Democrats: Give rural voters a reason to trust and support the party

Democrats: Give rural voters a reason to trust and support the party
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With celebratory wins on Tuesday, Democrats across the nation are energized, hopeful and excited about the future. In Alabama, newcomer Doug Jones defeated a Republican statewide for the first time in over 20 years. In Virginia, a wave of blue in the statehouse made it seem as though the tides might be turning in our nation.

But look closer. Even though we had a huge win in Virginia, rural counties across the state voted Republican. And I am convinced that had Alabama’s Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreAlabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Long-shot Espy campaign sees national boost in weeks before election Ocasio-Cortez slams Tulsi Gabbard for amplifying ballot harvesting video MORE been a better candidate, he would have won that seat by a large margin. We can and should be able to win in Southern and Appalachian states regularly, not just against an opponent accused of sexually assaulting minors.

One of the first things I learned about politics came from my family, generations of coal miners in southern West Virginia. “Democrats are for working people, son,” they said as they cleaned the coal dust from their faces. People in my town voted Democratic for years. Now, things have changed. Over the past decade, West Virginia voters have turned away from their Democratic roots to support Republicans who speak to the issues that matter most to hardworking miners and their families. Across Appalachia and rural America, Democrats have found themselves wondering if they could compete in red districts that once were historically blue.


Democratic politicians have trotted into poor places such as Logan County, where nearly 20 percent of the people live below poverty level. They ride in on their high horses, villainize coal miners and their families, and offer nothing more than welfare and retraining for jobs that do not exist. When Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGroups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Biden's political position is tougher than Trump's Valadao unseats Cox in election rematch MORE labeled Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE's supporters as deplorables, she finally said what rural voters had suspected for a long time: Democrats saw them as insignificant, looked down on them and were not listening to those suffering in Appalachia and rural America.

When I ran for state Senate in 2016, I was worried as a Democrat during a hotly contested and partisan election year that my eagerness to fight for West Virginia families would not be enough to win. But the voters chose me to represent the 7th Senatorial District – the same district that overwhelmingly supported a convict over Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Five things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE in 2012 and where more than 30 percent of registered Democrats supported Trump. If I can win here, Democrats can win anywhere, but first we’ve got to stop blaming voters for voting “against their self-interest” and do some soul-searching about what we, as Democrats, need to do differently.

First, every candidate we support must connect with the people they will potentially represent. We need candidates who are deeply rooted in their communities, working-class people who understand the struggles their neighbors face. That is the future of the Democratic Party. In other words, we need to recruit and support candidates who “get it.” No more country club candidates with political connections and heavy bank accounts. We must look for leaders who have exhibited a lifetime of service to their communities and have proven that their intention is to help people.

Second, we have to put in the work. For years, Democrats have depended on heavily populated areas within their districts to carry them and have ignored rural communities. This is unacceptable. All Americans deserve to see, speak to and hear from our candidates. No county is insignificant, no community too small, and each person’s vote is important. I put at least 500 miles on my Jeep every weekend. Why? Because traveling around southern West Virginia to talk with people is worth my effort. I’m reminded of President Kennedy campaigning in Logan County in 1960. Standing on a kitchen chair, against a backdrop of the Appalachian mountains and surrounded by coal camp kids, he assured the people of West Virginia that he was on their side. He won the state with 61 percent of the vote.

Third, we must move away from elitism and a politics-as-usual perspective. Voters relate to someone who is genuine, someone they can trust. I hand out cards in my district that have my personal cell phone number on them. I encourage voters to call me with questions. When they call, they do not get a recording or a secretary, and if I am in a meeting or traveling, I always call them back. At our live, online town hall meetings no one filters or sorts the questions beforehand, and we do not screen people or turn them away. If you believe in something, be willing to explain it.

The people in my district work hard, as do working families across this great nation. If we Democrats get back to our roots of being the party for the people and by the people, we will win everywhere that hardworking people live – and it won’t take an opponent as dreadful as Roy Moore to pull it off. Rural voters are our base, and we must give them a reason to trust us again. They must know beyond doubt that we hear them, they are not forgotten and we are ready to fight for them and their families.

Richard Ojeda (D) is a member of the West Virginia Senate, representing District 7, and a candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District.