Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington
by Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (IL-17th), @CheriBustos
Democrats’ national level of support has seen better days. Much better.
By the numbers, Democrats are at their lowest in nearly 100 years.
While the party had a successful night in off-year elections on Nov. 7, 2017, and in the Dec. 12, 2017, special election in Alabama for U.S. Senate, Democrats will not return to majorities in Washington or the states without earning stronger support from the rural, working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump to victory in 2016.
Moreover, the party must listen to Heartland voters and embrace the opportunity to elevate their very real concerns in Washington.
After interviewing 72 successful local officials from rural areas in Midwestern states now dominated by Republicans, consistent themes emerged about how Democrats can both regain trust and import wisdom from those in places that feel forgotten by both national parties.
Our approach is unique. We sought out people who regularly face voters in rural and working-class areas. These leaders have not only witnessed cultural and economic shifts over time, but they have also prevailed on the front lines of recent political battles by addressing the real concerns of their constituents.
Those interviewed said national Democrats must acknowledge and stay focused on the bread-and-butter challenges facing hardworking families. Too often, they said, Heartland voters view national Democrats as fixated on siloed messages to specific groups that don’t include them or are too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns.
Instead, they urge national Democrats to stay focused on championing new policy solutions in infrastructure, education and small business that will elevate the economic fortunes of all voters, especially those in rural areas and small towns who feel their concerns aren’t being addressed. When they open the paper in the morning or flip on the news at night, too often they see Democrats talking about things that don’t directly relate to them.
They also recommend the party develop better communications tools to counter Fox News, talk radio and conservative social media. They urge the national party to listen to and engage rural constituencies and to welcome into the party those who share Democrats’ broader goals, but may dissent on particular social issues.
Finally, those interviewed recommend a comprehensive review of campaign committees and consultants to re-think winning strategies unique to campaigns in rural areas.
With only a few election cycles until the next redistricting, there is limited time to listen and learn from those who have succeeded in these hard-to-win areas. However, if we do, Democrats can not only begin to reverse years of Democratic decline in the Heartland, but also better serve all Americans by delivering the economic change craved by those who have felt overlooked.
Democrats from rural areas face an existential crisis. The number of Democrats holding office across the nation is at its lowest point since the 1920’s and the decline has been especially severe in rural America, whose economic fortunes have slipped markedly during this same period.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 — with heavy support from rural voters — was not the first evidence of Democratic decline outside of urban areas. These challenges have been mounting since the 1990’s.
The consequences of this deterioration are sobering for Democrats. In the Midwest, rural support for Donald Trump elevated him to upset wins in several states that propelled him to the White House. Rural areas contain many white, working class voters who were the key demographic of Trump’s victory. The 2016 outcome demonstrated that rural, working class voters will not be ignored.
Democrats cannot win majorities in Washington or state capitals without doing better in rural areas. More importantly, Democrats risk forfeiting the opportunity to bring Heartland wisdom to Washington.
Immediately after my appointment as Co-Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications
Committee for House Democrats and Chair of Heartland Engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the 2016 election, we looked for ways to improve our communications and principles with a particular focus on the Midwest region.
As the only elected member of House Democratic Leadership from the Heartland, I believe stronger engagement in rural America and among working families is critical to both our future efforts at becoming a majority party and our ability to enacting policies that help every American.
I can relate to the experiences of legislators from rural areas. My district, the 17th Congressional District in central, northwestern and northern Illinois, covers 14 counties and includes some of the richest farmland in the nation and contains several manufacturing hubs and post-industrial smaller cities struggling to adapt to the challenges of globalization and technological advancement.
Most of the counties in my district are rural with a high concentration of working class voters. After defeating a Republican incumbent in 2012 and again in a rematch in 2014, I won 60 percent of the vote last year in a district that Donald Trump also won.
In my district, you hear stories of workers whose jobs were outsourced overseas and faced the indignity of having to train their replacements from China. Stories of working families holding multiple jobs and trying to save some money for their kids to have the opportunity to go to college. Stories of farmers concerned about how they have to transport their goods to market on crumbling roads and bridges.
There are places in our region where people feel they never fully recovered from the early 1980’s recession let alone the Great Recession. They feel left behind and that neither party listens to them. Their votes in 2016 were a shock to our system, and they sent a message that they will not be taken for granted.
To find out more about how Democrats can better serve rural areas and improve electoral outcomes, we sought out elected officials from rural areas, who faced the same voters, issues and cultural and economic shifts — and still emerged mostly victorious.
In all, we spoke with 72 current or former Democratic officials who bucked the trend and succeeded in the rural Midwest, now dominated by Republicans. These officials, with 600 years of campaign experience combined, reflect the rich diversity of the Heartland region. From the Appalachian region of eastern Ohio to the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota, from the Bootheel of Missouri to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, from the corn and bean fields of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana to the dairy farms of Wisconsin…
Our mission was to listen to folks on the front lines of the party. We wanted to find out what they hear, knocking doors and at events. From them, we want to learn how the party can:
- improve its messaging and the Democratic brand;
- focus our policies on jobs and the economy;
- reconnect with voters from the Heartland; and
- adapt campaigns to be more successful in rural areas.
We believe the most effective way for the party to better serve those in rural areas is to learn from those in the trenches, especially those who are actually succeeding.
We can all learn something from these stories and adapt them to our local conditions. This is an initial step to harness the ideas and energy from state legislative officials to begin the rebuilding process that will lead to victory.
Some of our findings have already been aired by party officials, officeholders and pundits after the 2016 election. There might not be any major surprises for those attuned to these issues and involved in the process to revitalize the party. But hearing directly from these Democrats in their own words provides a focus and intensity that polling and focus groups cannot. Our hope is that readers of this document will be as moved as we were by their dedication and concern for the party and the direction of this country.
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
HEARTLAND: THE KEY TO VICTORY
The eight states comprising the Heartland (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin) are critical to determining winners in presidential elections and key to the balance of power in both houses of Congress.
Ohio and Iowa have been key battleground states for years. Michigan and Wisconsin were once considered reliably Democratic prior to 2016, with voters last supporting a Republican presidential nominee in Michigan in 1988 and Wisconsin in 1984. Indiana and Missouri are considered more solidly Republican, and Illinois and Minnesota are reliably Democratic, although Trump came within 1.5 points of winning Minnesota last year.
President Barack Obama won seven out of these eight states in 2008 and six of eight in 2012. President Donald Trump turned that around completely, winning six of eight in 2016 on his way to a surprise victory.
Less visible, but equally important, are elections for state legislative seats. As was evident from 2010, when Republicans picked up hundreds of seats across the nation, state legislative outcomes are critical not just for partisan control in the states, but also gaining the power to draw new district lines for Congress and the legislatures.
In less than 10 years, the Democrats’ position in the Midwest has gone from one of strength to major weakness:
- In the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats went from controlling a majority of Heartland seats in 2009 (57%) to 39% in 2017. Democrats comprised a majority of House delegations in seven Heartland states in 2009 and only one in 2017.
- Democrats controlled four of the eight State Senates in the region in 2009 (Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin) and control only one now (Illinois), losing 49 seats.
- In state General Assemblies, Democrats controlled seven out of eight lower houses in 2009 (all except Missouri) and now have the majority in only Illinois, losing 156 seats.
- Democrats also held six of the eight governorships in 2009 and now control only one.
- Republicans control all three major levels of government (both houses of the state legislature and the Governor’s office) in six states and Democrats none.
The 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, won less than 10 percent of the counties in the Midwest — 63 out of 737 — and those were mainly in large urban centers, suburbs and university towns.
The only bright spot is the U.S. Senate where Democrats occupy 10 out of 16 seats in the Heartland. That is down two from 2009. Six seats are up in the 2018 election cycle and all are held by Democrats. The rural vote in states like Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana will be critical in determining whether Democrats hold those seats.
In addition, the Heartland played a key role in electing Donald Trump president. Trump’s win in traditional battleground states like Ohio and Iowa and traditional blue states like Michigan and
Wisconsin was fueled by votes from rural areas and from working class votes as evidenced by the flip of counties that voted for Obama twice to Trump. There were 206 counties nationwide that voted for
Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016. A majority of those counties (53 percent) are in the Heartland.
Many factors are involved in the Democrats’ dramatic decline in the Heartland. Parties in control of the White House often lose congressional seats, especially in non-Presidential years, which might indicate a revival in party fortunes in 2018. Redistricting and gerrymandering also play a role in flipping congressional and state legislative seats in states that have partisan redrawing of districts.
But another key factor is the party’s decline in support from rural areas. Democrats were elected and represented rural areas from throughout the Heartland as recently as 2009–2010. These rural areas contain many of the white, working class voters who were a key demographic in the 2016 presidential race and the object of focus and research since a share of them switched sides and helped deliver states like Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin for Trump. As former Illinois State Sen. John Sullivan said, “Trump gave focus to rural voters and addressed their needs in the campaign. The 2016 election showed the Democratic Party DID need us.”
Despite these trends, Democrats can do better in rural areas. We can earn back the trust of rural working class voters by:
- improving our messaging and the Democratic brand;
- focusing our policies on jobs and the economy;
- reconnecting with voters from the Heartland; and
- adapting campaigns to rural areas.
The remainder of this report will explore these four topics in greater depth.
- MESSAGING: Improving the Democratic Brand by Focusing on Economic Issues
Democrats interviewed at the state legislative level overwhelmingly believe the party has a serious messaging problem. Some even question whether the national party even knows what it stands for anymore. Four themes emerged consistently in reference to Democrats’ messaging in the Heartland:
- a disconnect with rural voters;
- too much focus on targeting groups;
- the dominance of social issues; and
- the more competitive nature of rural districts.
According to those interviewed, challenges associated with these issues have resulted in a Democratic brand and messaging that has hurt Democrats in the Heartland.
“The reputation of the national party superseded our own reputations,” said Ginny Favede, an unsuccessful 2016 House candidate from Ohio.
State Rep. Mark Spreitzer from Wisconsin said “state and local Democrats have become more dependent on the national message. With our fates tied together, the national brand needs to be strong to help state legislative candidates.”
Former Iowa State Rep. Patti Ruff said, “The ‘D’ by my name hurt, and the top-end campaign hurt the bottom-end campaign. It had an elitist bent, which didn’t fit for the working class.”
It was in this landscape that Donald Trump was able to reach voters by addressing their concerns while Democrats were seen as focusing on social issues or not addressing economic anxieties.
Michigan State Rep. Jon Hoadley said, “Voters have been living with economic anxiety for a long time. Trump spoke to their economic fears while connecting those to long-existing racial tensions.”
Former Ohio State Rep. Nick Barborak said, “The 2016 election wasn’t about Trump. It was an anti-establishment vote. It’s not that people voted for Trump, but they voted against the Democrats. We’re (seen as) the party of big cities and social issues.”
Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar said, “Rural voters feel the Democratic Party used to represent working class issues. We seem focused on things manifested in identity politics that don’t apply to rural. There was a vacuum with these voters, and Trump filled it. Democrats didn’t have a coherent message to rural voters and weren’t reaching out.”
To do better, we must communicate better and build a better brand.
THE CHALLENGES WE FACE
Disconnect with Rural Voters
A consistent theme among these current and former officials is that national Democrats are out of touch with rural and working-class people. And because national Democrats are perceived as out of touch there is significant brand degradation for individuals down-ballot who are running as Democrats who may otherwise be perceived favorably by voters.
This feeling stems from the economic realities of the rural Midwest. When national Democrats trumpeted economic recovery during the last election cycle, many areas faced — and continue to face — stagnant incomes, fewer good-paying jobs and limited opportunities for children to stay in the area.
“We never recovered from the economic recession of the 1980’s,” said former State Rep. Phil Tate from the northwestern part of Missouri. “The recession, coupled with the downturn in the garment and textile industries, have left this region hurting economically to this day.”
State Rep. Mike O’Brien, who represents a district in northeast Ohio, said “we haven’t recovered from the recession yet.”
Others expressed the view that the party doesn’t have a comprehensive message to all voters, but instead shapes its message to various groups and constituencies.
Iowa State Sen. Chaz Allen advised the party to “stop talking to voters in silos.” Former State Sen. Tim Cullen of Wisconsin said the party “appears to many to care more about specific categories of people than a person without a job.”
“The party needs one coherent, distilled message and it can’t be all things to all people,” said former Ohio State Senator Lou Gentile.
Further, many leaders relayed that social issues played a role in muddying the messages of local candidates in the 2016 election.
The people we spoke with focused on jobs and economic issues but faced voters who confronted them over social issues that were deemed to have been prioritized by the national party in day-to-day communications. This not only created obstacles for them to effectively communicate their messages, but also put them on the defensive about issues that weren’t priorities in their campaigns.
Former Michigan State Rep. Collene Lamonte said the party’s message in 2016 “didn’t align with what we were hearing at the doors. We lost our ability to talk to these people in a way they can trust us.”
State Rep. Nick Celebrezze, who represents a metro working class district in Ohio, said while knocking doors last fall that he heard over and over that “Democrats are talking bathrooms while Republicans are talking jobs.”
Wisconsin State Rep. Katrina Shankland talked about how her district, in central Wisconsin, which has an “outdoors culture,” is not always in line with the national party message.
Many respondents said priorities are different in rural areas because the districts are more competitive. Gerrymandered maps produced by Republican majorities in most states created safer districts for Democrats in urban areas and tougher, more evenly balanced districts in rural areas.
Michigan State Rep. Henry Yanez said, “I can’t win without Republican-leaning Independent and Republican votes” in his competitive suburban and rural Macomb County district.
“A lot of people don’t know our message now” said former State Rep. Wes Shoemyer, from northeast Missouri. “Democrats have become policy wonks but aren’t connecting with peoples’ guts.”
HOW DEMOCRATS CAN IMPROVE
Democrats need to have a powerful message that communicates in clear and concise language. A common complaint we heard was about the way messages are delivered that sound like poll-tested talking points instead of everyday language most people use.
Iowa State Sen. Kevin Kinney: “Our words don’t match what rural people are saying.”
Ohio State Rep. candidate Ginny Favede: “The Democratic message is convoluted. It needs to be so easy a third-grader can repeat it.”
Minnesota State Rep. Jeanne Poppe: “Democrats need to tell stories and do more listening and less talking.”
Missouri State Rep. and Attorney General candidate Teresa Hensley: “Republicans have a power we don’t have. They are better at coming up with quick, easy slogans like ‘right to work’. We stumble over slogans.”
Further, those interviewed relayed the need to counter Republican dominance in the media. Too often the Heartland has too few Democratic voices on the airwaves and in the media to counter Fox News, talk radio and conservative social media that dominate much of the Heartland. And further still, even those few Democratic voices who do reach the airwaves often are urban liberals who do not relate to the Heartland.
A Better Brand: Sharing Values
Those interviewed offer a variety of themes they feel the party should communicate to the public that would help improve the Democratic brand in the Heartland.
The messages aren’t just focused on rural areas but have appeal more broadly to working class and middle-class people in metro areas as well. The themes almost all focused around the economy, jobs and opportunity.
While many of these themes are explored in more depth further in the report, here are their recommendations in their own words:
Iowa State Sen. Tod Bowman suggested the party “help Main Street versus Wall Street and the focus should be on financial security — quality, affordable health care, affordable college, pension security and supplemental savings.”
Former Ohio State Rep. Nick Barborak said the party should “showcase issues people care about — economic opportunity, justice, fairness and educational opportunity. From FDR to
Clinton, Democrats talked economic issues — values people still hold on to. Obama won twice in Ohio by focusing on the middle class, not social issues.”
Ohio State Rep. candidate Ginny Favede said the party “needs to identify with the core of
America — the ability to take care of families, put dinner on the table, represent core people.”
“We need to be the party with our shirt sleeves rolled up, not the party with the cuff links.” — Former Ohio State Rep. and state party chair Chris Redfern.
Michigan State Rep. Henry Yanez spoke to the remaining popularity of Bill Clinton, “…he uttered four simple words — ‘I feel your pain.’ When Democrats can say that and not talk about people ‘clinging to their guns and religion,’ we’ll start doing better with rural and blue collar voters.”
- ISSUES: Shape Solutions and Tout Policies that Advance the Heartland Economy
When asked whether the party has sound policies but doesn’t communicate them effectively, or whether our policies need new ideas, most local Democrats say a little of both.
Local officials provided feedback that the party should focus messaging and policy solutions in the following key areas: Economic Issues, Infrastructure, Schools, Small Business, Security, Farming and Agriculture and Government Waste.
Those interviewed lamented the lack of a Democratic alternative as powerful as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which consistently provides state and local elected officials new conservative policies to drive state legislative agendas. A Democratic alternative could provide a fresh arsenal of competing ideas rooted in Democratic values to state and local elected officials.
For Democrats to improve outcomes, we must be better focused on developing and messaging on policy solutions that address real challenges in the Heartland.
Not surprisingly, economic issues were cited with unanimity as the most important issue for the party. Many regions in the Heartland still haven’t fully recovered from previous economic downturns. While unemployment rates are low, incomes are stagnant and the loss of manufacturing jobs removed a source of good-paying jobs that have been replaced by jobs that pay less and provide no benefits.
Often, new manufacturing jobs aren’t as lucrative for rural workers. In one rural town, the State Senator said a manufacturer that left for Mexico paid $18 to $22 an hour and a new manufacturer pays $14 to $15 an hour and workers have higher health care costs. Economic issues were framed more in terms of income growth than job creation.
“The party should back either higher wages or lower taxes or both. Providing services and programs is not always the answer,” said Iowa State Sen. Tod Bowman, suggesting instead tax reductions and a minimum wage increase.
“People are making less money comparatively than 15 years ago,” said former Missouri State Rep. Phil Tate. “These people are tired of the status quo.”
Michigan State Rep. Darrin Camilleri said the party needs to focus on “policies that put money in people’s pockets.”
Wisconsin State Sen. Jennifer Shilling mentioned pressures facing senior citizens in her district to keep working because they are not earning enough for retirement.
A former legislator said “more people are going to realize they are not going to be able to retire at a normal retirement age.”
Several Ohio legislators talked about the heroin epidemic facing their areas and tied drugs to economic dislocation.
Ohio State Rep. John Patterson said “economic problems led, in part, to the drug problems facing Ohio.”
What follows are the responses from current and former legislators on rural working class concerns and how the party should address them — in their own words:
“Go back to the 1950’s for what mattered most to people — buy a house, trade in a car every couple of years — not for solutions but to lay out broadly what Americans wanted most.” — Minnesota State Rep. Jeanne Poppe
“Concentrate on bread and butter working class issues. That’s who we are. FDR, Truman — wages, good schools.” — Indiana State Senate candidate Julie Berry
“All my constituents expected and wanted was to have the opportunity for a good job with decent wages, health care and a chance for a respectable retirement and hope the next generation would have more opportunities than the last one.” — Former Indiana State Rep. Russ Stilwell
“The party needs to focus on people trying to play by the rules….people working two jobs. They get discouraged after awhile. The party needs to stand up for forgotten people.” — Indiana State Rep. Steve Stemler.
“Make working class people, who say ‘I’m working my ass off here and making less money,’ say ‘This is the party speaking for me.’” — Former Indiana State Rep. Dennie Oxley
“Rural Democrats should be talking about health care in terms of jobs. In all seven of my counties, hospitals are my largest employers. Make the proposed Republican cuts a jobs issue.” — Michigan State Rep. Scott Dianda
Those interviewed also cited the need for infrastructure investments. These investments included roads and bridges, locks and dams, broadband, drinking water and wastewater systems and electric grids. In their view, a focus on infrastructure supports local job creation and helps make those communities livable while also making the regions more attractive for new businesses.
Ohio State Rep. Jack Cera on infrastructure: “We need funds for infrastructure. There used to be federal grants for water and sewer…We need investments in road infrastructure as well that can create jobs and open up parts of our counties for opportunities.”
“The lock and dam system is old and is key for the agricultural and grain industry,” said Missouri Representative Tom Shively.
Wisconsin State Senator Janet Bewley said, “We need infrastructure to succeed. We will be rural deserts if we don’t invest and maintain our infrastructure.”
Most rural legislators provided strong support for public schools and said this should be one of the major issues Democrats should prioritize.
They are concerned about threats to public schools from private school vouchers in Ohio to homeschooling in Iowa.
Legislators in Wisconsin see a growing threat to rural schools from the weakening of collective bargaining enacted by Republicans several years ago.
There is growing concern that withering criticism of public schools by conservative groups is causing young teachers to abandon the field.
This creates an opportunity for Democrats.
“Teachers have become free agents and competition for quality teachers has become fierce. This may bode well for wealthier districts, but in poorer and rural districts, whose teachers are being poached by wealthier and bigger districts, the outcome is more ominous,” said Wisconsin State Senator Janis Ringhand.
“We need to build schools that parents can trust again and counter the drumbeat of negatives against public schools. We need to create public schools as institutions of excellence, and stop testing kids all the time,” said former Michigan State Rep. Collene Lamonte.
Minnesota State Rep. Julie Sandstede supports a “back-to-basics approach,” and schools should focus on what works. “Kids are tested to death.” Teachers are leaving the professions and the job is “more paperwork than teaching.”
A large number of Democrats we spoke to highlighted the need for the party to reach out more to small businesses.
Some want to see more economic development incentives targeted to small businesses instead of large corporations. They referenced how small businesses create jobs in the community, and revenues stay in the communities.
Others, while acknowledging the need for worker and consumer protections, want to see fewer regulations on smaller firms.
Some respondents spoke of helping Main Street firms compete through tougher anti-trust enforcement and anti-monopoly legislation.
Several also spoke of small business owners as part of an expanded definition of working class voters that the party needs to reach out to more.
“Help Main Street versus Wall Street,” said Iowa State Sen. Tod Bowman. He pointed out how his dad put five kids through college while running a service station. Now, big companies will pay a manager $40,000 and “take the rest of the money out of the community.”
Democrats should focus more on working class voters “who pay their taxes quarterly,” said Iowa State Sen. Chaz Allen.
“Small businesses are drowned by regulations. We should be a party to help — not get rid of regulations but make government help small businesses with compliance. We need a government system that helps — show them how to do it right. Big businesses need more regulation — not small businesses,” said former Michigan State Rep. Collene Lamonte.
“We need to change the economic rules so Main Street retail can fairly compete with digital companies and multinationals,” said Michigan State Rep. Jon Hoadley, who also talked about helping small businesses and entrepreneurs by investing in start-ups — “maybe a tax credit for the first three people hired — distributive tax credits.”
“Find out where younger people want to live and incentivize small businesses there — jobs that can’t be outsourced,” Michigan Rep. Kristy Pagan said.
“The party needs to incorporate a message including anti-corporate, anti-foreign ownership of land and agricultural companies and anti-consolidation and concentration in industry, especially agriculture,” said former Missouri Rep. Wes Shoemyer.
Some Democrats talked about security in an expanded sense of providing both public safety and economic security. Many pillars of economic security have been weakened through Republican policies aimed at health care, retirement and collective bargaining.
Further, when Ohio State Sen. Joe Schiavoni talks about safe communities as a top issue, he isn’t just talking about police and fire. He suggests expanding the definition of safe communities by including roads and bridges, water quality and fighting opioids, as well as crime.
“Democrats need to do and say two things, first and always, when communicating with skeptical voters … I will keep you safe, and I won’t waste your money. After establishing those credentials, Dems will be able to discuss investments in education, health care and job creation,” said Iowa State Sen. Jeff Danielson.
Farmers and Agriculture
Iowa State Sen. Tod Bowman traces the problems of Democrats to the farming culture and that they do not compete for farm votes.
While the number of farms has shrunk due to consolidation, Bowman and other rural legislators point out the prevalence of part-time farmers, those who own fewer than 200 acres and those who rent out acreage. They may not be big landowners but still represent the farm culture of “looking at the bottom line, being more individualistic and a maverick and being averse to taxes and regulation.”
“Don’t tell them what to do; get buy-in from them,” said Iowa State Sen. Kevin Kinney.
“We need candidates that have backgrounds in agriculture and understand agriculture,” said Iowa State Rep. Bruce Bearinger.
“We need to reach out to farmers more — No one talks to them,” said former Ohio State Rep. Chris Redfern.
“We need to bring farmers and miners into the conversation about regulation,” said former Minnesota State Rep. Terry Morrow.
Government Waste and Reform
Some of the rural legislators we spoke with referenced the party’s reputation as big spenders, and say Democrats need to demonstrate they can spend tax dollars wisely and be able to effectively manage public resources.
Further, many thought their constituents felt the government was rigged against them.
Democrats must do better to advocate to reform the system to ensure their constituent voices are heard instead of special interests — this includes campaign finance reform, gerrymandering and transparency.
“Democrats need to do a better job of showing how we use tax dollars wisely,” said Wisconsin State Rep. Katrina Shankland.
“Democrats have to come into office emphasizing spending money wisely” and “be intellectually honest and not just want to spend, spend, spend,” said Wisconsin State Sen. Robert Wirch.
“People don’t trust either party with spending. The Republicans cave to corporate interests. We need to put messaging in laymen’s terms and equate money wasted with people’s salaries or wages,” said Minnesota State Rep. Jason Metsa.
Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling said, “We need to be the reformer party.” And use technology “in a smarter, more effective way… Why are we still printing phone books?”
- BIG TENT: Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide by Welcoming Heartland Values
Differences have always existed between rural and urban areas, but the rural officials we interviewed feel their way of life, views on issues and culture are increasingly objects of derision and condescension by “urban elites”.
Their perspective is that the party’s priorities are shaped by elites from the coasts and Heartland legislators pay the price for policies, attitudes and messages that are counter to their local cultures and mores.
Perhaps the biggest complaint we heard from rural Democrats in the Heartland is that the Democratic Party, traditionally a party that welcomes diversity and inclusion, has become intolerant of dissenting views, especially on social issues.
A former legislator said, “Democrats are seen as only for the elites, are snooty and look down on working class voters.”
Minnesota State Rep. Jeanne Poppe said, “Some in the party, especially from metro areas, are not tolerant of other opinions, especially on guns and abortion. It’s OK, if you’re liberal, to be intolerant.”
Former Indiana State Rep. Dennie Oxley said, “We say we’re diverse and tolerant, but we’re really not tolerant of certain groups.”
The divide has manifested in differences in how people view and discuss social issues with each other.
Further, unlike most urban districts that are drawn with a disproportionate number of Democratic voters, many rural districts are competitive. Rural Democrats often need the votes of Republicans to win.
Michigan State Rep. Tom Cochran said, “Rural Democrats have to reach out to more than just Democrats because voters in rural and working class areas will vote the candidate, not the party.”
Minnesota State Rep. Gene Pelowski said, “The ‘metro-centrics’ in our party don’t know the difference between majority and minority. They just play to the base. They don’t care about winning elections.”
Local officials focused in on several social issues that can challenge Democratic messaging in rural areas including: Abortion, Guns and Religion and other hot button social issues.
For many interviewed the challenge is not the party’s position, as much a matter of emphasis. They feel too often, social issues take priority to the exclusion of economic issues.
Consistently we heard that for the party to win more in rural areas and regain majority status in Washington and in Heartland states, Democrats need to become more inclusive of rural culture and focus on areas of broader agreement such as economic issues — but that’s not what these officials or their constituents hear from the party on a day-to-day basis.
“We cannot lose the cultural popularity contest and think we can still win elections,’ said Iowa State Sen. Jeff Danielson. “We cannot constantly challenge basic cultural norms with academic arguments and lose our audience because voters see us as hostile to their way of life.” He calls his approach to political culture “pragmatic populism.”
Former Michigan State Rep. Bill LaVoy connected with voters by talking about riding a motorcycle, hunting and fishing, and Iowa State Sen. Chaz Allen touts his experience as a race car driver on his Facebook and Twitter pages.
Many of the people we spoke with own guns and are active in sporting activities. Former Indiana State Rep. Russ Stilwell described his southern Indiana district as comprised of “gun totin’, Bible thumping, blue collar, flag waving patriots who would tell you like it is, expect you to listen to their concerns and want to know you care about people like them.”
None of this should be interpreted to mean Democrats must be conservative on social issues to win in rural areas. In some areas, that may be truer than others. Many of those we interviewed said you can be progressive and win in rural areas. And while most are for marriage equality and pro-choice, they lead with issues like roads, schools, and jobs.
While the Democrats interviewed agreed the party should remain fierce advocates on many of these issues, they simply did not see those issues as being in the forefront of the minds of most voters they encounter. For those interviewed, it comes down to a matter of emphasis and pragmatism. “I can’t fight for transgender issues if I’m not in office,” said former Michigan State Rep. Collene Lamonte.
While pro-choice is the dominant position in the national Democratic Party, many rural legislators hold pro-life positions that reflect their own views and those of their constituents.
There are pro-life Democrats from all Heartland states we reached out to. They do not want to feel they are being purged from the party.
Former Missouri Rep. Steve Hodges added, “The pro-life position is important in rural Missouri.”
Many expressed concerns with choice litmus tests and the impact that has on rural Democrats.
“If (the party position is that Democrats can’t be pro-life)… then, no, there isn’t room for people like me,” said Julie Berry who ran a close race for the Indiana Senate.
Former Ohio State Rep. Nick Barborak, who considers himself pro-choice, said that “we might as well write off eastern Ohio” if the party rejects candidates who are pro-life.
Rural pro-choice Democrats we interviewed talked about abortion as an important issue, but one they emphasized less than other priorities, like kitchen table economic issues faced by all of their constituents.
One Iowa legislator spoke of “out-front issues and back issues,” and an Ohio legislator said they “are important but not the focus of what our message should be.” Another former legislator said “it’s not retreating to emphasize economic concerns in rural areas that are more unifying than cultural issues.”
Former Michigan State Rep. Terry Brown suggested reframing the issue. “When people hear pro-choice, they think anti-life.” He suggests the party change its messaging to reflect Democratic support for the ‘culture of life’ which includes support for schools, health care and retirement security.
Perhaps no issue symbolizes the urban-rural divide more than guns. Rural Democrats interviewed described a feeling that their urban counterparts just don’t understand the cultural dimension of this issue.
Former Missouri State Rep. Phil Tate traces Democrats’ declining performance in rural areas to Bill Clinton and his gun control proposals in the 1990’s. Republicans took the issue and “elevated it way beyond what it should have been.”
Anti-gun perceptions of the national party are tied to local Democrats in rural areas and are difficult to overcome.
Ohio State Rep. John Patterson described the issue in terms of the economic dislocations in rural areas. “Jobs leave, businesses leave. There’s an additional sense of loss when their kids leave. Guns are seen as the last straw. Hunting and guns are part of the culture — it’s who we are.”
Former Illinois State Sen. Gary Forby said the gun issue is a major reason why Democrats have lost the votes of union members in his district, deep in southern Illinois. “When I walked into union halls, they talked concealed carry first and union issues second.”
Many rural Democrats spoke about the role of religion in rural areas and how the party needs to do a better job of talking about the role of faith in their lives.
Former Michigan State Rep. Terry Brown said Democrats should “stress freedom of religion, why we’re for religious liberty and support all religions.”
Wisconsin State Sen. Jennifer Shilling talked about how some socializing in rural areas occurs at churches and church events, and State Sen. Robert Wirch from Wisconsin said it’s important to be seen at church events and provided an example of attending as many fish fries as he can during Lent.
Religion and faith remain the cornerstones of many aspects of life in the Heartland, and Democrats need to do better at sharing their own faith.
Former Ohio State Rep. Chris Redfern said Democrats “need to talk faith and how it impacts our ability to make decisions.”
Indiana State Senate candidate Julie Berry said the Democratic brand has been tarnished as “unpatriotic” and too many people think “we don’t love God and country.” She added that “faith has to be a part of the conversation — all faiths and tolerance. The Republicans do NOT have a monopoly on faith.”
Former Missouri State Rep. Wes Shoemeyer added that if Democrats prioritize social issues in his region, “a Catholic and Southern Baptist world, you lose.”
A former legislator makes the argument that Democrats can win over voters by talking about faith. “Democrats are more compassionate and kind. They want to do what the Christians say to do — help people.”
Indiana Senate candidate Chuck Freiberger said Democrats need to “reframe family and moral issues along the lines of hard work, religion, family, and that includes women’s and LGBT issues, where people are coming around. Hatred, as preached by Trump, is not a family value.”
- ADAPT: Re-think Strategies for Rural Campaigns
Beyond messaging, policy and culture, we also examined how campaigns are run in rural areas.
One of the most important takeaways from our Heartland outreach is the dissatisfaction of most elected officials with how rural campaigns are approached by party officials, activists and consultants.
One thing is clear: What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working in the rural Midwest.
The Democratic Party needs an honest, comprehensive examination of its leadership, campaign strategies and tactics, key players and, perhaps above all, its attitude, to turn things around and to begin winning elections in rural areas. As conveyed by these officials who have been successful, candidates in rural areas must do three key things:
1 — SHOW UP — It is not enough to try to reach rural voters from afar. This is particularly true for national races. You must show you care enough about their votes to show up.
Indiana State Senate candidate Chuck Freiberger said, “People like to see you. Be active in the community. Be seen.”
Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar’s first rule of thumb (and advice to rural candidates) is to put himself in uncomfortable places. For every comfortable place, such as churches or the chicken dinner circuit, he puts himself in an uncomfortable place — “places or events that tend to draw Republican voters.” He said, “Just my presence there and showing my face goes a long ways with those voters.”
2 — LISTEN — We are born with one mouth and two ears. Both as candidates and as a party, local officials cited the need to do a better job of listening to voters’ concerns in rural areas and to those who have had success in campaigns in rural areas.
Former Ohio State Representative and state party chair Chris Redfern said national Democrats never sought out his advice on campaigning despite the fact that the state was carried by President Obama twice and won the Ohio House of Representatives under his leadership.
Indiana State Rep. Steve Stemler echoed that feeling, saying, “Nobody ever reached out to me.” He has served since 2006.
“Democratic leaders don’t understand the needs of rural voters,” said former Illinois State Senator John Sullivan.
3 — WORK HARD — This is a given in all races, but particularly true in rural areas. Some interviewed feel the party as a whole became sluggish and perhaps too complacent in recent years, underestimating the need to organize, party build and undertake traditional constituent outreach. These activities are layered on the already required time commitment necessary to raise funds to even compete.
“Nobody wants to organize anymore, and the party has become lazy,” Indiana State Rep. Terry Goodin said.
“We lost the majority because we got lazy and outworked,” said former Missouri State Rep. Phil Tate.
After Indiana allowed voter registration at driver’s license facilities, “Democrats got lazy,” said Indiana State Senate candidate Chuck Frieberger and “didn’t keep personal contact and lost ground.”
Beyond these three overarching principles, many of the current and former legislators spoke of the need to rethink our strategic approach to races in the Heartland — including specific strategies.
Many were highly critical of the Democratic Party’s approach to campaigns in rural areas. They believe campaigning is different in rural areas compared with urban settings and that Democratic Party campaign operatives, leaders and consultants too often apply “cookie cutter” approaches that aren’t effective.
Those interviewed believe the national and state parties need to overhaul their approaches to rural campaigning, cultivate new campaign operatives and consultants with expertise in rural areas and, above all, listen to their ideas and feedback on what they are hearing directly from people at the grassroots level as well as which campaign and party building techniques work and those that don’t.
To be clear, these tactics should be considered in the unique context of each race (focus, scope, level of seat). It will always be necessary to devote time to fundraising to build the resources necessary to run effective campaigns.
While races will still need to evaluate the use of TV and social media, the tactics discussed in further detail below may need to be approached differently in rural campaigns, depending on location and whether the race is local, state or federal.
A key is candidate recruitment. Former Indiana State Rep. Russ Stilwell referenced former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg’s strategy of going into small towns and talking to people in coffee shops, at the Chamber of Commerce and at fraternal organizations. He would ask who the most popular person in town was, find a consensus and go visit the top two or three people and recruit them to run. Candidates should fit the district’s demographics and culture and be involved in the community.
“Campaigns in rural are often about the candidate,” said former Minnesota State Rep. Ted Winter.
“We’ve got to get back to what Rahm Emanuel did — recruit people who can win in the districts — PERIOD,” said former Indiana State Rep. Dennie Oxley. “If we want to be in the majority, recruit those who can win.”
Michigan State Rep. Tom Cochran said, “We don’t develop a farm team — a base of local candidates for office who can be ready to move up. We didn’t do it and still don’t do it.”
According to those interviewed, dissatisfaction extends to party consultants who rural Democrats see as pushing “cookie-cutter” approaches to campaigns and who advocate tactics more suited to urban areas than rural.
Most of all, candidates and officeholders in the Heartland just want party leaders, activists and consultants to listen to them and respect their views on what it takes to win in rural areas.
“We select the same people and make the same mistakes over and over again. Democrats do things the same old way and are shocked when they get the same results. There’s no accountability, and it’s the same old message,” said a former legislator. “They (party leaders and consultants) only want to listen to the pollster. They don’t care what we’re hearing on the ground.”
The Basics: Canvassing, Absentee Ballots, Get-Out-The-Vote
Iowa State Sen. Jeff Danielson said campaigns need to put their energies into canvassing, absentee ballots and Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV), the building blocks of campaigns.
Candidates should commit to pursuing these objectives before the party commits to helping them.
For example, Indiana State Rep. Terry Goodin focused heavily on voter identification. Through door-to-door and quick, three-minute phone calls, his campaign identifies straight Democratic voters.
Rural candidates approach door-to-door campaigning differently in small towns.
Many rural Democrats we spoke with feel it’s a mistake to only knock specific, targeted doors in rural small towns. Instead, many said they knock all doors of registered voters. “If they’re a registered voter, I want to talk to them,” said Missouri State Rep. Ben Harris, the only remaining rural Democrat in the state legislature. “Some hard Rs slammed their doors in my face, but others let me put up yard signs.”
Minnesota State Rep. Paul Marquart goes door-to-door even in off-years, and hits every door. “There’s a difference in campaigning in rural areas. If you pass doors, people will notice. If you have to travel an hour to get to a small town and an hour back, it makes sense to hit ’em all and meet as many people as possible.”
Wisconsin State Sen. Janet Bewley conducts what she calls “Main Streeting,” where she visits every business in small towns. Her goal is often just wanting people to say “she’s OK,” that she’s “safe” to know and vote for. “All I want for people to know is that I’m on their side.”
Most officials we spoke with feel radio advertising is a “necessity” for rural districts, as former Iowa State Rep. Patty Ruff put it.
Michigan State Rep. Scott Dianda believes radio is important because it zeroes in on older voters who are a more important demographic in rural areas.
Additionally, with lots of blue collar workers spending their days driving or working on a site, radio is a good way to reach them all day.
Officials who use radio generally focus their ads to run during morning farm programs and call-in shows.
Former Michigan State Rep. Terry Brown believes the party needs to “advance what we’re doing in rural America by using radio with brief updates on rural issues. The Republicans do this effectively. People in rural areas don’t hear about us local Democrats at all. Our voices need to be heard.”
Some officials feel the party uses phones too much, and it turns off voters with continuous phone calling, especially in the late stages of campaigns.
While phones are often a part of necessary voter identification and outreach efforts, rural Democrats feel they should be used more strategically and paired better with other activities.
According to Indiana State Rep. Terry Goodin, “Working people buy phone minute cards at Walmart and don’t want to spend a lot of time on the phone for polls or ID calls.”
Rural Democrats understand that direct mail is a necessity, but some feel the campaigns send too many mailers and many, like former Minnesota State Rep. Terry Morrow, criticized the cookie cutter nature of most mail that lacks in creativity.
Some advocate the party study the effectiveness of mail, especially when campaigns send up to 20 pieces.
Most modern campaigns don’t put a priority on newspaper ads for small weekly papers common in rural areas.
While there wasn’t unanimity among people we spoke with, many strongly believe advertising in small town weeklies is important for rural candidates.
These officials also send news releases to weeklies and some write opinion essays because smaller papers will frequently print them.
There is an acknowledgement that social media is vital these days to reach voters, especially younger people, but also that weekly newspapers are still critical to reaching voters in small towns and surrounding rural areas, especially seniors.
Former Indiana State Rep. Dennie Oxley said, “People read them cover-to-cover,” an opinion echoed by other rural officials.
“They are the only papers in my district,” added former Iowa State Rep. Patti Ruff.
Several officials talked about the importance of seeking the right people to feature in campaign advertisements as endorsers.
Wisconsin State Rep. Katrina Shankland talked about the importance of reaching “thought leaders” in rural areas and small towns who can influence others.
Michigan State Rep. Jon Hoadley said, “Personal validation is critical in this fake news era.” He suggested people in “tiers 2–3,” not the most popular people in communities, be sought out for endorsements and testimonials. Get people who are “popular at churches or on the block” and communicate the endorsements through mail and digital.
Officials in at least two states spoke of how Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ super PAC, has year-round offices throughout their states with full-time staff dedicated to identifying voters. The party needs to match that effort to be able to compete in the future.
A former legislator said, “We need to ID people. A lot of new people voted and had to re-register. These voters were mad as heck. The GOP is always sending voter registration forms to people.”
Data and Analytics
Modern campaigns from the presidential to local levels have increasingly relied on data analytics for decision making, involving everything from messaging to fundraising.
Rural Democrats we spoke with conceded the importance of data, but many strongly suggested that the party focused too much on the science of campaigns to the detriment of the art of campaigning.
For example, Wisconsin State Sen. Janet Bewley feels the party relies too much on data and analytics.
Ohio State Rep. candidate Ginny Favede said volunteers used flawed lists and walked two blocks to knock one door. “Volunteers were grumbling because they were passing people they knew in houses that should have been knocked.”
A former legislator said, “Our data was just really bad.”
CONCLUSION: WE CAN WIN
After the electoral routs suffered by Democrats in the Heartland in recent years, the incumbents we spoke with are survivors.
Others fell short in recent election cycles, and a good share of the cause can be traced to the damaged Democratic brand and top of the ticket candidates.
These Heartland Democrats are battle-tested, have faced the voters in Republican waves and are still standing.
The moods of those we interviewed varied from frustration with the party, to anger at Democratic party leaders, to hope that the party can do better in the future and rediscover its roots and message.
Several of the people we spoke with described their rural districts as “forgotten” by the Democratic Party. Ohio State Rep. John Patterson said, “You don’t need a passport to come to northeast Ohio.”
The message delivered to us: ‘Don’t give up on rural.’
These rural Democrats haven’t given up hope. Some are concerned that, after an initial flurry of interest in the Heartland after the 2016 election, attention will fade.
The feeling was unanimous that Democrats can earn votes back, but only with a better, more disciplined approached to winning these tough Heartland races.
But the problems Democrats face in rural and working class areas aren’t going away. In fact, the stakes have never been higher.
The next two election cycles will be critical for the long-term strength of the party. Redistricting in 2020 could consign Democrats to minority status for another 10 years in these states and in Congress if we fall short.
The officials we interviewed suggested the following opportunities for future action:
- Democrats need to emphasize issues that unite the party and go back to core principles on economic opportunity, increasing incomes, and economic security.
- Specific opportunities for rural Democrats are in infrastructure, education, small business, security (both economic and safety), agriculture, and reducing government waste.
- The party needs to develop new policy ideas for the state and local levels. Several called for a strong and robust Democratic policy shop as powerful as ALEC on the right.
- The party needs to develop better communications tools, outreach, entities and messaging to counter Fox News, talk radio and conservative social media.
- The party needs a comprehensive review of leadership and campaign apparatuses, consultants and strategies. Many rural leaders want new blood and fresh approaches.
- The party needs to broaden the concept of the working class, which includes not just union members, but also other types of workers and small business owners.
- The party needs to get back to a “Big Tent” philosophy that embraces those who agree on the vast majority of issues, but who may have dissenting views on certain issues.
- The party needs to engage with existing rural and working class Democrats on a more regular basis to learn from their experiences and chart the path forward.
These rural voices should be heard as they provide a valuable message to Democrats as we prepare for this next election cycle.
With close to a thousand seats lost across the country in the last decade, now is the critical time to examine everything from top to bottom.
The stakes are enormous. The party cannot get back to majority status in either Washington or state capitals in the Heartland without bringing the wisdom of rural working class voters to national debates.
And in the words of Iowa’s newly elected State Rep. Phil Miller, “I know we can get them (Obama-Trump Voters) back. I got them back.”
The authors thank the following people for their help in connecting us with the folks who participated in this research and report: Illinois: Former State Sen. John Sullivan, Timothy McAnarney, and Kerry Asbridge. Indiana: Tim Henderson, State Rep. Terry Goodin, and Julie Berry. Iowa: State Sen. Jeff Danielson, Ron Parker, and former State Sen. Tom Courtney. Michigan: Jeff Winston, Josh Pugh, former State Rep. Collene Lamonte, and State Rep. Tom Cochran. Minnesota: State Rep. Julie Sandstede, Josh Syrjamaki, Terry Morrow, Jodie Torkelson, and State Party Chair Ken Martin. Missouri: Former Governor Bob Holden and former State Rep. Tom Shively. Ohio: Former State Sen. Lou Gentile and State Rep. Jack Cera. Wisconsin: State Sen. Janet Bewley, former State Sen. Tim Cullen and Joseph Hoey. Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee: Jessica Post and Kevin Boyd.