Can Democrats ever win back white, rural America?

Kansas was encouraging but in Iowa, a well-funded and energetic candidate lost to a Republican who openly flirts with Nazis. What should the party do next time?

JD Scholten, here speaking in Clear Lake, Iowa, in August, lost his bid for election to Congress.
JD Scholten, here speaking in Clear Lake, Iowa, in August, lost his bid for election to Congress. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As JD Scholten walked forward to concede, defeat was written across the face of every Democrat in the room.

They all knew this had been their best shot at victory in a long time. The stars were apparently aligned in Scholten’s challenge against Steve King, an eight-term Republican congressman, in a district covering hundreds of square miles of rural north-western Iowa.

King’s racist provocations – he once predicted that white Americans did not have to worry about being a minority because blacks and Hispanics “would be fighting each other before that happens” – and flirtations with the European far right drew national condemnation. That prompted a flood of donations for Scholten. Even King’s own party leadership disowned him.

On top of that, there was the Trump factor. Some people had simply had enough of the president, or at least felt that a Democratic Congress was required to keep him in check.

Scholten crisscrossed the huge district, knocking on doors. Just about everyone knew who he was and what he stood for. He talked about affordable healthcare and how to reverse the decline of rural communities. His flush campaign coffers allowed him to outspend King in television advertising and social-media campaigns.

Yet on election night, it was the Democrat who lost. The words were rousing but Scholten’s demeanour resonated defeat.

“I did things no other Democrat has ever done in this district,” he said. “I’m damn proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish”.

He was right. It had been an accomplishment. He came within three points of defeating a candidate who won by 22 points two years ago. But Linda Santi, a Democratic activist, wasn’t taking much solace. She was close to tears as she considered the implications of the defeat for the 2020 presidential election and the challenge to Trump in a crucial swing state.

“There was a lot in JD’s favour,” she said. “We were up against that neo-Nazi. King was an easy opponent to criticise. King’s own leadership denounced him. There was a lot of money to spend. This really was our best hope. I’m not sure the stars will align again.”

If we expect to do better in 2020, if we expect to beat President Trump, we better pay attention to rural places

Tom Vilsack

This week’s midterms were a mixed bag for Democrats in Iowa and across parts of rural America that decide the balance of power in Washington. The party lost precious Senate seats in the midwest, letting the Republicans expand their majority even as the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives with the help of important victories in Iowa, Kansas and other rural states.

As they consider the implications of those victories, losses and groundbreaking campaigns, Democrats are also being forced to confront the legacy of neglecting millions of rural voters who may yet prove crucial to winning back power.

For some strategists, Beto O’Rourke’s blazing challenge to Ted Cruz, which came unexpectedly close to unseating the Texas Republican senator, suggests that an unashamedly progressive campaign can get Democratic voters to the polls. Victories for a string of younger candidates in cities, including the first Muslim women elected to Congress and an avowed democratic socialist in New York, strengthens the hand of those who argue that the path back to the White House and working control of Congress lies in focusing on the urban vote.

The results in rural America offer a messier interpretation. The Democrats lost three important seats in the Senate – Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana. But they clung on to Senate seats in Wisconsin and other rural states, including Montana and West Virginia, in the face of strong Republican challenges.

The Democrats also won back a string of governorships lost nearly a decade ago. Among the defeats most celebrated by the Democrats was that of the union-bashing Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.

Tom Vilsack, a Democratic former governor of Iowa who was Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years, thinks his party fell short of its potential and is failing to connect with the rural voters it needs to win the next presidential election.

“We won the House,” he said. “That’s great. But we got kicked in the Senate. We picked up some state legislative races and won some governorships. That’s a good thing. But we didn’t win Ohio or Florida where we need to win. It was a mixed bag.

Tom Vilsack was US agriculture secretary for eight years under Barack Obama.
Tom Vilsack was US agriculture secretary for eight years under Barack Obama. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

“The challenge is not to sugarcoat it. The challenge is to understand that if we expect to do better in 2020, if we expect to beat President Trump, we better pay attention to rural places in a meaningful real way. And if we don’t we may be quite disappointed in the outcome in 2020.”

‘The same damn mistake’

Rural votes carry outsize weight because of the structure of America’s political system. With each state electing two senators no matter the size of their population, Iowa and Kansas with just 3 million people get to have the same representation as California, which has 40 million. It’s that system that allows Republicans to take more Senate seats when the Democrats won nearly 13m more votes across the country.

It is also these states which prove critical in totting up the votes of the electoral college in the presidential race.

Vilsack said that Scholten worked hard but in the end was let down by the failure of the Democratic party, particularly its national leadership, to offer a vision to rural voters who feel the party has little to say to them and is focused on urban supporters.

The Democratic party retreated from fighting for large parts of rural America over the past two decades as support for the Republicans grew and in the belief that an increasingly liberal vote in the cities would hold sway.

That left the GOP to press home its tax and spending cut policies, underpinned by an anti-government ideology, while the Democrats failed to offer alternative visions for communities grappling with the rapid contraction of small family farms, the disappearance of factory jobs, and shrinking populations in small towns left with boarded-up high streets and ageing residents. On top of that, large parts of rural America have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic which the Obama administration largely ignored.

“I don’t think our party leadership has understood the emotional toll all that is taking in rural places,” Vilsack said. “People watch their central business district hollow out. They watch their manufacturing operations close and shutter. And then most tragically of all they watch their sons and daughters and grandkids go someplace else.

“It’s just frustrating to me to to watch my party keep making the same damn mistake every single election. And they pay lip service.”

In Kansas, the Democratic leadership says it has learned that lesson in delivering an important victory this year. The state has been subject to the ravages of tax and spending cut ideology since the election in 2010 of Sam Brownback as governor on a promise that it would deliver a “shot of adrenaline” to the state’s economy. Instead the slashing of income and business taxes left a huge hole in the state’s finances which Brownback filled with severe cuts to education and infrastructure and accounting tricks that involved borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars.

We worked with Democrats in counties where in some cases there hadn’t been a real formal party organisation for 20 years

Ethan Corson

Brownback left office earlier this year to become Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic party, said the party’s failure to unseat Brownback four years ago woke it up to the need to fight for every vote and not just rely on urban support. Corson pushed the party back into the areas it had previously given up on, in support of the party’s candidate, Laura Kelly.

“We worked with Democrats in counties where in some cases there hadn’t been a real formal party organisation for 20 years,” he said.

It helped that Kelly was up against a vulnerable candidate in Kris Kobach, who closely aligned with Trump, and there was the legacy of Brownback to campaign against. But Democratic canvassers working their way through rural communities brought the message home and, Corson believes, helped turn out enough support to narrow the Republican margin of victory in party strongholds and stop it overwhelming Kelly’s support in the cities.

Kansas Democrats won another standout victory when Sharice Davids, a lesbian Native American, beat a four-term Republican in a district that includes part of Kansas City. Her campaign was notable for sidestepping issues favoured in less conservative regions, such as universal healthcare.

Vilsack acknowledged the problem for the party in balancing the demands of urban progressives with more conservative rural voters.

“As a Democrat you have to sort of thread the needle here to be able to appeal to the rural folks without necessarily selling your progressive values,” he said.

Sharice Davids speaks to supporters at a victory party in Olathe, Kansas.
Sharice Davids speaks to supporters at a victory party in Olathe, Kansas. Photograph: Colin E Braley/AP

Vilsack thinks one way for the party to do that is to talk about rural challenges the way it talks about urban poverty, including a plan for a future beyond an extraction economy and the kind of jobs that will keep young families in rural towns. He also wants the party to challenge the GOP’s anti-government rhetoric by championing the role of federal programmes in helping rural communities by guaranteeing property loans, expanding access to clean water and reaching millions of people with broadband.

Corson disagrees with Vilsack’s claim that Democratic leadership still does not understand the importance of rural America, and praises the financial and logistical support he received from the national party

“I don’t think we’ve lost touch,” he said. “I would say we are getting back in touch. We need to continue to build those relationships, making sure they understand the Democrats care about all parts of the state and not just the urban and suburban. We’ve got a lot better.”

But Corson said it was also important that rural voters hear their concerns reflected.

“We want to be sure,” he said, “that in the national leadership – in the Senate leadership, in the House leadership, in the National Governors Association – that we’re hearing from Democrats in all parts of the country. I think is very, very important.”