Democrats again lament their weakness in rural areas, but they don’t have an answer to the problem
Democrats have seen this movie before. An election takes place, they examine the results and suddenly lament their poor showing with rural voters. It has happened time and again and yet the party has neither a solution to the problem nor, it seems, a commitment to solving it.
The concerns have arisen again after Tuesday’s elections in Virginia. Democrat Terry McAuliffe got wiped out in rural areas of the state, as Republican Glenn Youngkin rolled up margins and turnout in the gubernatorial race that approached or eclipsed those of President Donald Trump in 2020. Rural Virginia was not the only reason McAuliffe lost, but his performance in those counties highlighted the party’s continuing weakness.
The urban-rural divide is real and has gotten wider. Democrats have seen their future as one that runs through urban and suburban America, with a coalition that is increasingly diverse, younger and more liberal. What appeals to that rising Democratic Party, however, doesn’t necessarily resonate with rural voters and sometimes drives them away. That’s the conundrum for the party as it considers how to mend its rural deficiencies.
“We go through this every time after an election, and we just never learned the lessons,” said former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), who has been preaching about the party’s lack of support in rural areas for years.
The problem, she added, did not start with Trump. “If you make it all about Donald Trump,” she said, “then it’s transactional, as opposed to an institutional failure that the Democratic Party has had in the last how many years of not paying attention to rural America.”
Heitkamp’s North Dakota, a state once identified with prairie populism, illustrates the shift in rural America. In the early 2000s, North Dakota’s three-person congressional delegation — two senators and a single member of the House — was composed entirely of Democrats.
When Heitkamp was defeated in her reelection bid in 2018, the delegation became all-Republican.
Democrats have been talking about this problem for the better part of two decades. After President George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, there was soul-searching in the party about problems in rural America. It was in that election year that South Dakota’s Tom Daschle, then the Democratic leader in the Senate, who had served in Washington for a quarter-century, lost his bid for reelection in an epic battle against Republican John Thune.
In the 2010 election, Democrats suffered historic losses in the House in the second year of President Barack Obama’s first term. That election solidified the Republicans’ hold on rural America, an analysis by Bloomberg’s CityLab concluded. Its report said that Republicans picked up 31 seats listed as “pure rural” and another 20 categorized as a mix of rural and suburban.
In 2016, Trump helped to deepen the GOP’s hold on rural voters, flipping scores of rural counties, some of which had not backed a Republican presidential nominee for decades.
In Iowa, tiny Howard County, which had not voted for a Democratic presidential nominee for seven straight elections, gave Trump 57 percent of its votes after casting 60 percent for Obama in 2012, a swing of 42 percentage points. Iowa’s Clinton County, which also had voted Democratic for seven straight elections, gave Trump 49 percent of its votes after Obama had carried it with 61 percent in 2012.
In 2020, Joe Biden won the presidency, but the Trump campaign produced an even stronger performance in many rural areas, in some cases topping both his 2016 percentages and his 2016 turnout. In Iowa, for example, his Howard County percentage rose to 63 percent and his percentage in Clinton County hit 54 percent. Iowa shifted from swing state status to a reach for Democrats.
In four eastern Ohio counties — Belmont, Jefferson, Monroe and Trumbull — Trump’s 2020 percentage topped that of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney by between 18 and 24 percentage points. The solidification of counties like those is one big reason that Ohio has been put out of reach for Democrats in the past two elections, despite gains in major urban and suburban counties.
The consequences of these shifts among rural voters are felt in congressional and state legislative races as well. The GOP’s strength in rural areas gives it a boost in the seesawing battles for control of the House and adds to what is becoming a geographic advantage in the competition for the Senate.
Republicans control the legislatures in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, despite the fact that all three backed Biden in 2020 and currently have Democratic governors. Democrats blame gerrymandering for their legislative minorities, and that certainly has made the problem worse, but to lay it all on gerrymandering ignores the fact that Democrats continue to struggle to win votes in rural areas.
In parts of rural America, Heitkamp said, the label “Democrat” is now a negative for a politician. Voters who identify as Democrats, she said, are reluctant to put yard signs outside their homes or engage in political discussions at local coffee shops. In some cases, they are being harassed by extreme Trump supporters. “People who are Democrats in rural America are hiding,” she said.
Over the years, Democrats have lamented this trend and have suggested that they should be doing better because their policies offer more economic support to rural voters than do those of the Republicans. Some have claimed that people in rural areas are voting against their own interests by supporting the trickle-down economic policies of the GOP. To that, Democrats from rural states have said it’s presumptuous for any politician to tell voters what their own interests are or should be.
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, headquartered in Whitesburg, Ky., said Trump gave rural voters a greater sense of pride in themselves and their communities at a time when their livelihoods, whether through coal mining or family farming, were being threatened — and as some coastal Democrats seemed to be disrespecting them.
“He wasn’t going to bring the coal jobs back, but he elevated them,” Davis said of Trump. “We’ve brought energy and food [to the nation] and served in the wars. Rural people always felt they were in service to the rest of the country, and now there’s a cultural chasm. . . . What the Democrats have a hard time understanding is that politics are cultural and not logical. It’s going to take more than a white paper to reverse what’s going on.”
Various issues divide urban and rural voters, from views on guns or abortion to religion and race. “This is more cultural that’s at play and identity politics that’s at play than economic policies,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who represents a largely rural district and who is stepping down next year. “And I think Democrats develop a blind spot to that and not being more sensitive to some of those cultural issues.”
The Democrats’ strength in the cities remains solid, but Tuesday’s results showed that the party’s suburban gains that were made during the Trump presidency might not be as solid as some thought, particularly if Trump is not on the ballot. In both Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans gained back some of what they had lost during Trump.
Many Democrats say the first thing they need to do to regain rural support is to start showing up. Biden’s domestic initiatives, whether infrastructure or the social programs in the Build Back Better legislation, could resonate with rural voters. But rebuilding support in rural America represents a longer-term challenge. “I’ve been preaching this from Day 1,” Heitkamp said, “that you don’t have to win in rural America. You just can’t lose the way we lose in rural America.”