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Rural voters speak loudly in midterms, Democrats pay the price
On his Nov. 2 election preview edition of "Meet the Press," host Chuck Todd asked Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) "what should Obama learn from this election season?" Pryor, who went down to defeat yesterday in a Republican wave, replied: "I wish he were more in touch with rural America."
Pryor's lament could extend to the Democrats as a whole, because in recent election cycles they have been sprinting away from rural voters faster than Usain Bolt.
Much has been made of President Obama's unpopularity in the hinterlands (most of it racial). The president has never looked comfortable in the countryside, once complaining in his first campaign that the Hy-Vee supermarkets in Iowa did not carry any arugula in their produce counters. And Obama failed to even show up at his long-delayed National Rural Summit.
But the Democrats' problems with rural folks go beyond the president's skin color and are due to a variety of factors ranging from recruiting poor candidates, not showing up in small towns to campaign, hiring urban-centric consultants who have no dirt under their nails to bad mapmaking as a result of the 2010 redistricting.
This was a confounding election in so many ways. Democrats knew that rural voters would be critical to their success, yet they fell short in key Senate, House and gubernatorial races. Pryor, who as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee's spending panel on agriculture was in charge of writing the annual bill to fund popular programs such as broadband, rural development, research and extension, was dumped by a congressman who voted against the farm bill and disaster aid for tornado and flood-ravaged Arkansas towns. In a state where poultry, rice, cotton and soybeans are huge pillars of the state economy, that is a big deal. But punishing Obama rated a higher priority this year.
Farm bill politics also played a role in the Senate races in Georgia and Iowa. Outgoing Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) must have heartburn at the thought of Sen.-elect Joni Ernst (R) replacing him. Ernst, who is far to the right of former Sen. Roger Jepsen (R), the man Harkin ousted in 1984, said she was against the 2014 farm bill and did not support wind power, a renewable energy bright spot for many Midwestern states. Add to that Democratic Senate nominee Rep. Bruce Braley's dissing of Iowa farmers and his digs at current Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and it was a recipe for driving rural voters into the GOP column, which they did in droves. Braley did himself no favor by importing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) to stump for him, allowing Republicans to remind voters that the Massachusetts liberal voted against the farm bill herself.
Georgia's Sen.-elect David Perdue (R) also boasted that he would have voted against the farm bill, but Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn could not seem to make political hay out of it. Nunn's use of high-profile surrogates such as President Bill Clinton was all in Atlanta when the "Big Dog" might have better been used to excite rural voters in Tifton and Waycross. "[B]lacks in Atlanta are liberals," bemoaned Ted Sadler, a former staffer to Rep. Sanford Bishop (D) and publisher of the blog Project Logic GA. Sadler said Democrats "focused on liberals in Atlanta that would have a hard time voting for moderates Nunn and (gubernatorial candidate Jason) Carter. The better move would have been rural blacks who are more conservative. In the end, too much money went into TV ads rather than the roll up your sleeves GOTV ["get out the vote"] that actually works."
Wisconsin's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who lost to Gov. Scott Walker (R), put out a detailed plan for growing her state's rural economies as part of her jobs agenda, but Burke could not win rural counties in the northeast Fox Valley and other parts of the Badger State to go with her base in Madison and Milwaukee.
In Massachusetts, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley's consultants employed a strategy of going after voters in the Bay State's gateway cities. Coakley, who is originally from the western part of the commonwealth, failed to campaign in the Hilltowns and North Quabbin regions and while she won three of the four western counties, her margins were too small in many rural towns that should have been blowout wins for her and could have provided the margin of victory over Republican Charlie Baker.
The loss of majority-rural House seats also continues to haunt the Democrats. New York's 21st and Maine's 2nd congressional districts offer case studies in poor recruiting by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). In far upstate New York, Aaron Woolf's problems with heath code violations and employee wages and the fact that he seemed more city slicker than North Country doomed his bid to hold retiring Rep. Bill Owens's seat for the Democrats.
Likewise in northern Maine, Democrats backed Emily Cain from the liberal college town of Orono over Troy Jackson in the primary to hold outgoing Rep. Mike Michaud's seat. Jackson, a former logger, was more of a centrist in the mold of Michaud. Republican Bruce Poliquin ultimately defeated Cain.
The DCCC's much ballyhooed Red-to-Blue program places too much emphasis on fundraising, which is difficult in poor rural districts like Arkansas's 1st and Wisconsin's 7th. Then, when Democratic candidates seem to be making a race competitive, as Jerry Cannon did against Rep. Dan Benishek (R) in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the DCCC pulls back its money for paid media in the closing weeks.
In rural Minnesota, where Democrats lost control of the state House, Nancy Larson, a former Democratic National Committee member from tiny Dassel, was trying to figure out why rural voters continue to vote against their own economic interests. "Minnesota is doing great but we're losing everybody in rural," Larson said, adding "our message must not be connecting, people aren't connecting the dots."
Barron is president of MLB Research Associate, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass.