In the vast rural expanses of Southwest Virginia, Democrats were once at the top of the political pecking order. For decades, Rick Boucher, a Blue Dog Democrat, represented the Commonwealth's conservative 9th congressional district, consistently winning over voters who were increasingly supporting Republicans at the presidential level. First elected in 1982, Boucher won most of his House races rather handily — in 2008, he even ran unopposed in the general election.
However, by 2010, the headwinds against Democrats had become too much to overcome, with Boucher losing his reelection bid to Republican H. Morgan Griffith. Across the country, a multitude of rural Democrats — which included House stalwarts like Reps. Chet Edwards of Texas and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota — were defeated. Fueled by the Tea Party backlash against then-President Barack Obama, Republicans picked up 63 House seats and gained six seats in the Senate, winning control of the lower chamber in the process.
In 2012, Democrats had a strong showing in rural America. Obama won Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — which all have substantial rural populations — in his successful reelection campaign. And Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Jon Tester of Montana won their respective Senate races that year. Heitkamp — who served as state attorney general from 1992 to 2000 — won her Senate race by roughly one percent even as Obama was losing North Dakota by nearly 20 percentage points. In the upper chamber, she struck a bipartisan tone, relentlessly advocating for rural issues like energy independence and broadband access. However, in 2018, she lost her reelection bid to then-Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer.
After years of declines in rural America, Democrats are now facing the real possibility of losing their House and Senate majorities next year over what many see as a failure to address pocketbook issues; the feeling has contributed to a sense of abandonment among many rural Americans, including many voters who backed Democratic candidates in the past. Heitkamp is one of several individuals with a knowledge of rural issues who spoke to Insider and have sounded alarm bells over Democrats' missteps. In assessing why Democratic support continues to falter in rural areas, Heitkamp said that the decline in ticket-splitting has been a major component. "I think people in general have gotten more tribal," she said. "The willingness for Democrats to vote for Republicans is diminished and vice versa."
With Democrats facing electoral catastrophe if they don't improve their standing in rural America — virtually shutting them out from representing an entire swath of voters in an increasingly-divided country — what factors are at play as the party tries to counter GOP electoral ascendancy in the countryside?
Republicans are maximizing their vote in rural counties
In 2008 and 2012, Obama won numerous rural counties in the Midwest — powering him to victories in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. However, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, her margins dropped considerably in rural areas, dooming her candidacy in all four states. Last year, now-President Joe Biden improved on Clinton's performance in some areas, but it wasn't enough to flip Iowa and Ohio. Then-President Donald Trump defeated Biden by a 53%-45% margin in both states.
The Virginia gubernatorial election in November saw Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin lead Republicans to statewide victories — despite the growth in the state's Democratic-leaning urban and suburban counties — in large part from overperformance among rural voters. In Southwest Virginia's Tazewell County, Youngkin beat Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe by a 87%-13% spread, netting over 10,000 votes in the process. In neighboring Buchanan County, which was ancestrally Democratic, Youngkin defeated McAuliffe 85%-15%, netting over 4,000 votes. The scene was repeated across Virginia's most conservative locales, with huge turnouts in jurisdictions that Trump won last year.
Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist, told Insider that without concerted voter outreach in the countryside, the party could face deeper losses in future election cycles.
"I've been asked before, 'What's the lowest we can go in a place like Buchanan County and if we have hit rock bottom?' And the answer is zero," he said. "You would think that this happening cycle after cycle would cause the Democratic Party to get out there and go ask voters why and find out how we get them back. But instead, what I've seen happen on the consultant side is because the suburbs are growing, they just say, 'Don't worry about it. We'll go pick up the votes elsewhere.' And I think those people hear that message."
'Showing up is a big part of getting the job done'
When Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1991, the chamber had been controlled by Democrats for the entirety of the 20th century. Deeds grew up in rural Bath County, which borders West Virginia and overwhelmingly backed Trump in 2020 and Youngkin in last month's gubernatorial race.
As one of the few rural Democrats left in the legislature and the party's nominee for attorney general in 2005 and governor in 2009, Deeds knows the ins-and-outs of state politics and keeps a pulse on his district — which is a world away from the state's densely-populated economic centers of northern Virginia, metropolitan Richmond, and Hampton Roads. When asked why Democrats have struggled with retaining rural support, he pointed to three "simple and complex" issues.
"In politics, showing up is a big part of getting the job done ... you've got to show up," he told Insider. "In Virginia, no successful Democratic statewide candidate has focused on rural areas since Mark Warner ran for governor in '01 and for the Senate in '08. Number two, you can just say it's a cultural divide between traditional rural voters and the rest of Virginia. But the third thing is that Virginia has changed so much. There's been a general outmigration of voters from rural areas."
Sen. Mark Warner — while running for governor in 2001 — made a concerted effort to attract rural voters, sponsoring a driver in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and releasing a bluegrass jingle for his campaign. In 2008, he won 65% of the statewide vote in his first Senate race and swept Southwest Virginia at the same time that Obama won 53% of the statewide vote. Even when Warner was narrowly reelected in 2014 in what was a tough year for Democrats nationally, he was able to carve out enough support in rural Virginia to win with 49% of the statewide vote.
When asked about the importance of messaging, Deeds spoke of the disconnect that sometimes exists among politicians who back policies that are advantageous to rural residents and actual voter behavior.
"It's Democrats that — in the legislature and in Congress — vote for things like broadband funding, which absolutely can revolutionize the economy in rural Virginia and rural America," he said. "It's Democrats that vote for job training that both improve education funding and create more opportunities for community colleges. All of this seems to benefit rural areas, but the communication is not there and it's very frustrating to me. And I'll take part of the blame. We just don't do a good enough job of effectively communicating our successes and concerns to voters in rural parts of the state and rural parts of the country."
Democrats have largely become an urban-suburban party
Over the past decade, the Democratic electoral coalition — powered by its strength in cities — has grown to include suburban localities like DuPage County outside Chicago and Gwinnett County near Atlanta that for decades had overwhelmingly backed Republicans. However, these gains aren't enough to offset losses elsewhere. With moderate Democrats like Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Ron Kind of Wisconsin retiring from rural-based House seats next year — along with Republicans holding redistricting advantages in 20 of the 35 states where legislatures possess the ability to draw multiple districts — further erosion in the countryside could flip the lower chamber to the GOP. And the 2024 presidential election could feature Trump, who was able to activate millions of rural voters in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
As Heitkamp explained, failing to include rural voters in the party's overall vision will only exacerbate the political divide. She said that Democrats should focus on crafting a clear economic message regarding the president's expansive Build Back Better Act, emphasizing that universal pre-K, daycare, and paid family leave should be top priorities because the policies would allow more women to rejoin the workforce and increase productivity across the board.
To that end, Heitkamp in 2019 launched the One Country Project — a nonprofit devoted to addressing rural issues and bringing rural voters back to the Democratic Party — alongside former Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
"I did pretty well in rural areas when I ran in '12, but now we've seen kind of a realignment," she said. "I think there's been a focus on urban issues and suburban issues. The more those focuses have switched for the Democratic Party, the more rural America says, 'Well, I don't see me in this. I don't see you concerned about what I care about.'"
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