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rural voters

Voters cast their ballots inside a rural train station in Caliente, Nevada on November 2, 2004. (Photo: Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images)

Young Rural Progressives Have a Message for the Democratic Establishment

"The future of progressive politics—and indeed our democracy—demands that we revive our relationship with rural communities," write Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin and her campaign manager.

Brett Wilkins

Arguing that the Democratic Party and its candidates have "willfully abandoned rural communities" as they focus on winning in the cities and suburbs, a progressive Maine state lawmaker and her campaign manager offer a dire warning—and solutions—in a Monday op-ed.

"The only way for Democrats to regain traction in rural places is by running strong campaigns in districts that usually back Republicans."

Writing in The New York Times, Maine state Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-13) and Canyon Woodward accuse Democrats of being "out of touch and impersonal" in their approach to rural voters. As a result, "Republicans control dozens of state legislatures, and Democrats have only tenuous majorities in Congress at a time in history when we simply can't afford to cede an inch."

"The party can't wait to start correcting course," they assert. "It may be too late to prevent a blowout in the fall, but the future of progressive politics—and indeed our democracy—demands that we revive our relationship with rural communities."

"As two young progressives raised in the country, we were dismayed as small towns like ours swung to the right," they write. "But we believed that Democrats could still win conservative rural districts if they took the time to drive down the long dirt roads where we grew up, have face-to-face conversations with moderate Republican and independent voters, and speak a different language, one rooted in values rather than policy."

The authors continue:

It worked for us. As a 25-year-old climate activist with unabashedly progressive politics, Chloe was an unlikely choice to be competitive—let alone win—in a conservative district that falls mostly within the bounds of a rural Maine county that has the oldest population in the state. But in 2018, she won a state House seat there with almost 53% of the vote.

Two years later, she ran for state Senate, challenging the highest-ranking Republican in state office, the Senate minority leader. And again, in one of the most rural districts in the state, voters chose the young, first-term Democrat who sponsored one of the first Green New Deal policies to pass a state legislature.

Maxmin and Woodward argue that candidates "need not be Joe Manchin-like conservative" to win rural elections, a reference to the right-wing U.S. senator from West Virginia who has almost single-handedly stymied so much of his own party's agenda.

However, they stress that Democrats must eschew a "blinkered strategy" that ignores or writes off rural voters as unreachable or irrelevant.

"This isn't just a story about rural Maine," the pair write. "It's about a nationwide pattern of neglect that goes back years. After the 2010 midterms, when the Democrats lost 63 House seats, Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, disbanded the House Democratic Rural Working Group. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada later eliminated the Senate's rural outreach group."

By 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign "had only a single staff person doing rural outreach from its headquarters, in Brooklyn; the staffer had been assigned to the role just weeks before the election," they add. "And in 2018, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, told MSNBC, 'You can't door-knock in rural America.'"

"Ceding rural America leaves a narrow path to victory even in the best circumstances," the authors argue. "When the landscape is more difficult, Democrats set themselves up for catastrophic defeat. But we don't have to cede these parts of the country. Democrats have to change the way they think about them and relate to the voters who live there."

This means recognizing that "rural life is rooted in shared values of independence, common sense, tradition, frugality, community, and hard work," and that "politicians lose rural people when they regurgitate politically triangulated lines and talk about the vagaries of policy."

"Something has to change," warn Maxmin and Woodward. "The Democrats need a profoundly different strategy if they are to restore their reputation as champions of working people, committed to improving their lives, undaunted by wealth and power."

"In our view, the only way for Democrats to regain traction in rural places is by running strong campaigns in districts that usually back Republicans," they contend. "This change starts with having face-to-face conversations to rebuild trust and faith not only in Democrats but also in the democratic process. Even though it's hard work with no guaranteed outcome, it is necessary—even if we don't win."

The duo says they "feel every day the profound urgency of our times, the existential necessity of racial justice, the impending doom of the climate crisis, the imperative to reform our criminal justice system, and so much more."

"At the same time, as a party we've made some big mistakes as we walk down the road to a better world," they add. "Abandoning rural voters could be one of the costliest. But it's not too late to make amends, to rebuild our relationship with the quiet roads of rural America. We have to hit the ground running, today, this cycle, and recommit ourselves to the kind of politics that reaches every corner of our country."

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