Steve Bucknam

Steve Bucknum, Vice-Chair of Crook Co., Oregon, Democratic Party
Photo: Bill Bishop

The perception these days is that while rural communities have been the backbone of the Republican Party, that support is waning. The war in Iraq, corruption and power abuse scandals, and the generally poor perception of the Bush Administration have brought the Republican stock down in rural areas, just like everyplace else in America.

In Oregon, after twelve years of Republican control of our state legislature, the Democrats won it back, and we had the best session in years. The Democrats are increasingly seen as a fiscally responsible party. The Oregon Democratic Party has taken a position in favor of Second Amendment rights, and at the most recent state party meeting, the Gun Owners Caucus had a “shoot.” (It was the first time some of our urban Democratic Party members had shot a gun.) Environmentalism isn’t perceived so much as a threat to rural development. All in all, at least here in Oregon, the sticks that have long supported the Republican Party in rural areas have been removed one at a time, until only a few are left. Rural Oregon and probably much of the rural west and south are ready to move under the Democratic Party tent.

But, oddly, the Democratic Party appears to have no interest in taking back Rural America. Rural activists are struggling for resources. What the Democratic Party is doing is working to build the party up from the precinct level with computerized lists of names, finding whom to contact for the get-out-the-vote push on election day. Works great in cities. And, frankly it will work great in some parts of rural America. About half of the people around here live in small towns, so precinct work will have some effect.

ranchland near Prineville, Oregon

Ranchland near
Prineville, Oregon
Photo: Bill Bishop

In rural areas, however, you have problems with distance and time that you don’t have in urban areas. While a state house district in Portland might take in a couple square miles, my house district covers all of my county, and parts of three others. In a state house district of nearly 8,000 square miles, it’s hard to get to the doors to knock on them.

But this strategy is a sure loser for a reason besides distance. With Democrats registered at around a third or less of all registered voters in rural areas, just collecting lists of Democrats will never win an election. Plowing the same field over and over, but planting no seed, will never grow a crop ““ ask any farmer. To win, you have to get out and engage both Independent voters and Republicans. You have to convince them to make that last jump, to leave the Republicans behind and vote for Democrats.

I was thinking of the Maginot Line the other day. After the trench warfare of the First World War, France built a highly advanced fortification along the German border. When the Second World War started, the Germans just drove around the end of the Maginot Line. I think that right now, rural America is the Republican Party’s Maginot Line — and Democrats are attacking it head on. The Party is using a strategy that is just wrong for the circumstances. Getting every Democrat out to vote in my area will lose every election you attempt.

A wiser strategy might well be to ignore the Democrats (because they are mostly going to vote for you) and engage the Independent and Republican voters with direct mail, targeted media advertising and door-to-door work where it’s feasible. But what Democrats really need to do is to get to know people. They need to do everything from having a marching band to holding a fishing tournament to get to know people who aren’t Democrats.

Obama sticker on Iowa truck

Bumper crop for Obama in Iowa
Photo: rawbanana

One problem with the Democratic Party, at least around here, is that it is centrally operated in a one-size-fits-all manner. There isn’t even a second flavor for rural. What ought to be happening is that the state party folks should be talking to each county to find out what might work locally, and be ready to experiment, play around, try new things, and have some fun in finding ways to win. Many of our rural districts will take several election cycles to get to the point where Democrats are trusted. We are well on our way, but we need minimal resources. It’s not really about money — what rural Democrats really need is freedom. To be effective, our volunteers need the freedom to experiment with their rural communities and find out what will actually work. When the state party mandates the use of a centralized data input programs, it looks just like a frontal assault on the Maginot Line to me.

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