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 PaulCharles Booker launches exploratory committee to consider challenge to Rand Paul Rand Paul calls Fauci a 'petty tyrant' Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE (R-Ky.) in the Bluegrass State and Gov. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE (D-N.H.) is currently freezing the field in the Granite State as she mulls a bid against freshman Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteOvernight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal 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 KirkpatrickSurgeon who treated Gabby Giffords after shooting launches House bid in Arizona These House lawmakers aren't seeking reelection in 2022 Arizona state senator announces bid for Kirkpatrick's seat MORE (D) to defeat Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSylvester Stallone reportedly joins Trump's Mar-a-Lago The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden meets with bipartisan lawmakers for infrastructure negotiations Cindy McCain to be named Biden ambassador to UN program: report 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 opens door to earmarks Thune: 'There are Republicans who would vote' for smaller infrastructure package Republicans can't handle the truth about taxes 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 ReidWhite House races clock to beat GOP attacks Harry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' The Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters MORE's seat, observers say former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision RNC rolls out ad campaign hitting Democrats over election reform Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand electric vehicle charging tax credit 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 PortmanHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Bipartisan lawmakers signal support for Biden cybersecurity picks GOP Ohio Senate candidate asked to leave RNC retreat 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.