Conservative Dems target rural voters with new task force
Conservative-leaning Democrats on Thursday announced a new effort to reach the rural voters that have eluded the party in recent years.
The Blue Dog Democrats launched a working group aimed at promoting bipartisan policies — largely economic — they hope will resonate with voters in those pockets of the country where the post-recession recovery has lagged behind that of the cities and suburbs. Politically, their message reflects the underlying belief that the road to a Democratic majority cuts straight through the heartland.
“Rural communities make up the very fabric of America,” said Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), who will chair the Blue Dog’s Special Task Force on Rural America. “Their success is our nation’s success.”
The group is concentrating its message on four broad policy areas: growing jobs and the economy; weeding out “antiquated” regulations they deem a hindrance to economic expansion; eliminating disparities in rural access to health care, including efforts to tackle the opioid crisis; and enhancing services to military veterans who have served abroad.
“We need to recognize the differences between rural communities and urban communities, and then build the road to economic prosperity based on these realities,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who heads the Blue Dog group, along with Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.).
“The current inequality of opportunity between rural and urban communities is striking, and it feeds into the divisions our country is seeing today.”
For the Democrats, the uneasy tensions between rural and urban priorities have simmered for years as the nation’s political winds have oscillated — trends reflected in the rise and fall of Blue Dog membership.
As the minority party in 2006, party leaders had focused heavily on purple swing districts, largely eschewing an emphasis on social issues like immigration, guns and abortion in favor of a bread-and-butter economic message. The strategy worked: The Democrats won control of the House that year, and by 2009 the Blue Dog ranks had swelled to 54.
It wasn’t to last.
In 2010, after enacting ObamaCare and passing climate-change legislation through the House, the Democrats were walloped at the polls, losing the lower chamber and cutting the Blue Dog membership in half. Two years later, the group numbered just 14.
The rise of President Trump, however, has shifted the Democrats’ focus once again, and the Blue Dogs — boasting 18 members this year — sense an opportunity to grow their numbers again.
Democratic leaders, bruised after the 2016 elections, are scrambling for ways to appeal to the working-class voters that flocked to Trump. Last summer, the party brass trekked to rural Virginia to introduce their “Better Deal” campaign, an economy-based platform designed to speak to a demographic that’s struggled to keep pace with globalization and advances in technology — the same demographic targeted by the Blue Dogs.
More recently, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who heads the party’s communications arm, rolled out a lengthy prescription for communicating with heartland voters and “bringing rural working-class wisdom to Washington.” The Blue Dogs’ new task force is designed to build on that effort.
“Democrats have already won the big cities and, if we’re serious about winning back majorities, we need to start by winning back the trust of the hardworking men and women in small towns across our country,” Bustos said in unveiling her report.
Notwithstanding the current debates over immigration and guns — issues that resonate strongly with the Democrats’ liberal base — party leaders are vowing to keep their focus this year on the economic agenda favored by their more centrist flank.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly cited her experience winning the House in 2006 as the model for this year’s midterm messaging. And Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, recently touted the cross-party appeal of three Democratic candidates in heartland districts — Mel Hall in Indiana, Ken Harbaugh in Ohio and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania — as evidence that Democrats are well within striking distance of taking back the House. Hoyer also offered some advice for those contenders.
“The litmus test is a candidate has to be representative of the values and interests of their district — not anybody else’s district, not the national party — but their district,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “To that extent, I think it’s going to be a Democratic year. I think we’re going to win back the House.”
That goal is no easy one. The Democrats need to pick off 23 seats to retake the Speaker’s gavel — a high bar given the heavy gerrymandering of the congressional map. And the task is sure to be complicated by liberal activists pushing the party to adhere to the very litmus tests — on abortion, on guns, on immigration — that Hoyer dismissed.
Still, the Blue Dogs have been heartened by the shift in attention away from the liberal strongholds of the cities and the two coasts. And they’re hoping to guide the coming debate from their own unique perspective.
“Many of our districts include a major rural component,” Cuellar said, “and the Blue Dogs can speak to the problems our constituents have raised with us in these communities.”