Rural retreat for Democrats

Eight years ago, when the Democrats captured the U.S. House and Senate, they did so largely on the backs of strong candidacies of moderates from rural districts and states. The party continued to add seats in the 2008 elections with a respectable vote from the countryside.

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But all that progress seems like a distant memory today. With Senate control hinging on the outcome of races in four of the nation's 10 most rural states (West Virginia, Arkansas, South Dakota and Montana), Democrats have allowed what little rural electoral and policy infrastructure they once had to wither away and atrophy.

With the exception of a Native American outreach effort, the national party committees have no rural vote components anymore. When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced its community outreach chairs in March 2013, labor, LGBT, New Americas, defense and tribal panels were named to accompany the women and Latino councils that were previously appointed. The councils are designed to keep the DCCC connected with various communities supportive of Democrats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has no rural desk.

Over at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Rural Council is unstaffed and still stuck in second-class status, unable to become a full-fledged caucus. Why? Because under party rules, the group must represent at least 2 percent of the DNC membership and its members must share an "immutable characteristic." As a result, the roadblock is that being rural is not a permanent trait. I swear, you can't make this stuff up.

Things are no better at the state level — only a handful of state parties have a rural caucus to recognize geographic minorities. Despite running on platforms that included pledges to form rural caucuses in their states, the Democratic chairmen in Georgia and South Carolina have yet to create them. In Massachusetts, a rural subcommittee adopted by the state party in February remains stillborn, having never met.

Up on Capitol Hill, the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee (DSOC) once had a robust Senate Rural Outreach operation led by former Sen. Blanche Lincoln. The Arkansan used to convene national conference calls with rural activists to update them on Democratic initiatives focused on the nation's small towns, but after Lincoln's 2010 defeat, the DSOC folded its rural outreach shop.

A similar story played out on the House side, where the House Democratic Rural Working Group is no more. First chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and then by Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin of South Dakota, the entity has ceased to exist since Herseth-Sandlin lost her seat in 2010. An effort in 2011 to get Rep. Tim Walz to head the group fell flat when the Minnesota lawmaker pulled back reportedly because he felt he would not be given the support from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), which is ironic because Pelosi pushed to create the group in the first place.

Compounding the problem of this rural retreat by the Democrats is that none of the major outside funders, such as Democracy Alliance, are investing in building 527s and 501(c)4s to fight for votes on rural turf.

This whole state of affairs does not sit well with David "Mudcat" Saunders, one of the party's premier rural strategists. "For them to turn their backs on the South and rural America is electoral insanity and it's damned immoral," railed Saunders in his Virginia drawl about the Democrats' pullback from pastoral precincts. Saunders also chided the party for not wanting to go out of its comfort zone to campaign, saying "the Dems are a home field ball club; they won't play on the road. It's like playing all their games at Fenway Park and none at Turner Field."

Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a product of Appalachian Ohio, also feels strongly that Democrats can't write off the Bubba vote. "I would hope our party would embrace the philosophy of our former DNC Chair Howard Dean's 50-state strategy because we need to compete everywhere," Strickland says.

Strickland said he worries about "elite attitudes" that sometime permeate some Democrats when it comes to thinking about and engaging rural voters. "I think sometimes there is a tendency to show a subtle disrespect for people who do not live in the larger urban areas and that is unfortunate," Strickland noted of many in his party.

Barron is president of MLB Research Associate, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass.

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