On the heels of the third-straight election in which their party continued to lose support from white, working-class voters, more rural Democrats are expressing frustration with how their campaign arms are aiming to reverse the electoral slide.
Last month, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), who previously served as mayor of his state's fourth-largest city, made headlines when, as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, he said the party should stop trying to win back white male voters.
This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is headed by Montana Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterSenators introduce dueling miners bills Live coverage: The Senate's 'vote-a-rama' Dems attack Trump SEC pick's ties to Wall Street MORE while his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Ben Ray Luján, hails from northern New Mexico. Tester, from the nation's seventh most-rural state, replaces Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet of Denver while Luján's district of mountains, buttes and pueblos is 32 percent rural, a stark contrast to his predecessor, Rep. Steve Israel, whose Long Island turf is choked by expressways and apartment complexes.
But now, months into their new jobs, neither Tester nor Luján seem to have a strategy to compete for votes in the countryside and the natives are getting restless. Despite repeated attempts, neither Tester nor Luján would speak on the record.
"The first thing they ought to be doing is paying attention to the folks on the ground who are closest to the rural areas. They need to be moving downstream to engage more at the county and community level on organizational and messaging strategies," said Nate Timm of Mazomanie, Wis., chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's Rural Caucus. Timm complained that too many of the campaign managers he deals with are "urban outsiders" and of too much top-down consultant-driven advice "and in Wisconsin, that has not been proven to be a good strategy."
In the House, with many seats once held by Blue Dog Democrats and in exurban and rural districts now in Republican hands, having an aggressive candidate recruitment effort is paramount to any gains in 2016 and beyond. From Franklin, N.C. in the state's western Great Smoky Mountains, Justin Conley lamented that "after they gerrymandered our state, the DCCC turned its back on North Carolina." Conley, 28, who is president of the Young Democrats of North Carolina, added that "as Democrats, we're so stuck in this idea that there is an off-season. There's not anymore. We lose every race that we don't focus on and showing up is half the battle."
Others would like to see the party put forward a more robust populist agenda. "I'm watching what's going on and it's like they [Democrats] didn't learn anything from last year's elections," said Vic Meyers of Trinidad, Colo. Meyers, who lost a bid last November for Congress in the eastern plains of Colorado's 4th District, added that "[Democrats] have to start caring about something other than Wall Street and the big banks."
For his part, Conley said Democrats can win support from "Bubba" voters by focusing on issues such as better infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, jobs and education. As a recent poll from Western Illinois University's Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs found, economic anxiety is high in rural America, which is losing population and jobs.
Speaking of the 2016 governor's race in the Tarheel State that has Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's approval ratings underwater, Conley said "this 'Carolina Comeback' that McCrory keeps talking about — it's not happening in the 85 rural counties. None of what the governor and Republican legislature are doing creates jobs for rural North Carolina."
In most rural areas, television, radio and print media are much cheaper than in urban markets, but at the party committees, all that seems to matter is how much money a candidate can raise. In a post-election interview after losing her race in Kentucky's 6th District, Democrat Elisabeth Jensen said spending 30 hours a week dialing for dollars left little time to meet voters and talk issues. "I was surprised when I traveled to Washington and met with the DCCC and some members of Congress, and the only thing people asked me was, 'How much money can you raise? Where are you gonna get your money?'" Jensen told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Unlike in the past, where campaign committee staffers were more hands-on in their respective regions and states, today it seems like people who work at the DSCC and DCCC do so to fatten their Rolodexes with the goal of jumping to a political consulting firm or high-profile super-PAC after the election. This rankles activists like Timm, who said that "people who support our candidates feel used and exploited" and that the existing system is "producing cannibalistic politics."
Timm also belittled the DCCC's much ballyhooed "Red to Blue" program. "None of it is homegrown. The Democratic Party needs to get real serious about what rural politics is all about." Timm added that "I think we're in the hangover of being in a union-dependent strategy."
Barron is president of MLB Research Associates, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass.