Democrats are getting crushed in rural areas. John Fetterman hopes to change that.

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LEMONT FURNACE, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 10: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman campaigns for U.S. Senate at a meet and greet at Joseph A. Hardy Connellsville Airport on May 10, 2022 in Lemont Furnace, Pennsylvania. Fetterman is the Democratic primary front runner in a field that includes U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Sen. Malcolm Kenyatta in the May 17 primary vying to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring.  (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman campaigns in Lemont Furnace, Pa. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

LEMONT FURNACE, Pa. — Lt. Gov John Fetterman is spending much of his U.S. Senate campaign visiting places Democrats are likely to lose in November.

On Tuesday night at an event in Fayette County, a rural tract in southwestern Pennsylvania along the West Virginia border, Fetterman begins by joking about how many people are there to actually meet his wife before greeting attendees, taking photos and showing off his tattoos when asked.

His remarks start with a checklist of experiences Democrats living in heavily Republican-voting counties may go through: strained relationships with friends and family, stolen or vandalized campaign signs, being mocked for wearing masks during the pandemic. A lot of hands go up as the tall, bald, goateed politician wearing gym shorts and a hoodie ticks through the difficulties.

The slogan on Fetterman's campaign signs reads, “Every county. Every vote.” In areas like this, those votes have become increasingly harder for Democrats to get in recent years, making Fetterman part of a growing effort trying to win back rural electorates and motivate existing Democrats in the parts of the country where opinion of the party has curdled.

Looking past this week’s primary, which he is favored to win, Fetterman is aiming to contain or even reverse the damage. Democrats need his strategy to work. The race to replace outgoing GOP Sen. Pat Toomey appears to be Democrats’ best shot to go on offense in what is widely expected to be a tough midterm cycle for the party. However, on Sunday afternoon, Fetterman said he had suffered a stroke but was recovering and doctors told him he could return to the campaign trail after resting.

Fetterman waves at the Lemont Furnace campaign stop.
Fetterman at the Lemont Furnace campaign stop. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Fayette County, blue collar and mostly white, is emblematic of the shift that’s occurred in rural areas. In 2008, Fayette was nearly a 49%-49% tie in the presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain. Four years later, Mitt Romney won it with 53%. Donald Trump cleared 60% in 2016 and 2020.

This kind of outreach is not a new approach for Fetterman, a former small-town mayor who failed in a 2016 Senate bid and conducted a similar campaign when running for lieutenant governor four years ago. When then-candidate Joe Biden visited nearby Cambria County in 2020, Fetterman joined him. Biden got just 31% of the vote in Cambria, down from 49% for Obama 12 years earlier.

“I can’t tell you what it meant for folks to see the vice president in counties where they feel like they don’t have a voice, where it doesn’t matter,” Fetterman told Yahoo News at the time. “It’s very easy to have a media outlet tar you as elite or stuck up when all you do is have fundraisers in urban areas, but when you’re actually out there in these small counties, it really matters and it helps energize and inspire Democrats, not just those otherwise malleable folks. “

It's a belief shared by Trinette Cunningham, president of the Democratic Women of Fayette County, which helped organize events for both Fetterman and his closest rival in the May 17 primary, Rep. Conor Lamb. Cunningham said she felt Democrats had given up their footing in local organizations because the party assumed they’d always have their votes, coupled with poor messaging that lagged compared with the GOP. To her, the best electoral strategy begins with being present.

“I think it’s important for strong Democrats or strong independents or whoever you are — be like John Fetterman, be authentic, be loud,” Cunningham said. “They can’t bully me if there are 20 women behind me. That’s why we go to Fayette County fairs. We’ll go to the gun clubs. We’ll go to the farms because that’s who we are and we’re not going to back down.”

Looking down a row of sweet corn growing at Fisher's Produce in Oley Township, Pa.
A row of sweet corn in Oley Township, Pa. (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Democrats falling behind in rural areas has resulted in huge gaps in state legislatures and especially the Senate, which is structurally tilted toward rural states, with the Dakotas boasting as many senators as California and New York. During Obama's first two years in office, Democrats had senators representing Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Not a single Democratic senator is left in these states.

“It's disproportionately the rural vote [that] matters in the Senate, with the Supreme Court and the Electoral College,” J.D. Scholten, a Democrat who successfully ran for Iowa’s more conservative U.S. House district, told Yahoo News. “And so we can't just give up on these areas, even though it's not easy, it's not friendly. We have to pull as many votes as possible.”

Scholten oversaw a 2021 poll of rural areas in nine states that found simply adding a “D” next to a hypothetical candidate’s name cost them 16 points of support. A recent NBC News analysis found that party identification in rural areas and small towns has shifted from Republican +5 in 2010 to +26 last year, with only a corresponding 3-point bump for Democrats in urban areas and no tangible gains in the suburbs.

Scholten told Yahoo News that there are numerous factors contributing to the widening gap. He pointed to the demise of local news in many areas, resulting in a population getting its information from Facebook, Fox News and conservative talk radio. The deluge of conservative media makes it so that when Democrats do enact policy to help those in rural areas — such as continued efforts to expand broadband internet access or pledging support for farmers affected by the war in Ukraine — it’s difficult for many to even hear about it.

“I think the [consistent presence] is the hard part amongst Democrats,” Scholten said. “The more time you get out there, those folks will do more for you. You build that relationship with the Democratic Party and then those folks are working their tails off putting up homemade barn signs and different things. And that's where we really create the movement and momentum.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks at the party's 2020 convention in Milwaukee.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks at the party's 2020 convention in Milwaukee. (Gabriela Bhaskar-Pool/Getty Images)

The decline has been in effect for years, sometimes with the tacit approval of party leaders. In 2016, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” In 2018, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said you “can’t door-knock in rural America,” comments that frustrated those who do that exact work. The dismissal of large swaths of the country also leaves behind residents of color in rural areas, a bloc that includes indigenous communities despite efforts like those by Native American activists that helped Biden win Arizona in 2020.

In some of these areas like Fayette and Cambria counties, Obama won or was competitive in 2008, only to see results shift to comfortable double-digit gaps for Republicans a few presidential elections later. Part of this was a result of Obama’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, where an underfunded stimulus and focus on taking care of banks over homeowners helped lead to slower recoveries in rural areas. One area Scholten points to where Democrats could win back support is on antitrust, as big agricultural conglomerates have gained control of entire markets.

“Obama ran on antitrust,” Scholten said, “and they went out into the states and did a whole tour and talked to farmers, and then did nothing on it after that. And there's a lot of resentment towards that too. You add in [President Bill] Clinton and NAFTA, we lost a lot of manufacturing. A lot of voters don’t feel the Democratic Party speaks to them. People like to call it just racism, and there is racism, don't get me wrong, but it's a lot more gray than black and white.”

Racism and extremism are undoubtedly an issue in Pennsylvania, where it’s not uncommon to see Confederate flags flying alongside Trump flags in rural areas of the Union state that was home to the bloodiest and most famous Civil War battle. Polling has shown that rural voters are less likely to live around people of color and less likely to support politicians who are in favor of immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ rights. But that still leaves large swaths of rural voters that Fetterman is hoping to peel off, including Republicans, independents, disenchanted Democrats and once apathetic nonvoters.

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6.
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Trump’s arrival on the political scene has only exacerbated the rural-urban political divide, with the former reality TV star taking aim at a large swath of enemies: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, disloyal Republicans, media elites and “Democrat-run cities” supposedly descending into crime and anarchy. Trump frequently and falsely blames heavily Black and Latino cities for supposedly stealing the 2020 election from him with fraudulent votes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Scholten’s observations are echoed in the new book “Dirt Road Revival” by Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. Maxmin is a progressive Democrat who won a rural state legislature seat in Maine in 2018 and then a state Senate seat two years later, with Woodward serving as her campaign manager for both runs. The book opens by expressing frustration with the Democratic Party, citing the Schumer and Perez quotes and noting the continued effects of the financial crisis in rural America.

Maxmin carried mace in her car when she was canvassing, and recounts being screamed at, having doors slammed and hearing positions that cut strongly against her values, including detailing a conversation with one man who supported migrant families being separated at the border. But the authors make the case that being present and talking to people is the only path forward in places where the Democratic brand has become so toxic.

“I think there’s a really big difference between values and policy,” Maxmin told Yahoo News. “That’s where we found so much common ground where it doesn’t feel like compromising one’s values. I think there are a lot of issues confronting rural communities, from economic depression to impact of the climate crisis to lack of affordable services, transportation access, that are all huge priorities for the Democrats as well. The key of what we’re seeing is it’s really hard, if not impossible, to find that common ground without meaningful, in-depth, one-on-one conversations with folks.”

“We don’t tolerate hate and sometimes we hear things that are really challenging,” Woodward said of tough conversations. “You have to toe the line of pushing back and shutting down rhetoric while not completely blowing up the relationship because the only way people change is if you’re willing to stay in conversation, stay in relationship with them, have empathy for why it is they’re saying the things that they’re saying.”

A supporter carries a campaign sign for Fetterman at a meet-and-greet for his U.S. Senate campaign on May 10 in Lemont Furnace, Pa.
A supporter carries a campaign sign for Fetterman at a meet-and-greet for his U.S. Senate campaign on May 10 in Lemont Furnace, Pa. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Maxmin and Woodward also relayed concerns on Democratic messaging and consultants. Maxmin writes of one training session where a communications staffer told the local candidates, “Don’t customize your message based on who you talk to,” leading her to note in her journal at the time, “Probably that’s why the Democratic Party is failing so hard, if that’s the way that they’re approaching things.”

It’s a concern shared by Scholten.

“What I realized is that so many of these campaigns are like caricatures,” Scholten said. “They're not real and we're not talking to people and we're using the language that people don't really talk. I think basically what I'm trying to say is the Democratic Party has a consultant problem, and until we clean that up and until we have wins like Fetterman or something like that, it's just going to the same old path.”

While Fetterman is making appeals to rural areas, he hasn’t compromised on most progressive priorities. He’s pro-LGBTQ rights (he hung a trans-rights flag from his office in Harrisburg) and pro-codifying abortion, and has made the legalization of marijuana one of his top priorities. (One exception: Fetterman has said he doesn’t support a fracking ban, angering climate activists.) As part of his pitch in counties like Fayette, Fetterman has pushed legislation for a right-to-repair law, making it easier for farmers to fix their own equipment. It's an approach similar to that of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, who Fetterman backed in his presidential runs.

If elections are now more about aesthetics and vibes, Fetterman — who has a master’s degree from Harvard — projects an unpretentious demeanor, choosing his signature shorts and hoodies over suits whenever possible. A photo earlier this year of Fetterman and Lamb underscored the contrast. Lamb is seen in a crisp blue suit and dress shoes, punctuated with an American flag pin. Fetterman, meanwhile, ignoring the cold January weather, in clad in a hoodie, shorts and sneakers. (Fetterman had left his home that morning to visit the site of a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh.) Although Lamb has trailed in polls, the former Marine and prosecutor who won a Trump House district in 2018 is leading the endorsement race by a large margin.

J.D. Scholten, running for Congress in Iowa's Fourth Congressional District against Steve King in 2019, waves to supporters in Clear Lake, Iowa.
J.D. Scholten, running for Congress in Iowa's Fourth Congressional District against Steve King in 2019, waves to supporters in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images)

Democrats winning back rural areas will take more than just showing up once every two to four years and instead work to build lasting organizations in an attempt to counter the image that’s accrued during the past decade-plus. Both Scholten and Maxmin had to deal with outdated or nonexistent voter information, and Scholten said that at the conclusion of his 2020 run, none of the Democratic groups asked for data to be used in further races.

“Obviously we want to win elections, but a relentless focus on only winning elections leads to these really short-term investments in rural spaces, and we’re all kind of tired of that cycle no matter where you live in the country,” Maxmin said. “One thing we talk about in the book ... for all rural spaces is having that long-term, year-long investment in rural organizing. Even if we don’t win every single election, having that presence and that opportunity is just so important.”

The path forward comes with the frustrating knowledge that Democrats will need to focus on putting in the effort of working to lose races close before they have a chance to actually win, the sort of long-term planning that has failed the party in recent decades. Continuing to focus on races that only seem winnable in the present will result in little chance of gaining back ground in the future.

“If we keep taking the easy road, we're basically trading away our future and our ability to have progressive majorities that we need to pass legislation for the next decade,” Woodward added, noting that money has gone to ads in populous markets versus grassroots infrastructure. “Now we're really starting to see the consequences of that, but it's not too late to turn that around.”

A sign supporting Donald Trump and Mike Pence is seen in Reedsburg, Wis., in 2020.
A sign supporting Donald Trump and Mike Pence is seen in Reedsburg, Wis., in 2020. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

If Fetterman prevails in the primary,S as the latest polling indicates he will, he is going to face a long, expensive general election campaign that will test his theory as he tries to balance reducing margins in these areas while turning out the Democratic base.

Democrats broadly face an uphill battle in this political balancing act. Maxmin has chosen not to run for reelection, instead focusing her time on starting the group Dirt Road Organizing, working with Woodward in an attempt to help Democrats win in rural areas across the nation. Scholten, who ran twice for the U.S. House, is on the campaign trail again this year, this time targeting a state legislative seat in Iowa's northwest.

Meanwhile, Cunningham’s plan is to continue putting in the work in Fayette County, one talk at a time.

“It’s important to have those one-on-one conversations,” Cunningham said. “Turn off Newsmax, turn off Fox News, don’t listen to them; they don’t give a s*** about us in Fayette County. Listen to your neighbor because we have more in common than we do apart. When you have those kinds of conversations and they realize that Democrats aren’t these demons that people make us out to be, that we’re humans and we’re your neighbors, I think that’s going to be the biggest thing we can do to really turn the rural areas back to blue.”