Rural voters pose challenge for Dems in 2016 Senate fights
© Getty Images

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 PaulConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (R-Ky.) in the Bluegrass State and Gov. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanHouse panel advances DHS cyber vulnerabilities bills Chris Pappas wins Democratic House primary in New Hampshire Overnight Health Care: Manchin fires gun at anti-ObamaCare lawsuit in new ad | More Dems come out against Kavanaugh | Michigan seeks Medicaid work requirements MORE (D-N.H.) is currently freezing the field in the Granite State as she mulls a bid against freshman Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteGOP mulls having outside counsel question Kavanaugh, Ford Pallbearers, speakers announced for McCain's DC memorial service and Capitol ceremony Tributes pour in for John McCain MORE (R). Hassan is expected to decide this summer after she puts her state budget to bed for the new fiscal year.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 KirkpatrickKirkpatrick makes comeback by winning Arizona Democratic House primary Live results: Arizona and Florida hold primaries Key races to watch as Florida, Arizona head to polls MORE (D) to defeat Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ 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 BluntMurkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday Kavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow 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 ReidKavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow Dems can’t ‘Bork’ Kavanaugh, and have only themselves to blame Dem senator: Confidential documents would 'strongly bolster' argument against Kavanaugh's nomination MORE's seat, observers say former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoSenate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Ten years later: Wounds run deep from 2008 crash Attorneys general races in spotlight as parties build bench, fight feds 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 PortmanGraham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment 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.