Q&A: Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota

The Daily Yonder | By Tim Marema | May 22, 2020

Democrats don’t need to win a majority of rural voters to retake the White House and improve their numbers in Congress. But they do need to do a lot better with rural voters than they did in the last presidential election, says former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost rural voters by more than 30 points in 2016. In swing states like Pennsylvania, where she lost statewide by less than 1%, her drubbing in rural counties was critical to Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory.

Heitkamp says making rural counties a little more competitive will yield big results for Democrats, whose base support tends to be in larger urban areas.

The way to gain rural support is to listen, show up, and frame national issues in ways that speak to rural voters’ values, she said.

Senator Heitkamp spoke to the Daily Yonder via a video call last week. The Daily Yonder’s Dee Davis, publisher, and Tim Marema, editor, were on the call.

We started the conversation by asking Heitkamp to comment on the social-media study sponsored by One Country, the 501(c)4 nonprofit she founded to help Democrats communicate with rural America.

The study, which has been released weekly since mid-March, shows that about half of the political comments posted by rural residents in six swing states criticize Trump over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tim Marema: Part of the premise of One Country is that Democrats need to engage with rural voters and that they can engage with rural voters. Do you think your social-media study confirms that hypothesis?

Heidi Heitkamp: I think that when there is engagement, you see a reaction. What we see is, I think, a kind of path forward for responding to concerns and worries that people have about what is going on in light of Covid. You see that there isn’t meat at the grocery store. That’s something that showed up in the [social media] narrative again.

So when people walk into the local grocery store and they drive by a herd of cows on the way in to the grocery store, and then they can’t buy beef, that seems to be kind of a failure of leadership. And Democrats can use these attitudes and what people are concerned about to be responding in a way that addresses the kind of fix we need to the problem.

So now this has driven the discussion about concentration in meat packing. And who owns meat packing? The largest meat packer for beef in the country is owned by a Brazilian company, and Smithfield is owned by the Chinese. And so I think that those are the kinds of things when I see it popping up, that people are concerned about – what they can buy at the grocery store.

That’s an opportunity for a Democratic candidate in one of those swing districts to talk about what they need to do to respond to that, whether it is amping up some of the USDA regulation or whether it is breaking up some of these large packers, whether it is building more opportunities for local beef processing organizations, which the regulations are incredibly difficult to expand. So that’s just an example of why this data is important.

Marema: Do you think social media and other forms of digital communication are going to play a more important role in the election than they have in the past?

Heitkamp: Well, I think we are not yet at that spot where the single most important tool is not a 30 second television [commercial]. … So running ads on Fox News is going to be critically important. I don’t want to discount that. But I think that one of the things about social media is activation. How enthusiastic will you be to get out there and vote in a time of pandemic?

The single most important thing that I can say you should take from this study is that when you get your rural Democrat base activated, it drives the narrative. And it will in fact, result in greater turnout.

I just spent time talking to rural members of Congress who represent these rural districts, spent an hour and a half with them, kind of saying, “How are you going to do this? What are you hearing? What are your concerns?”

And each one of them obviously have a different concern because they represent different districts. Some of them are concerned about what’s happening with the oil and gas industry, some of them are concerned about what’s happening in agriculture and with meat packing and farmers.

And so I think that the single greatest lesson we take from this is that following this news, you can see that an engagement with Democrat voters in rural America helps drive a narrative that can help drive some boats home.

Now understand that it’s never been the goal of One Country to win rural America for the Democratic party. Maybe those days are gone since FDR. I mean, it’s never been a big Democrat base. But it’s to win back Trump-Obama voters [people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016].

Dee Davis: The intriguing thing to me about the social media study is that people who are particularly interested in switching sides need to go through a process of asking permission. You kind of test the waters. It seems in some ways that the social media study might be showing us a little of this asking for permission about who to vote for and what’s permissible in the community.

Heitkamp: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s exactly right. And my advice, I don’t know if they’ll take it, is to get away from the white paper and make it about a values choice. So, the example that I gave was, we had massive flooding in Iowa last year that I don’t think this has been that big of a problem this year, but the tax bill that Joni Ernst voted for gave the five largest financial institutions, what, $32 billion of tax relief, but you can’t get a levy bill. That’s a values choice. I said, you’ve got to make it about values choices, and you aren’t going to win the hardcore pro-life, evangelical vote. You’re just not going to win it.

The one issue that I think will continue, and you saw it again in this survey, it illustrates is immigration. You saw that the spike up and, “Yep. He’s doing the right thing, shutting down the border.” And so that’s why Trump is going to spend a lot of time talking about the border because it will energize his base to get out there and defend him. And so, to me, the more you can make this about a choice, a values choice, and not just about, “We’ve got the best plan for America.”