The midterms were generally kind to Democrats, as the party is likely to pick up at least 35 seats, and a clear majority, in the U.S. House by the time all the votes are counted. The party also picked up at least seven governorships and gained hundreds of state legislative seats across the country.
But those victories should not distract the party from the warning signs that continue to linger— primarily about the party’s continued failure to regain ground with rural voters. The centrist, neo-liberal wing of the party, epitomized by Bill and Hillary Clinton, argue that the future success of the party lies in turning the suburbs red-to-blue. In order to achieve that shift, they argue that the party must espouse “moderate” positions which, to the Clintonistas, means espousing policies that benefit Wall Street and take a hawkish line on foreign affairs.
Such an approach can certainly bring success in many suburban House districts, as the Democrats demonstrated on Nov. 6. Yet that doesn’t guarantee success on a statewide basis, where Democrats need to find a way to talk meaningfully, once again, with rural voters. As results from Florida and Ohio suggest, the Democratic path to 273 electoral votes in 2020 isn’t as clear as it may have once seemed, particularly when President Trump and candidates aligned with him continue to garner 70-plus percent of the vote in so many rural regions.
Prominent losses of moderate Democratic senators in Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana, suggest that moderation, even when combined with the power of incumbency, was not enough in an election cycle that was highly favorable to Democrats.
Meanwhile, a staunch progressive and pro-labor Democrat, Sherrod Brown, easily won in Ohio even as a Republican won the state’s race for governor. And, in deep red Texas, progressive Beto O’Rourke came within three points of ousting Sen. Ted Cruz.
It’s clear there is no silver bullet when it comes to electoral politics. Quality candidates certainly help. Money matters, but those with the most money don’t always win, especially in an era where outside billionaires now spend the lion’s share of political money in many races, including here in the Eighth District of Minnesota.
Espousing “moderate” positions offers little hope of winning over rural America, particularly when the moderate policies espoused by the corporate wing of the Democratic Party offer little to improve the lives of most rural residents. Some Democrats still spend too much time complaining that rural residents vote against their interests, without recognizing the degree to which the party’s policy shifts since the Clinton administration have hurt rural areas. The passage of NAFTA and the decision to allow China into the World Trade Organization sent jobs that had been the mainstay of many small towns overseas. The failure to reinvest in rural infrastructure and small towns has left many rural regions rightfully feeling like second-class citizens in their own country. It’s no wonder that so many heartland communities face huge issues with drug addiction, depression, and suicide. In many cases, they feel left behind from the prosperity on display elsewhere in the country.
President Trump has little but rhetoric to offer rural voters. For many rural voters, however, that’s an improvement on being ignored.
Here’s the reality. Due to the unusual structure of American government, rural voters have an outsized voice in our political process. A single voter in Wyoming has the same power in determining the makeup of the U.S. Senate as 68 voters in California. The 1.62 million people living in North and South Dakota combined are represented by four senators, twice as many as represent the 39.5 million people living in California. This same issue provides lopsided strength for small, rural states in the Electoral College as well. Democrats had better get used to winning the popular vote and losing the presidency unless they can figure out how to really talk to rural America.
There was a time when Democrats did well in rural America. That’s back in the days when they actually stood up for rural America. But since the Clintons took the reins in the 1990s, the party has increasingly written off rural voters, under the assumption that the changing demographics of the country would eventually lay the foundation for a permanent Democratic majority. Rural voters have increasingly demonstrated that such a policy is not only morally bankrupt, but electorally reckless. It’s time that Democrats recognize the folly of such thinking, or 2020 could yield a whole lot of disappointment.