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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

If you are a Democrat in a state that has a large rural population and thinking about a statewide or rural district candidacy, read Thomas B. Edsall’s column, “The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party Is Not Coming From the Suburbs” in the New York Times. Edsall writes, “Rural America has become the Republican Party’s life preserver….Less densely settled regions of the country, crucial to the creation of congressional and legislative districts favorable to conservatives, are a pillar of the party’s strength in the House and the Senate and a decisive factor in the rightward tilt of the Electoral College. Republican gains in such sparsely populated areas are compensating for setbacks in increasingly diverse suburbs where growing numbers of well-educated voters have renounced a party led by Donald Trump and his loyalists….The anger and resentment felt by rural voters toward the Democratic Party are driving a regional realignment similar to the upheaval in the white South after Democrats, led by President Lyndon Johnson, won approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964….Even so, Republicans are grasping at a weak reed. In a 2022 article, “Rural America Lost Population Over the Past Decade for the First Time in History,” Kenneth Johnson, the senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, notes: “Between 2010 and 2020, rural America lost population for the first time in history as economic turbulence had a significant demographic impact. The rural population loss was due to fewer births, more deaths and more people leaving than moving in.”

Edsall continues, “There are few, if any, better case studies of rural realignment and the role it plays in elections than the 2022 Senate race in Wisconsin. The basic question there is how Ron Johnson — a Trump acolytewho derided climate change with an epithet, who described the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement” and who proposed turning Social Security and Medicare into discretionary programs subject to annual congressional budget cutting — got re-elected in Wisconsin….In 2016, Johnson rode Trump’s coattails and the Republican trail blazed by the former governor Scott Walker to a 3.4 point (50.2 to 46.8) victory and swept into office, in large part by running up huge margins in Milwaukee’s predominantly white suburbs. That changed in 2022….Craig Gilbert, a fellow at Marquette Law School and a former Washington bureau chief of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, conducted a detailed analysis of Wisconsin voting patterns and found that Johnson performed much worse in the red and blue suburbs of Milwaukee than he did six years earlier in 2016. Johnson lost Wauwatosa by 7 points in 2016, then by 37 points in 2022. He won Mequon in Ozaukee County by 28 points in 2016 but only by 6 in 2022. His victory margin in Menomonee Falls in Waukesha County declined from 32 points six years ago to 14 points. So again, how did Johnson win? The simple answer: white rural Wisconsin….In her groundbreaking study of Wisconsin voters, “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, prompted a surge of interest in this declining segment of the electorate. She summed up the basis for the discontent among these voters, saying, “It had three elements: (1) a belief that rural areas are ignored by decision makers, including policymakers, (2) a perception that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources and (3) a sense that rural folks have fundamentally distinct values and lifestyles, which are misunderstood and disrespected by city folks.” My bet is on Edsall’s #3.

Edsall adds, “In their 2022 paper “Symbolic Versus Material Concerns of Rural Consciousness in the United States,” Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Zack Crowley, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, sought to determine the key factor driving rural voters to the Republican Party: anger at perceived unfair distribution of resources by government, a sense of being ignored by decision makers or the belief that rural communities have a distinct set of values that are denigrated by urban dwellers….Trujillo and Crowley conclude that “culture differences play a far stronger role in determining the vote than discontent over the distribution of economic resources.” Stands on what they call symbolic issues “positively predict Trump support and ideology while the more material subdimension negatively predicts these outcomes, if at all.”….While rural America has moved to the right, Trujillo and Crowley point out that there is considerable variation: “poorer and/or farming-dependent communities voted more conservative, while amenity- or recreation-based rural economies voted more liberal in 2012 and 2016,” and the “local economies of Republican-leaning districts are declining in terms of income and gross domestic product, while Democratic-leaning districts are improving.” There may be a bifurcation developing between hard-core right-wing and less partisan rural communities, based on demographic change, migration and industrial development. Those with substantial tourist industries, for example, may be more hospitable to Democratic candidates.

As a resident of a rural, southern community, I note that, despite the overall trend of net out-migration from many, if not most rural areas, there are some exceptions, such as boutique and gallery towns and mountain communities, which are attracting nature-loving voters and urban retirees in potentially-significant numbers. Political analysts understandably spotlight broad national trends. but there are victories that can be won in the margins. My congressional district has experienced a 6-point uptick in the percentage received by the Democratic House candidate between 2020 and 2022, although the Democratic tally is still too low to be competitive. The other consideration is that all trends, broad and narrow, eventually flat-line. The issues that probably hurt Democratic candidates in rural areas the most are guns and abortion, the latter being extremely important to influential rural community churches. Gun worship is almost a separate, but equal religion in a political sense. If there is an issue that could help Democrats, it may be that Republican office-holders are very often too cozy with developers and polluters (follow the rural money). This hasn’t mattered much yet; But it may matter more in the future. I’m seeing other signs of post-Covid telecommuters moving in, including a real estate boom, new parking problems, a sudden influx of out-of-state and other county license plates. No doubt, there are other Appalachian and Mountain West congressional districts experiencing similar trends. It’s not that there is huge love for the G.O.P. among voters in these in rural districts; it’s more that they have bought the negative stereotypes of Democrats. I have to wonder if some independent candidates who criticize both parties could help defeat Republicans in some of these districts. In a closely-divided House of Reps, or even the Senate, that could matter.

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