Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters

Virginia’s gubernatorial race this week underscored Democrats’ struggles with rural voters after yawning margins in the southwestern part of the state doomed former Gov. Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeYoungkin inaugurated as first GOP Virginia governor in over a decade Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric Pandemic pushes teachers unions to center stage ahead of midterms MORE (D) to defeat by Gov.-elect Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinWhy our parties can't govern Some in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump Youngkin signs executive orders banning critical race theory, lifting mask mandate in Virginia public schools MORE (R).

Youngkin’s stunning victory over McAuliffe in a place the GOP hadn’t won statewide since 2009 has Democrats scrambling to shore up their defenses ahead of next year’s midterms given the race’s reputation as a bellwether. Democrats insist that if they hope to remain competitive in statewide contests in 2022, they need to lower the margins in the same kinds of sparsely populated but numerous rural counties that Youngkin won by as many as 75 points.

“I think it was predictable. I think the party has put all their eggs in the suburban-urban basket and really has not done the kind of appropriate outreach that they need to do,” said former Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampHarry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters Washington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill MORE (D-N.D.), who lost her seat in a rural state in the 2018 midterms. “You can't be a majority party in this country without doing better in rural America.”

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Examples of Youngkin’s blowout of McAuliffe in Virginia’s rural counties were littered throughout the state.

In Lee County, Youngkin won by a whopping 88-12 margin, outperforming former President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE’s 84-15 margin there just a year ago. In Dickinson County, Youngkin ran 61 points ahead of McAuliffe, compared to Trump’s 58-point win last year. And in Mecklenburg County, Youngkin expanded Trump’s 15-pioint margin to a 32-point win.

While the trend was most pronounced in Virginia, it was not limited to the state.

New Jersey’s less populated counties experienced a similar phenomenon in a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race that Gov. Phil MurphyPhil MurphyFire breaks out at NJ chemical plant: 'The worst that I've ever seen' Biden administration announces actions bolstering clean energy  The Hill's Morning Report - Biden champions filibuster reform, but doesn't have the votes MORE (D) eked out by just 2 points.

GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli won Salem County by 29 points, compared to just 12 points for Trump last year, and won Cumberland County by 12 points after President BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE took the same area by 6 points last year.

Democrats are not expecting to win many of the rural counties they got blown out in this week given their deep-red hue. But they say losing by such wide margins is untenable in statewide races.

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“You cannot lose rural counties by 65 or 70 percent and not still lose an election. We have got to do everything we can to try to drive down those margins. And that's hard, and it's not necessarily much fun, but it has to happen,” said Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of Iowa who co-founded the group Focus on Rural America.

The need to perform better in rural counties was put into starker relief by Democrats’ falling margins in suburban counties that swung hard their way during the Trump administration.

In Loudoun County, McAuliffe won by just 10 points after Biden trounced Trump there by 25 points in 2020. In Chesterfield County, outside of Richmond, Youngkin won by 5 points after Biden won there by 6 points.

Those swings back to the GOP underscored the need to cut down losses in rural areas, where gaping margins could force Democrats to win suburban counties by spreads that are not always feasible.

“You can't become so dependent on suburbia. It wasn't that long ago that Democrats didn't win the suburbs,” said Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), whose district includes Bath and Alleghany counties, which went for Youngkin by 59 and 50 points, respectively. “You can't become so dependent on one part, one voter, that you ignore the needs of the other.”

Democrats reminisced about Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerWe are America's independent contractors, and we are terrified Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill MORE’s (D) surprisingly narrow reelection bid in 2014 in which he fended off Republican Ed Gillespie by under a point. During that campaign, Warner was knocked for spending significant time in southwest Virginia, but that strategy was later credited with saving his seat in a year when Republicans romped to the Senate majority.

“People criticized Sen. Warner for spending too much time in southwest Virginia and other rural, redder areas of the commonwealth, when in reality, the opposite was probably true,” said state Sen. Lynwood Lewis (D-Va.), who lives in Accomack County, which went for Trump by 9 points and then Youngkin by 23 points. “The fact that he spent time in those areas probably kept those margins down and kept him from avoiding a surprise upset.”

The need to perform better with rural voters is higher than ever ahead of the 2022 midterms, where Democrats are defending seats in places like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire, places with sprawling rural areas as well as suburban counties. Biden won those states, as well as other battlegrounds, in part by winning more voters in rural counties than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low The Memo: 2024 chatter reveals Democratic nervousness Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House MORE did in 2016.

Democrats are adamant that while broadening their appeal could be difficult, there is an opening with rural voters. A poll conducted by One Country Project, which was co-founded by Heitkamp, said that while 57 percent of rural voters think the Democratic Party is not considering their way of life, 50 percent think the same of the GOP.

A half-dozen Democrats who spoke to The Hill unanimously said that enacting progress in Washington is key to showing rural voters how policies translate into real world improvements, with lawmakers and operatives eyeing the party’s infrastructure bill and reconciliation package as a good start.

“We need to step it up a little bit, pick up our pace. And we do that, in my opinion, by having some tangible results that we can say, ‘this what the Biden administration has done,’ ” Judge said. “But the logjam has got to start moving in order to start to change public opinion.”

Beyond that, Democrats said their messaging has gotten mired in facts and figures rather than values.

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Heitkamp pointed to the current reconciliation package as an example of a missed opportunity over messaging as Democrats publicly scrap over what to include and cut.

“Instead of providing 400 factoids on why it makes sense to do paid family leave, it's about talking about the values of paid family,” she said. “When your argument is intellectual, you're losing. When your argument is something that can reach people, and they can nod their head and say, ‘yep, that's what I think is a good thing, because it reflects who I am as a person and my values’ – I think we're really bad at values-based discussions.”

Still, not all issues are created equal in appealing to rural voters.

Democrats have inherent disagreements with many rural voters over cultural issues like abortion, guns and more. However, some Democrats expressed confidence that as long as their stances on those topics aren’t too “extreme,” voters will put their pocketbooks first.

“Guns is a lightning rod,” Lewis said. “We passed three very important pieces of gun reform legislation in the recent year that I supported, and they were really well thought-out, moderate pieces of legislation. Folks may disagree with you on that, but they're not going to use that if you've got a compelling economic argument or compelling public education argument.”

To get those messages across, though, Democrats said one of the most important things is to simply be more present in the communities where they’re struggling. Democrat after Democrat who spoke to The Hill lamented that the candidates do not campaign in rural areas except around Election Day — and that by that point, it’s too late.

“We tried to get the big guys to come down and say hi to us,” Mecklenburg County Democratic Committee Chair Jeff Stratford said, detailing his struggles to get the statewide Democratic candidates to appear in his county’s cities. “Guess who came through and hit all those spots? Mr. Youngkin.”

“I think this is the thing that pisses people off,” he added. “All throughout the year, nobody gives a rat's ass about the people that are out here. But at election time, they want their vote.”