Democrats look to make inroads with rural voters after glimmers of hope in 2022
Democrats are looking to expand their outreach to rural voters over the next election cycle, broadening a strategy they say played a pivotal role in helping them win several key races in 2022.
Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s (D) campaign credits his work appealing to rural voters, in part, for becoming the first Pennsylvania candidate to win 3 million votes in a midterm election.
“We showed up,” Shapiro told CNN’s State of the Union last week when asked about his strategy for reaching out to rural voters. “We spoke to them about practical things that would make their lives better.”
“We ignored the noise coming out of Washington, DC, and instead focused on the good people of Washington County, Pennsylvania,” he continued, referring to a county in the greater Pittsburgh area that includes rural communities.
National Democrats also used a go-everywhere approach across the country in an effort to build a buffer against what was originally projected to be a tough midterm cycle for the party.
“The formula, a lot of places, is showcase your record of success really delivering for people on kitchen table issues, contrast that with your opponent, and you have to show up,” said Marshall Cohen, political director at the Democratic Governors Association.
To be clear, Democrats have still face many of the same headwinds with rural voters they have historically faced — and in some areas those difficulties may be increasing.
Exit polling from NBC News, which was last updated on Nov. 10, found that 63 percent of small city and rural voters nationwide broke Republican, while only 34 percent went for Democrats. CNN exit polling showed Republicans increasing their lead among rural voters between 2018 and 2022 from 14 points to 29 points nationwide.
But Democrats argue that it’s less about winning all rural enclaves, and instead about shaving off enough votes from those areas to run up their total margins.
“A lot of blue dots in red places add up,” said George Goehl, a Democratic organizer and former director of the national progressive advocacy group People’s Action Institute. “I think a lot of people get confused on the Democratic side and think ‘well we’re never going to win rural.’ You don’t have to win rural. You just have to lose better and I think we saw what that looked like in this election cycle.”
This election cycle, Pennsylvania proved to be an example of Democrats seeking to run up their margins with rural voters. In addition to Shapiro, Pennsylvania Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D) also spent time in rural communities, with his campaign often touting the crowds that showed up in particular “ruby red” parts of the Commonwealth.
“In Pennsylvania, we were blessed with two candidates that paid attention to rural P.A.,” said Terry Noble, former Pennsylvania Democratic Rural Caucus chair.
Shapiro’s campaign points to counties that include rural areas where Shapiro won in 2022, even though they swung for former President Trump in 2020.
In eastern Pennsylvania, Shapiro won Berks County by 2.9 points this cycle while Trump won the county by 8.2 points in 2020. Shapiro won Cumberland County, located in the greater Harrisburg-Carlisle area, by 7.6 points earlier this month, while Trump won it by 10.6 points two years ago. And in Beaver County, outside of Pittsburgh, Shapiro won by 2.7 points after Trump won the county by nearly 18 points in 2020.
Shapiro notably launched his campaign in Johnstown, which is located in the GOP-dominated Cambria County that ultimately went for Republican nominee Doug Mastriano. But Shapiro overperformed in areas like Westmoreland County where he only lost by 6 points. By comparison, Trump defeated President Biden in the county by 28 points.
“These are kind of rural Republican strongholds where Shapiro was able to not just stop the bleeding but improve significantly upon Democratic performance in the past, and I think that’s a winning formula that a lot of folks are going to try to replicate,” Cohen said.
Still, Democrats and Republicans caution against reading too much into Pennsylvania this cycle. They point out Shapiro and Fetterman were up against what many viewed as flawed candidates. Mastriano was a prominent election denier, and Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz was a rookie politician backed by Trump in a year when Trump candidates lost across the board.
“I don’t think Josh’s campaign is necessarily the one to gage what happened in rural P.A. off of,” Noble said. “He did well and he did even better than John [Fetterman] did in rural P.A., no doubt about it.”
However, Shapiro’s campaign told The Hill that without their relentless efforts highlighting Mastriano’s far-right views and flaws, their margins would not have been as large in rural areas.
“We worked very aggressively to make that clear to people,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro’s campaign. “Mastriano wasn’t seen as that extreme by accident. We were very focused on making that contrast clear.”
Additionally, the campaign said it put a strong emphasis on focusing on issues that were often once seen as potential drivers for GOP candidates.
“Whether you’re in Westmoreland County or West Philadelphia, people everywhere are worried about rising costs, and they’re worried about safety, and they’re worried about their kids’ education,” Bonder said.
Democrats also say their messaging on what Noble calls “core values,” including protecting democracy and abortion access, played a pivotal role in winning the party votes in rural communities.
“From what I can see, we were targeting correctly and messaging properly,” Noble said.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) currently has a rural organizing chair who works with rural grassroots organizers and state party rural caucuses. Additionally, the DNC gave out grants to as a part of its new “Red State Fund,” which launched in 2021 and works to put Republicans on defense in a number of red states that include large swaths of rural regions, including Kansas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Utah.
“I think he gets it,” Goehl said, referring to DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison. “The first time I met Jaime Harrison was when I was speaking to the rural caucus at the DNC three or four years ago. That was where he chose to be, in a crowded meeting. That was where he decided to put his time well before he was chairman.”
But Democrats acknowledge that the party has come up short and must do more across the country to reach out to rural voters.
On Friday, Democratic House candidate Adam Frisch conceded an unexpectedly close race against conservative Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) in the state’s 3rd Congressional District.
Frisch, while lauding how close his campaign came to unseating Boebert, warned in his remarks that Democrats must do more to appeal to rural voters.
“Democrats have abandoned rural America and working-class America for the last many years. Republicans have had a monopoly in the backbone of this country. We must not let this continue.”
Goehl noted that some rural Democratic Parties are still underresourced in a number of areas from keeping headquarters open to getting enough yard signs, but that could be beginning to change.
“They’re still, I think, pretty paltry but I see it trending in the right direction,” Goehl said. “It’s time to put the peddle on the gas.”