By Alexander Bolton - 06/04/13 09:00 AM EDT
Senate Democrats hope to pass a five-year farm bill this week and bolster their appeal with rural voters, who they see as crucial to retaining their majority in 2014.
Democrats have stepped up their outreach to rural constituencies this year as they head into a daunting midterm election year with a slew of seats in conservative-leaning rural states to defend.
Agriculture is a major industry in Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas and North Carolina, four states that are huge GOP targets next year. Montana and South Dakota are open seats following the announced retirements of Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Meanwhile, Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are two of the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbents.
Other rural states where Democrats face competitive races are Alaska, Louisiana, New Hampshire and West Virginia.
Pryor and Hagan have listed the farm bill among their highest priorities and have urged colleagues to act on it.
Passing a bipartisan farm bill will give Democrats in those states a strong argument to make on the campaign trail.
Dan Glickman, who served as secretary of Agriculture under former President Clinton, said Democrats need to show voters that government can have a positive impact on their lives. Passing the farm bill would be an important step, he said.
“It shows that in the area of agriculture the Congress can operate in a bipartisan manner. It’s really one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation,” he said. “Anything that can be done in a bipartisan way helps build trust, and that should help Democrats.”
Glickman recently spoke at a rural summit hosted in the Dirksen Senate Office Building by the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.
The three-hour meeting highlighted ways the farm bill would improve lives in rural areas by supporting business development through competitive grants, expanding access to broadband services, promoting conservation and lowering energy bills.
It also promoted a measure included in tax legislation passed at the end of last year creating a nationwide public safety communication network for first responders in rural areas and the E-Rate program, which provides $2.3 billion to libraries and schools in rural areas to purchase telecommunications services.
Democrats want to change the perception that they are primarily the party of big cities and the East and West Coasts.
“We have made great strides in enacting legislation to help spur economic activity in rural America, but there are still too many pockets where Americans do not have access to the same resources, like education and infrastructure enjoyed by residents of more urban areas,” said Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee.
“We need to make efforts to expand broadband access to strengthen disaster mitigation, telehealth access and provide greater access to educational resources. These are programs and ideas that Democrats have long supported that are critical to the success of rural America, and issues that I will continue to advocate for in the Senate,” he said.
Begich is one of several incumbent Democrats facing a tough reelection.
Democrats have seen their support erode in rural areas in the South and Midwest over the last 25 years as the country has become more ideologically divided and Democrats have become more identified with liberal social values.
In 2008, President Obama helped sweep a group of Senate Democrats to victory in conservative-leaning states, but the political winds will be blowing in their faces next year.
“We now have a class of Democrats up for reelection who managed to get elected to the Senate in a good Democratic year,” said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “They were elected when the party was strong nationwide, and that put them over the top and in states that had been trending against their party over the last quarter century.
“They now have a pretty serious challenge, and their own leaders recognize the nature of the challenge,” he said.
Smith added the challenge for Democrats is to make the case for the role of government in parts of the country where “the balance of opinion is for reducing government.”
The $955 billion farm bill establishes subsidy levels for crops and pays for the federal food stamp program. Much of the funding will go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
It would eliminate some subsidies in the form of direct payments, but create other new subsidies and expand crop insurance. In a significant concession to Republicans, it cuts $23 billion in spending over 10 years, including $4 billion from food stamps.
“There’s probably no piece of legislation that’s more important to rural America than the Farm Bill. More than 16 million Americans have jobs because of agriculture and many of those jobs are found in rural communities,” said Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) “The Farm Bill is a game changer for rural communities and it’s one of the many reasons why passing a five-year bill is so critical.”
Democrats passed a multi-year, bipartisan farm bill through the Senate last year, but it stalled because of opposition from conservative House Republicans, a point Democratic leaders repeated in the final weeks of the 112th Congress.
Democratic aides said last year’s battle over the farm bill highlighted Republican obstruction and helped them expand their majority.
Republicans say the 2014 election will be a referendum on Obama, the controversies that have plagued his second term and the implementation of the new healthcare law.
— This story was updated at 10:18 a.m.