Overcoming the Democrats’ rural problem

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Aside from the presidency, the election results were disappointing for Democrats. While the blows were geographically dispersed from Maine to Montana, many had a common feature: underperforming in rural areas. This marks the third consecutive cycle in which Democrats have struggled mightily beyond the suburbs.  

The Democrats’ rural problem is most acute in the Senate. Because of the central role that states occupy in our political system, underperforming in rural America compromises the party’s ability to transform its national majorities into governing majorities. Simply put, the Senate’s permanent rural bias provides the GOP with an advantage in the chamber even if it routinely falls short of 50 percent support in the country as a whole. 

Democrats have often looked for easy fixes. Outfitting candidates in rural attire or staging hunting photo-ops often seem like clever solutions, but image makeovers only go so far. Others dream of long-shot structural changes – such as eliminating the filibuster or adding states – designed to blunt Republicans’ counter-majoritarian advantage. Given the closely divided Congress, those are non-starters. But these simplistic fantasies are also bad politics. 

Democrats would be better served by considering what it would take to be competitive in states that actually exist. Many Democrats would prefer to look to the country’s populous and diverse urban centers, not flyover country. But writing off the West’s big box states as hopeless makes it very difficult to gain a Senate majority. While Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas may account for less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population, their 10 Senate seats comprise 20 percent of a majority in the chamber. 

Democrats running in rural areas need to combat the nationalized political environment in obvious ways like actively rebranding themselves on mainstay political issues like the Second Amendment, but also by creatively localizing their races by adopting popular positions on issues that don’t cleanly map onto our partisan cleavages.   

Montana offers a prime example of Democrats’ collapse in rural America. This once proudly independent state that routinely elected Democrats was overtaken by a red wave this year. The GOP easily swept seven statewide races, winning all but one by double digits. Those victories were cemented by overwhelming margins in rural counties. 

Yet Big Sky Country’s recent history also suggests a path for a return to Democratic competitiveness, both in Montana and in rural areas more generally. Part of that formula certainly involves heeding the advice of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and other swing-district Democrats who have noted that socialism and defunding the police aren’t as well received in places like Billings as they are in Brooklyn. Likewise, campaign messaging built around culturally conservative and economically populist themes is likely part of the answer. 

But Democrats are sometimes too clever by half in thinking they’ve figured out the secret formula for breaking through in rural America. Donning a cowboy hat and condemning Wall Street elites may be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient. 

Democrats who have been successful in Montana over the last couple decades have certainly indulged in schticky theatrics, but they have also offered something more substantive. They have been able to identify and champion salient issues that are important to their electorates but that have escaped the attention of the national parties. 

For example, in recent decades Montana Democrats have had success in positioning themselves as defenders of public lands access. While largely neglected in national political discourse, this “local” issue has been a silver bullet against the forces of nationalization that created a downward spiral for Democrats in most rural states. Montana Republicans finally neutralized the issue this year by embracing public lands, at least rhetorically. 

What Montana Democrats – and similarly situated Democrats across the country – need now are some issues that can blunt the forces of nationalization that threaten to make Montana indistinguishable from Idaho. Here’s one. Across Montana, from Eureka to Ekalaka, family farms and ranches still lie at the symbolic, cultural and economic heart of most communities. It’s an article of faith in these areas that farmers and ranchers are not getting a fair shake and are being held hostage by meat packing and grain trading corporations. Desire for radical solutions, such as anti-trust action to break up consolidation in these industries, is not uncommon. Because it hasn’t been claimed by either national party, this is the kind of issue that offers Democrats an opportunity to substantively engage rural America. Defending public lands may have been particularly well-suited for Montana, but taking on Big Ag could prove fertile ground for enterprising Democrats across the country.  

Running up the margins in San Francisco and Seattle is not going to cut it if Democrats ever hope to wield the legislative power necessary to enact their preferred agenda. To have an actual governing majority, Democrats need to reverse their rural freefall.  

Kal Munis (@KalMunis) is a postdoctoral researcher in the P3 Lab at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute. Robert P. Saldin (@RobSaldin) is a political scientist at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and College of Humanities and Sciences.

Tags 2020 election Abigail Spanberger cultural divide Montana Political parties in the United States Western United States

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