No matter how much you try to dress it up, last week’s election results make it clear that Democrats have a rural problem. The failure to even seriously contest—let alone win—statehouses and congressional seats over so much of the electoral map leaves the party perpetually behind. Our party has relied on suburban moms and black women to save the day repeatedly. They have capes—don’t get me wrong—but they also need a coalition of voters to step up to save democracy alongside them.
The solution will not come from focus groups or polls. It will come from people closest to the ground—state party leaders and grassroots organizers.
Gone are the days when our candidates were like Jesse Jackson, who rode on a tractor to find common ground with rural voters, working to earn their trust and respect. Jackson made the case that we need each other, urban and rural, to win—not just during the campaign but throughout life. The advice Jackson gave during the farm crisis, when he was standing with rural voters who were hurting, still rings true today: We must unite the “eaters and feeders” for justice in both urban and rural America.
If we Democrats keep ignoring and leaving behind rural voters as a party, we won’t achieve fairness or justice on any of the issues we care about, because we simply won’t have enough votes to win, either statewide or in other critical local races.
Unless we pull it together as a national party by listening to and funding state parties and local grassroots organizers, we can also say goodbye to the US Senate, along with governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state—the brick walls to stop Republicans from turning our country upside down.
The recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey should be deafening wake-up calls. But to be honest, this is a trend we’ve seen happening for the past two decades: Every year Democrats lose more rural voters and lose more elected officials who represented rural areas. The party essentially has no leaders on the national stage—in elected office or on party committees—who live in a rural community.
This leaves a practical void in understanding rural voters. There is no voice in the room when strategy, message, and funding decisions are being made to make the case as to why rural voters should be a key focus of the races across the country.
When my husband, Scott, ran for office several years ago, an old-timer stood up and said he found himself agreeing with a lot of what Scott was saying, which made him think, because he was a longtime Republican. The voter then went on to explain that he never saw or heard from Democrats—“When there is only one church in town, guess what religion you become?” My husband lost his race, and much of that loss can be attributed to the fundamental lack of investment in rural candidates and state parties that continues today. The national party dismissed his race. In fact, a top party leader in D.C. asked Scott, a cattleman, if he was “wearing a costume” when he showed up to a meeting wearing his cowboy boots.
Lacking leaders and candidates who are willing to fight back and find common ground with rural voters, we are stuck in the box that Republicans have created for us, keeping us focused on and obsessed about the perfect messaging response to attacks on “critical race theory” or whatever other trumped-up issue they throw at us. As with guns and abortion, Democrats need to be honest about where we stand—so voter interactions with us are based on trust, not poll-tested one-liners.
We can then start talking about issues that rural moms and dads are worried about, like their local public school’s closing because of a lack of funding, or not their having any place for their grandparents to get the care they need.
When we took on the KXL pipeline in Nebraska and South Dakota, we knew the odds were stacked against us. We also believed in the rural people–white and Native Americans–whose land and water would be directly impacted.
And we believed we would win.
If we had run a D.C.-centered strategy and only organized urban people who already agreed with us on the climate crisis, we would have lost that campaign. A pipeline would be pumping dirty tar sands through thousands of farms and ranches and tribal lands right now.
But after the massive loss of the cap-and-trade bill in 2009 the national climate groups woke up and decided to listen to people in the streets and in the states. They invited organizers like me to the table to voice our ideas, to battle it out on messaging—and gave me the space to run a campaign with a bunch of farmers and ranchers rather than lead with only a climate message. I needed the D.C. folks—and the D.C. folks needed me. We both knew that fact and respected each other’s role and leadership. Our campaign was funded by both national and local donors who also believed we could win an unwinnable fight.
Right now, that model is not happening inside the Democratic Party—and that is a huge problem for us.
Although we did win the White House in 2020, Trump won by huge margins in rural areas—so you would think this would signal that we have major work to do in rural communities.
Instead, we still have not invested in rural state parties. We have not funded rural organizers. We have not pulled together the best minds and leaders from all the states, not just the current battleground ones, to figure out a rural plan. Rural leaders are not in national positions of decision-making power. Rural voters feel unwanted and ignored right now by Democrats. As a party we are so consumed with battleground states, we forget it is our job to organize across all of America with all voters at the table.
You might then wonder why this isn’t happening, because it seems so obvious as to what the next steps should be.
As my friend and chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party Trav Robertson said, “We haven’t learned one damn thing from the mule’s second kick.” Meaning, we lost over 1,600 statewide and key legislative races under the current model during Obama’s presidency—where the focus was on keeping the White House and largely ignoring state parties and grassroots leaders, those who have the most knowledge about how to win locally.
Right now, we are repeating the same mistake.