State & Local Politics

Minnesota Democrats target rural vote for 2016 state legislative fights

In modern healthcare, the MRI has a wide range of applications in medical diagnosis. And in Minnesota, Democrats are using a new candidate training program aimed at winning rural votes to cure that state’s body politic of what they see as the ill effects of Republican gains in 2014.

{mosads}Called the “Minnesota Rural Initiative,” the effort was launched early this year and is focused on the 2016 state legislative races. Headed by Mike Simpkins, a former campaign manager for Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, the program has already enrolled 30 candidates at three regional training sessions by stressing the need to build strong campaign infrastructures.

Recalling the 2014 losses of 10 state House seats, of which eight were in rural Minnesota, Simpkins said there was plenty of self-blame, second-guessing and finger-pointing to go around. “Some state reps would be sitting in their deer stand saying ‘how did I lose this thing?'” But Simpkins, 62, who hails from Bemidji in the north woods, noted that “instead of blaming our DFL [Democratic Farmer-Labor] Party or our county unit, maybe we need to take more ownership of these rural campaigns.”

During the Obama years, Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats, with many coming in rural districts. The Democratic National Committee’s recently released “autopsy report” on the 2014 midterms was widely panned not only for its abbreviated length (18 pages), but also because it made no mention of, and contained no recommendations for, winning back rural and white working-class voters who have been deserting the party in droves over the last eight years. “I saw no strategy to turn around the decline of rural America, let alone rural Minnesota,” said Minnesota Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL) of the DNC’s “Democratic Victory Task Force Final Report and Action Plan.” Added Simpkins of the national party, “they don’t even seem to acknowledge they have a problem.”

DFLers cite several reasons they can flip the House next year. First, they contend that Republican lawmakers failed to follow through on their campaign promises from 2014. “They won by saying this was going to be the greater Minnesota session and it absolutely was the furthest thing from that,” said state Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL), who is helping Marquart coordinate the Rural Initiative. Simpkins ticks off Republicans’ inaction on property tax relief and funding for rural roads, bridges, and broadband as issues where the GOP failed to deliver. “There was virtually no follow-through on promises from the Republicans and we’ve got the votes to show it,” he said. Higher turnout that comes with a presidential election cycle also helps.

The Rural Initiative’s backers say the key to success is getting a fast start out of the blocks and making sure candidates are running smart races. “To connect with people takes time, so the idea is to start early,” said Simpkins, adding that “candidates are doing more listening than talking.” An urban-based legislative district may be only 10 to 30 square miles, but the size of rural districts in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” can range from 1,500 to 3,500 square miles. Simpkins says candidates get schooled in the importance of having a solid field program as well as knowing how to execute paid and earned media plans. “We have to bring our campaigns into the 21st century,” Simpkins said. “Each race needs a manager, media person and volunteer coordinator.” And a cookie-cutter approach is verboten. “Some of the strategies that work in the Twin Cities don’t work out here,” Simpkins said. The rural political landscape is also less partisan and Simpkins said folks look to rural legislators to deliver meat-and potato-services, as in “how are you going to get this road fixed, get us broadband?” Added Marquart, “it starts with good candidates; you have to get great candidates who fit the values of the district and will work hard. It’s OK to be pro-life and pro-gun.”

Minnesota is not the only purple state targeting rural voters. Maine Democrats are trying to reclaim the majority of the state Senate with candidates who can win in rural precincts. In Minnesota, the Rural Initiative is funded with support from the state DFL, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, labor union partners and the state’s Democratic congressional delegation. Recalling Republican moderates such as Arne Carlson who served as governor in the 1990s and former three-term U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, Simpkins said “people feel isolated because they are. They go to the cable channels that reinforce their views. They don’t realize how far this Republican Party has swung to the right.” He adds that the three most rural congressional districts are all represented by Democrats: Tim Walz, Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan.

Could the Rural Initiative be a national model for a Democratic rural renaissance? “I think it can be,” said Poppe. “We are putting together the playbook for 2018 and beyond.”

Barron is president of MLB Research Associates, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @MrRural.

Tags Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party DFL Minnesota Rural voters

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