chance, feeling like everything is rigged against them in the economic system. This is, again, a departure from what we’ve seen in the past. You don’t want to make too much out of one snapshot, but because it was so apparent, I think we should look into it deeper and really try to find out what’s going on in rural households. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

How is that sense of… I don’t know if despair is the right word, but 5% of folks feeling like it’s not going to get better, that their children will not do better in the coming years than they are. How do you correlate that to a vote? For the GOP versus the Democratic Party, or how do people respond to this worry and anxiety that they have? 

Dee Davis: 

Mark Twain said that people complained that he had become a pessimist in his old age and he said he was not a pessimist, he was just an optimist who hadn’t arrived. I think in some ways we’re seeing a lot of optimism that hasn’t arrived, and what I would say that means is that people who are unhappy with the way things are are usually voters in play. That means the message or the candidates that would capture their imagination may not be there at this moment, but they have no stake in the status quo. 

They have no stake in continuation, but they don’t feel aligned with candidates that they’re seeing. Well, we know what’s often true with rural voters is that on issues, they can look like they’re not just moderate but progressive voters when it comes down to economic issues, but culturally, they have a hard time with democratic candidates and campaigns that emphasize issues like race, abortion, some other sets of topics that really seem to be driven by elites or intelligencia, and people in rural areas feel looked down upon. 

Of course, in America, everybody feels looked down upon by somebody. Even billionaires complain that they’re disliked, but I think in rural America, you’re seeing a lot of people who just can’t find a way to vote for candidates who are, I would say, engaged in an intellectual conversation and a conversation of extraction, that seem distant from the rural experience. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Well, we’ve talked about how rural voters make up about a fifth of the electorate, and that’s not a whole lot. Why a hyper focus important on rural voters? Why do we need to be paying attention to the movement of these numbers? 

Dee Davis: 

I don’t know what the number of African American voters are, 14%, something like that. What the number of Latino voters is, is it 18? It’s hard to determine because Latino voters or Hispanic voters are bifurcated in how they named their race, but in reality, in a closely divided nation, every group that you can reach out to who has an identity that you can reach for, then that cultural group has a lot of power, has a lot of clout, and truly, there’s a lot of differences in rural. There’s a lot of diversity, but there’s a cultural identity or homogeneousness that we can see in some ways. 

It’s used to distance the community from other communities. I was just in Memphis and I took a trip to the Bass Pro Shop, which is in this great old basketball pyramid. It’s amazing. I’m sure it’s bigger than the pyramids in Giza. You go in there and there’re ponds with 250, 300 pound gars and they’re alligators behind glass and there’re bass pools. There’s all these live animals around. There’s a shooting range where you can go shoot at targets in the store. 

There are a lot of mugs that say, “Don’t tread on me,” and I went up to the top to look out around, look at the Mississippi River and look around, and then I came back down and as soon as the elevator door opened, there were six Muslim women in traditional long dress, hijab, and I think this cultural battle is not what we always think it is. I think that there’s a real appeal to this kind of pickup truck driving, beer drinking, Dolly Parton, Toby Keith world of rural people that we don’t think of as a political force, but in some ways, cultural forces are more determinative, I think, than a voting issue. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I’m from the south and you’re describing my backyard, that Bass Pro Shop and the pluralistic and multicultural experience that you can still have, but I’m still confounded that rural identity can sometimes be wrapped up in Dolly Parton, and at the same time, the day-to-day aspects of rural life can feel really difficult to get everything you need at the grocery store, to have a good paying, decent job that offers dignity and a living wage, to achieve childcare. Just the day-to-day fabric of our lives and how that plays out in the voting booth, is it Dolly Parton we’re holding onto one day or is it just the day-to-day and how that all plays out? I’m always a little confounded about that. 

Dee Davis: 

I think that the feeling that people in rural communities have a sense of being part of the help and not part of the problem, not being the backwardness, but being the people who want to show up for you if you’re in a flood, they’re the people who want to take their boat and come and help you and their own cultural sense of being a force that lifts the country, not an embarrassment to the country. I think it’s within that cultural framework of people who are more moderate, who don’t see themselves as bigoted, don’t see themselves as mean. 

It’s within that framework that Democrats used to thrive. Bill Clinton won rural voters twice, but since that time, there was a real decision made to court college educated voters, to really focus on urban. There was a sense by the Democratic party that demographics is destiny, and so, there was a real move away. Of all the races for the Democrats, perhaps the most interesting may have been the Pennsylvania Senate race where John Fetterman, former mayor of a little beat up town called Braddock, and I know, I went to school at Pitt and I used to go to a bar called Chiodo’s there in Braddock, right at the site of the Homestead Massacre. 

His candidacy was one where he said he was going to go to every county and pay attention to every vote, and so, here’s the candidate who had a stroke right after his primary and they ran a candidate to see where… they’re dealing with a stroke victim, they still went county by county as he was getting healthy. He had a debate where he did phenomenally poorly against the television celebrity, Mehmet Oz. He still wins it going away. 

Of course, part of that was because of Shapiro, the gubernatorial candidate, was a strong candidate, and so that opened that up, but in some ways, that was considered a very vulnerable seat for the Democrats. What Fetterman did was he went into each of these counties and even in these red counties and Pennsylvania’s usually… they say Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Alabama in between, he went into these red counties and he cut the margins that Biden lost by, and that seems to have given him a cushion for a decent win as the votes are still being tabulated. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Are there any other states or races that you were observing last night that merit some discussion here? 

Dee Davis: 

Well, I think for people who live in Appalachia, everybody’s had an eye on the Ohio Senate race because of JD Vance who wrote Hillbilly Elegy, which was really about his family from Breathitt County, Kentucky, and then moving to Cincinnati and his view, which was a very dystopic view of Appalachian culture and history and how you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get through addiction, and it’s all hard work. There’s been a lot of anger because he never really spent any time… 

I think I probably have spent more nights in Breathitt County than he ever did, but the reality is that this phenomenon, his view of this dystopic rural America was a propulsion that made him a star. He was Ivy League educated, he was a Silicon Valley investor, and then he went back to the Cincinnati suburbs where he grew up and ran for office in a more and more a red state, and he won by the margins that Trump won by… Approximately the same margins. 

Trump had a bad night election night. Mostly, it looks like his candidates, the ones who denied the 2020 election loss, there’s still a couple of those to be determined, but in reality, JD Vance was a target. He ran against the Democratic populist Tim Ryan and won, and so, his legacy is how he serves in the Senate. I think it’s going to be a focal point for what the rural story is as it plays out in national politics. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

I think there are a lot of rural Everywhere Radio listeners who are sitting with this morning and maybe the mornings after as more results come in with this question of, now what? What is the rural story that we’re going to see or want to see play out in the next couple of years or in the upcoming 2024 elections? What thoughts, reflections do you have on the rural story coming up? What’s next? 

Dee Davis: 

What we’re seeing now is we’ve known in long term trends that in an economic system dominated by globalization that there’s going to be a real push to make markets more efficient and to have competition not just regionally or nationally, but globally. What that means to traditional communities like mine or other rural communities dominated by mining, farming, timbering, or even manufacturing down the road, is that more competition, more market efficiency, really pushes against traditional employment and it makes harder to keep people at work in those jobs. 

Then, it’s not exactly a perfect storm, but with Covid, we saw this great decline in retail in rural areas. So many businesses shot. That one sector that was holding on lost out as people moved to online purchases more and more. Now, you’ve got healthcare propping up a lot of rural communities, looking after each other, being what keeps these communities between the ditches, and outsourcing or distance employment where people are working over the internet. There’s some huge pressures on rural communities, but there’re some opportunities. The thing is you can fall to despair or you can figure out the ways to go forward. 

The other thing in a mobile country like ours with so much wealth is if you make your community a good place to live, if you have the bandwidth to be able to do distance working, and if you have the tenets of decency and inclusion, there’s some real possibilities for small towns that people want to live in. It’s not going to be easy. Doesn’t mean that every rural community up the hall is going to thrive, but it does at least open a window for things getting better. 

They’re not going to need a lot of people to mine coal. They’re not going to need a lot of people to farm, and they’re not going to need a lot of people to cut timber in the same way that we have in rural communities before. We’ve got to find a new path forward, and it’s not impossible. It’s right there in front of us, but nobody’s really asking politicians to help with that model. More and more, the request is, “Can you intervene? Can you bring back what we lost?” That debate’s not really serving people other than maybe the politicians who promise it, but don’t deliver. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Well, thank you, Dee, for coming on this morning and giving us some of these reflections. I’m curious, for the next couple of days, what should people be on the lookout for? Who are the one or two things we need to be looking for? 

Dee Davis: 

Yeah, as I said, the event has not yet named the winner. I think that there’s always a lot of noise. It’s always fog of war. People who are sure what it means will be saying what it means, and a lot of people with agendas will be telling you what this election meant, in some ways, just like I just did, but I think the reality is that that data will not be available for months. We’ll be sorting through this. 

After the 2020 election, the Rio Grande Valley went kind of hard to the right, and so, the indicators were that that’s over. Texas is going to be red. Latino voters are going Republican this time. The Valley went back to the Democrats, and so, it’s just going to take some time and I think the most important thing is not to be impatient, that the mud will settle and then we’ll know what’s what, but it’ll take a while. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Okay. All right. Well, thanks again, Dee. We’ll check in with you, I’m sure, down the road.

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