Democrats have failed in modern times to motivate the rural voter base. But some Democratic candidates in random, open midterm races may have fared better among the rural population than previously thought.
Strong performances in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington showed that Democrats can support and win over rural areas, where Republicans have generally done well. Even in places like North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, Democrats have proven competitive, increasing margins from previous elections and flipping some districts, even if they haven’t always won.
“I think there’s like a time to come to Jesus, for lack of a better analogy, if Democrats are going to like making a deeper decision and investment to run for the rural vote,” said George Goehl, a community organizer with a focus on rural areas. “And I think this election shows what is possible, even in many cases without resources, and that the rural vote is not static.”
Goehl said the Democrats are unlikely to win a majority of rural votes anytime soon, but “lots of blue dots in red spots are a key part of how they win.”
Sometimes the Democrats have won
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Democratic Senator-elect from Pennsylvania John Fetterman successfully overturned a seat previously held by Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who announced his retirement. Fetterman’s victory on election night was attributable not only to strong performances in suburban areas, but also to increased margins of success in rural districts.
Fetterman spent part of his campaign focusing specifically on rural communities and ultimately won a larger vote share in nearly every county than Joe Biden’s 2020 performance.
“If you look at John Fetterman, (he) took an ‘both/and’ approach really well,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, a progressive rural organizing firm. “John Fetterman was able to mobilize the base and also engage voters outside of the traditional Democratic base, especially voters in small towns and rural communities.”
So did the state’s Democratic governor-elect, Josh Shapiro. Both Fetterman and Shapiro won their races with more points than Biden when he turned the state blue in the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016.
Democrats also managed to secure a House victory in Washington’s Third District. Home to 781,000, voters elected Marie Gluesenkamp Perez over Trump-backed Joe Kent, flipping the seat to the Democrats. That seat, which has been held by a Republican since 2011, had previously swung between Democratic and Republican members – although he mostly voted for the Republican presidential nominee.
“I think the Democrats have fielded other candidates who are seen as working-class people who could speak with a kind of common sense,” Goehl said. “I think a lot of progressives and democrats speak a language that’s more like the ivory tower than the street or the road.”
In Illinois’ 17th District, Eric Sorensen managed to hold on to the seat vacated by the retirement of Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, who held the seat for four election cycles, winning each time by wider margins. high – even though the district voted for Trump in the last two elections. Sorensen’s 3-point victory also secures a Democratic seat outside the Chicago metro area.
Sometimes Democrats have lost…or are waiting for results
In Ohio, Democratic Representative Tim Ryan staged a competitive race against Trump-endorsed Republican JD Vance but ultimately lost. Ryan edged out Vance by 264,000 votes (or 6.6 points) from the last Senate race for the seat in 2016, when the Democratic nominee lost by more than a million votes (or 21 points).
But closing the gap was not enough.
“Tim Ryan really focused on persuading voters outside of the Democratic base and often found himself at odds with the Democratic base,” Hildreth explained. “What we found was that it really turned off grassroots voters in Ohio and any gains he may have made from those efforts were undermined by the low turnout among the grassroots. .”
Voter turnout in Ohio was about 5% lower than in 2018.
“I think it was just a failure to excite the base,” he said.
In Georgia, Senate Agriculture Committee member, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, has spent time campaigning in some of the state’s rural farmland. However, he did not get the full 50% vote count needed to avoid a runoff. This race is still ongoing and the next election will be on December 6. Warnock is already planning new campaign events in rural areas.
Rural America could make a difference in 2024
Both parties are already setting the stage for the 2024 election, which includes a presidential ticket and likely higher turnout. The Biden administration will face the challenge of how to communicate its policy platforms in rural areas — many things, like health care, student debt relief and abortion protections, are popular among some rural populations.
But rural advocates say the party often fails to communicate its policies to rural voters.
“The only disconnect we see is that Democrats tend to contact rural voters at much lower rates,” said Matt Hildreth of Rural Organizing.
“I have a lot of questions about what the White House is going to do, frankly. Like, what’s the lesson the White House will take from this election? And will they listen to these Democrats who showed up and listened, have a program and get results? Or will they take the advice these Democrats are giving them and invest more nationally?” asked Hildreth.
“I hope they will. I don’t know if they will,” he said.
Both parties are also confronted with the evolution of rural demography. Recent data from the 2020 census revealed that rural areas are becoming more diverse even as their populations are shrinking. Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest growing populations in rural non-metropolitan areas, and minorities make up nearly a quarter of all residents in these parts of the country.
“And so when we deregister these communities, we’re not only deleting the rural white vote, but we’re also deleting rural voters of color,” said Goehl, the rural community organizer.
“And I think writing off either one is a big mistake.”