How to Close the Democrats' Rural Gap.

AuthorKelloway, Claire


The midterm elections made two things very clear about Democratic voters in the Donald Trump era. First, they vastly outnumber Republican voters: Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives and won the popular vote by more than eight percentage points, the biggest midterm "blue wave" since Watergate. But, second, those Democratic supporters are geographically clustered in a way that wastes millions of their votes. While the party improved its margins among rural voters compared to 2016, its candidates still lost by a whopping fourteen to eighteen percentage points outside of metro areas, lagging well behind Barack Obama's 2012 performance. As a result, Democrats lost two net Senate seats. The Senate map in 2020 is only slightly less foreboding, as statewide races in heavily rural states like Iowa, Missouri, and the Dakotas seem to slip ever further out of reach.

There was a time in the very recent past when many on the left were confident that an era of Democratic dominance was just around the corner, the inevitable result of a "rising electorate" of younger, better educated, and more diverse voters. The midterms were a wake-up call. The rising electorate may be swinging left, but there has been an equal reaction among older and less educated whites--and they represent a lot more of the political map. Without doing much better among voters outside of metro areas, Democrats have little hope of regaining the Senate for years, maybe decades, to come, and may even continue to lose the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote.

Mindful of this reality, many Democratic strategists are rightly warning that the party desperately needs a strategy to win back rural voters. Unfortunately, the most prominent plans tend to combine small-bore ideas that are insufficient to the scale of the problem (like more money for rural broadband) with attacks on Trump's agricultural tariffs, which Trump-supporting farmers actually tend to give the president a pass on.

While the notion that all Trump voters are motivated by "economic anxiety" has been thoroughly debunked, there's no denying that America's agricultural communities have been starkly declining for years--struggling to turn profits through farming, suffering epidemic levels of opioid addiction and suicide. Democrats thus have both an opportunity and a moral obligation to try to win these voters back by offering policies that will improve their livelihoods in a way that stoking white cultural grievance never will.

Just ask J. D. Scholten. The thirty-eight-year-old former minor league baseball player garnered national attention in November for almost unseating Iowa Representative Steve King, an eight-term Republican incumbent in one of the reddest districts in America--and perhaps the most unabashed racist in Congress. The last Democrat to run against King lost by 22.6 percent; in 2016, the district went for Trump by twenty-seven points. Yet Scholten lost by only 3.4 percentage points--a swing from 2016 that, if it could be replicated nationally, would all but wipe out the current incarnation of the Republican Party. How did he do it?

"I have a lot of folks calling me thinking of running for president and they want to know what their rural message should be," Scholten says. His answer: "Talk about market consolidation."

At his thirty-nine town hall meetings, across every county in Iowa's Fourth District, Scholten spoke about improving the economy by addressing the growing power of agribusiness monopolies, which, by raising prices on what farmers buy and pushing down prices of what farmers sell, are devastating farm incomes. "Agriculture is the backbone of this district," Scholten says. "At every [town hall] I talked about how farmers are being squeezed on the input and on the output side.... That resonated more than tariffs ever did, and I think that's one thing that national reporters never understood.

"I think farmers view tariffs as temporary, whereas market consolidation is a long-term issue," he adds, noting that the call for fair competition has bipartisan appeal. "Antitrust ... has not been a partisan issue. Traditional Republicans, they want competitive markets, and that goes against what's happening in the ag business."

Scholten's message on agribusiness monopolies may have resonated with farmers, but it has not yet broken through with big-city liberals, too many of whom write off the possibility that progressive economic populism could appeal to rural voters more than right-wing cultural warfare. Until Democratic leaders and candidates find their voice on the key issue affecting rural communities' economic fortunes, even the biggest blue wave won't be enough to take back the map.

If you have heard about the plight of America's farmers, it was likely in the context of Trump's media vortex. You may have seen stories about dairy farms closing because Trump made a fuss about Canadian dairy markets while renegotiating NAFTA. Or you know that China aimed retaliatory tariffs at farmers to target Trump's base. But while Trump's trade policies have certainly made matters worse for many farmers, they are hardly the prime cause for the full-blown crisis gripping America's farm economy. Farming communities have been dwindling for decades. The three years leading up to the 2016 election saw the sharpest decline in farm incomes since the Great Depression. In 2015, more than half of all farm households lost more money than they made farming.

By now, many observers are predicting that...

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