A Drop of Ink - Democrats Out Of Touch With Rural Voters

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By Reed Anfinson

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For decades, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) was a powerful political force in western Minnesota. Its candidates regularly won at the legislative, state executive office, and congressional levels. Those days are gone. 

Rural Minnesota is firmly in the control of the wing of the Republican Party closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.

Democrats in rural America are baffled by what seems to them the illogical voting patterns of rural working-class people. How could someone vote Republican, they ask, when the party stands for enriching the rich, reducing aid for school lunch programs, reducing unemployment benefits, reducing support for housing aid, and so much more of the assistance that helps so many get by?

“Democrats were so obviously the better choice, their logic went, that anyone making less than six figures voting for a Republican made no sense,” Skylar Baker-Jordan, a freelance writer from East Tennessee, writes.

“Except, it does. If you dig beneath the surface, for many working-class folks in Kentucky and throughout rural America, voting conservative does seem in their best interest,” she writes. Big city liberals and Democratic pundits are just blind to what matters to them, she adds.

Rural America is more culturally conservative. Family, faith, and a narrow definition of patriotism motivate their votes than financial interests. Assaults on what are seen as traditional, religion-based family values have lost Democrats’ votes. Fighting laws that would limit Second Amendment gun rights motivate their political stands more than what would make their lives more financially secure. They see Democrats as the party that gives handouts to undeserving people living off the system and their hard work. While they have strong family values, they also value individual rights.

“What the Democrats have a hard time understanding is that politics are cultural and not logical,” Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, headquartered in Whitesburg, KY, says.

But even when Democrats wear the mantle of a dedicated conservative, they are easily beaten by a Republican.

Longtime Democratic 7th District U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson consistently won in a district that otherwise voted Republican. He was pro-life, a member of the National Rifle Association, a fiscal conservative, and voted against impeaching Trump. But his conservative credentials didn’t matter. He was labeled a Democrat, and the toxicity of the national brand overshadowed his record. His powerful voice for agricultural and rural communities as chair of the House Agriculture Committee was secondary to his party label.

As Democrats lose elected officials in rural Minnesota and America, they lose touch with its people. 

“The party essentially has no leaders on the national stage—in elected office or on party committees—who live in a rural community,” Jane Fleming Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, writes.

“This leaves a practical void in understanding rural voters. There is no voice in the room when strategy, message, and funding decisions are being made to make the case as to why rural voters should be a key focus of the races across the country,” she writes.

Democrats also don’t control the message rural voters hear about them.

“We’re letting Republicans use the language of the far left to define the Democratic Party, and we can’t do that,” former conservative Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota says. She adds that the root of today’s problems is “an institutional failure that the Democratic Party...of not paying attention to rural America.”

“Democrats are hurting themselves by not speaking out more forcefully against far-left positions that alienate rural voters, such as the push to ‘defund the police,” she says.

Fox News and other conservative media that openly support the Trump wing of the Republican Party are the dominant news sources for rural Americans. And, breaking through misinformation on the internet seems an insurmountable task these days.

“Democrats (run) against not only the opponent on the ballot but also against conservative media’s (and at times our own) typecast of the national Democratic brand: coastal, overly educated, elitist, judgmental, socialist. The problem isn’t the candidates we nominate. It’s the perception of the party we belong to,” Steve Bullock, the former Democrat Gov. of Montana, said.

While acknowledging what lies at the core of rural voters’ political makeup, Democrats must hold to their most fundamental beliefs. They stand for inclusivity and opportunity for all citizens, no matter their gender, skin color, or accent. They accept higher taxes if it means better schools, daycare funding for families, and expanded broadband access to the internet.

Eighty-three to 86% of Americans support expanded background checks for gun ownership – so don’t talk about banning guns, propose broadly accepted steps toward gun safety.

Though nearly 60% of Americans say they support the right to an abortion, that percentage drops substantially later in the term of a pregnancy. When Democrats support abortion rights late into a pregnancy, they lose rural voters.

Nearly 75% of Americans support legal status for the 3.6 million children of immigrants who came here with their families - highlight their contributions to America.

Democratic President Joe Biden has frustrated the liberal wing of his party with his moderate stands. He has pushed back against radical proposals such as defunding the police.

Then there is the electorate-bending charismatic candidate who transcends political beliefs, attracting people who want to see the system upended. It’s the person who told us he could have voted for Trump or Vermont liberal U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. They have few political beliefs. Their passions are tied to the disrupter. They want to see the foundations of the establishment shaken.

The ideal candidate is the disrupter, uniter, supporter of family values and individual rights, and respectful of rural traditions. “You don’t have to win in rural America,” Heitkamp says of the Democratic Party. “You just can’t lose the way we lose in rural America.”

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