Rural voters pose challenge for Dems in 2016 Senate fights
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Democrats hoping to recapture the Senate next year face some serious challenges in winning the hearts and minds of rural voters in many key states.

To date, thin bench syndrome has the party without any candidates in half of the nation's dozen most rural states: Arkansas (fifth), South Dakota (sixth), Kentucky (ninth), North Dakota (10th), New Hampshire (11th) and North Carolina (12th), although State Auditor Adam Edelen's (D) strong record on oversight and rooting out fraud and abuse makes him a top challenger to Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia GOP leader blocks resolution backing intelligence community on Russia Rand Paul blocks Sanders's Russia resolution, calls it 'crazy hatred' against Trump MORE (R-Ky.) in the Bluegrass State and Gov. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Conway takes aim at congressional intern who yelled 'f--- you' at Trump Fox's Regan defends CNN's Acosta, calls for civility: 'What has happened to us?' MORE (D-N.H.) is currently freezing the field in the Granite State as she mulls a bid against freshman Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (R). Hassan is expected to decide this summer after she puts her state budget to bed for the new fiscal year.

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Even in states where Democrats have recruited solid candidates, the task of not getting blown out in the rural precincts remains a tall order.

As recently as 2000, Democrats held a registration advantage in 11 of Arizona's 13 rural counties, but Republicans now hold the edge in seven of the 13. In 2012, Democratic nominee Richard Carmona lost 10 of the 13 rural counties to then-U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in an open seat Senate race. For Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickLatina Leaders to Watch 2018 Gold Star father attacked by Trump steps up role in Dem primaries House Dems highlight promising new candidates MORE (D) to defeat Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Summit fallout hits White House Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ Obama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena MORE (R), she will have to exploit McCain's extremely weak record on rural issues such as agriculture, broadband and transportation funding.

Missouri is another state where Republicans are having much greater success at candidate recruitment and turning out rural voters than the party of native son President Truman. Asked how he planned to compete for rural votes in the Show Me State, Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) said showing his face is the best tactic. "My approach is I go there," Kander said of his quest for votes in small towns. Kander, who at 34 is the nation's youngest statewide elected official, is trying to topple Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Election security bill picks up new support in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war MORE, the Republican who once held the office Kander now occupies in Jefferson City. Recalling his 2012 race for secretary of state, Kander said "no candidate travelled more than I did; I put 90,000 miles on my campaign manager's car," as he shook hands at dozens of county fairs in outstate Mizzou.

In Nevada, where the Democrats must hold on to retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE's seat, observers say former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Dems press Trump consumer bureau pick over Puerto Rico response MORE (D) has to poll better outside of Reno and Las Vegas. "She's got to not lose as badly as [former Democratic Rep.] Shelley Berkley did," says political analyst Jon Ralston of "Ralston Reports." "The rural counties are always a problem," he notes, recalling what he termed Berkley's "rural wipeout" in losing rural Nevada by nearly 40,000 votes to Republican Dean Heller in the 2012 Senate race. Ralston said that despite championing the state's hard rock mineral industry and thwarting attempts to reform the 1872 Mining Act that allows wealthy mining companies to pay pennies for leases to extract gold, silver and copper on federal lands, "Harry Reid has written off rural Nevada. It got him lots of money in campaign contributions but not a lot of votes in places like Elko."

Democrats may have an edge in Ohio, where Ted Strickland is hoping to oust first term Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP to White House: End summit mystery US to provide additional 0M in defensive aid to Ukraine Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit MORE (R) in the Buckeye State. Strickland, a popular former governor and congressman, is a son of rural Ohio and once represented a string of Appalachian counties on the state's eastern edge bordering Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Strickland has strong pro-gun credibility with the NRA and voted against NAFTA, a contrast to free-trader Portman who served as President George W. Bush's trade representative and is bullish on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership deal being pushed by President Obama.

Perhaps the biggest concern for Democrats flipping the Senate is not about the quality of their candidates or how many hamlets they visit. If Hillary Clinton becomes the presidential nominee, her thread-the-needle base mobilization campaign will take a huge detour away from most of rural America, and the consequences could be devastating to other Democrats sharing the ballot with her.

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