Rural voters key to Democratic Senate hopes in Georgia and Kentucky

Democrats are playing offense in Georgia and Kentucky in their fight to maintain control of the U.S. Senate and rural voters are critical to wresting both seats away from the GOP column this November.

In the Bluegrass State, Alison Lundergan Grimes has emerged as a good fundraiser and excellent retail campaigner, proving she really is like the "Kentucky Woman" that Neil Diamond sang about, as she tries to deny Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnell9/11 bill is a global blunder that will weaken US efforts abroad States urged to bolster election security How the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill MORE (R) a sixth term. Grimes needs to pull a huge vote out of the Louisville and Lexington areas as well as college towns like Bowling Green, but keeping McConnell’s vote down in the rural counties is essential if she is to win.

In the state's eastern coalfields, McConnell has used the "war on coal" as a cultural weapon to tie Grimes to the unpopular current occupant of the White House. "Everybody just hates Obama and I don't know what you can do to turn that around. I don't know why, it's like they're brainwashed," says longtime Democratic activist Linwood Hardy of Cadiz, Ky.

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Two years ago, Hardy, a retired farmer and former field representative for the state revenue department, began printing "Ditch Mitch" bumperstickers and has distributed more than 40,000 to date. And Hardy and his wife Gail, a retired art teacher, have helped fund a new super-PAC called Bluegrass Rural that is going after McConnell with radio ads on small town stations. Hardy said if he were advising Grimes, "she should spend more time in western Kentucky and meet new people," adding that the deadline to register new voters is not until Oct. 4.

While Kentucky’s electorate is more rural than Georgia on a percentage basis, the Peach State has many more rural voters based on population. Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn is trying to run as a centrist in the mold of her father, Sam, whose long career in the Senate ran from 1972 to 1996.

While Democrats point to the growing numbers of African-American and Latino voters as a sign of the state's purple-trending demographics, the fact is that a significant infusion of rural voters in central and south Georgia will have to cast a ballot for Nunn if she is to defeat businessman David Perdue for the seat held by outgoing Republican Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE.

Keith McCants of tiny Oglethorpe, Ga. is perhaps his state's most knowledgeable expert on rural politics, and he has a lot to say about what Nunn needs to do to be competitive over the final weeks in the rural counties.

McCants, who runs the respected Peanut Politics blog, said Nunn has two tasks in wooing rural voters. First, she must motivate "Obamacrats," the rural black voters in the 1st, 2nd and 8th Congressional Districts who don't come out to midterm elections like they do when Obama's name is on the ballot. Second, McCants says Nunn needs independents and voters 55 and older to break her way. "Everyone assumes if you're white and rural, you're a Republican," he laments.

McCants said he winced when Nunn's campaign memo leaked out early this year, because the policy areas of agriculture, trade, infrastructure and rural issues were ranked at the very bottom of Nunn's list. "She needs to talk about issues that resonate with rural areas," McCants said, adding that Nunn should speak of her Methodist faith much more. "That's something Democrats haven't done a lot."

"Nunn and Democrats in general have to over-perform in voter registration and expand the voting base in order to win in November. She is going to have to invest time outside of her big county strategy and into smaller counties such as Crisp, Tift, Ben Hill, Laurens, Tattnall, Troup counties, for example, in order to compensate for a low-expected turnout," said McCants.

"While some of these voters from these areas that have been hit hard by job losses and closing of factories may not choose [Republican nominee] David Perdue because of his role with Pillowtex and his image as a country club, elitist Republican, they will need to be persuaded to turn out and turnout for her."

As for Nunn's field operation, McCants notes places like Tifton and Waycross have no organizers while "Perdue has a ground game [in the rural counties] and its going strong."

McCants, who works at the schoolbus maker Blue Bird Corp. in Fort Valley, Ga., says Nunn must continue to make use of her father and have other surrogates be more of a presence on the campaign trail.

"Former Congressman Jim Marshall [D] would be an asset for her and could be helpful with farmers and veterans," McCants says, as well as ex-Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller (D), who cut a television spot for Nunn. "But I'm not seeing that ad run down here in south Georgia."

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