secret code): Should Democrats bother reaching out to rural America?
J.D. Scholten has gotten phone calls from former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. He’s campaigned with Sen. Cory Booker. He held a town hall with entrepreneur Andrew Yang and toured an ethanol plant with Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The presidential candidates are eager to meet with Scholten, hoping he holds the key to a secret that increasingly bedevils Democrats: how to win rural voters, who seem to be firmly in President Trump’s camp. Scholten, a former minor-league baseball star, challenged GOP Rep. Steve King in Iowa last year, driving around in a beat-up motor home. He lost, but just barely, in a heavily conservative rural area.
Scholten tells Democrats the party is too focused on upscale urban voters. “We’re becoming the Whole Foods party, when we need to figure out how to win in Dollar General districts like mine,” Scholten said. “You don’t have to win, but you should be able to compete.”
That difficult message comes as Democrats face an increasingly clear crossroads: Do they spend time and resources pursuing rural voters, who are often socially and culturally at odds with the party’s increasingly liberal direction? Or do they double down on cities and suburbs, hoping to drive up support among the multiethnic, younger, more highly educated voters that many see as the party’s future?
For Democrats still traumatized by Trump’s victory, it’s a vexing question. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton struggled on both counts: She suffered from lackluster turnout in the cities but also lost rural voters to Trump by a 3-to-1 margin.
Democrats like former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack say the party can’t simply cede small-town voters again. “If we are losing rural counties as we have in the past . . . I don’t give a damn how much you run up the vote in the inner cities and in the suburbs, we’ll be right back where we were in 2016,” he said.
But for a big faction of the party, that’s crazy. Rather than tying themselves in knots chasing a deeply conservative electorate that loves guns, opposes abortion and is firmly in the GOP camp, Democrats need to focus on driving up enthusiasm among people who share their values, this group says.
Aimee Allison, president and founder of She the People, which aims to boost turnout among women of color, said Clinton did not invest enough in wooing black voters. That led to low turnout in places like Detroit and ultimately the narrow loss of Michigan and other critical states.Really, Democrats, you should ignore all of rural America, and focus your energy and money on the urban centers and coastal elite, because it worked so well in the last presidential election.
“Instead of chasing and obsessing over voters who are not obsessing over us — instead of trying to convert people who have already demonstrated they are with Trump and have given no visible indication they are leaving him — what if we invested in voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats?” Allison said. “Women of color vote 3-to-1 for Democrats, compared to white guys. It doesn’t make sense to use a strategy we know loses elections.”