Democrats in modern times have failed to motivate the rural electoral base. But some Democratic candidates in key toss-up and open races in the midterms may have fared better with rural folk than previously thought.
Strong performances in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington showed Democrats can sustain and win rural areas where Republicans have generally done well. Even in places like North Carolina, Georgia, and Colorado, the Democrats have proven competitive, gaining margin in past elections and flipping some districts, though not always winning
“I think there’s a moment of coming to Jesus when there’s no better analogy, when Democrats are happy to make a bigger decision and invest to fight for the rural vote,” said George Goehl, a community organizer with a focus on the rural area. “And I think this election shows what is possible, even in many cases without resources, and that rural voting is not static.”
Goehl said Democrats are unlikely to win a majority of the country’s vote anytime soon, but “a lot of blue dots in red spots is a key factor in how they win.”
Sometimes the Democrats won
Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator-elect John Fetterman was successful in turning over a seat previously held by Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who announced his resignation. Fetterman’s victory on election night was due not only to strong performance in the suburbs, but also to increasing margins of success in rural counties.
Fetterman spent part of his campaign specifically targeting rural communities, ultimately winning a larger share of the vote than Joe Biden’s 2020 performance in almost every county.
“If you look at John Fetterman, (he) took a very strong ‘both-and’ approach,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, a progressive rural organizing firm. “John Fetterman was able to mobilize the grassroots and also attract voters outside of the traditional Democratic grassroots, particularly voters in small towns and rural communities.”
The same was true of the state’s Democratic governor-elect, Josh Shapiro. Both Fetterman and Shapiro won their races with more points than Biden when he blue-colored the state in the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016.
The Democrats were also able to win a house victory in the third district of Washington. With a population of 781,000, voters elected Marie Gluesenkamp Perez over Trump-backed Joe Kent, handing the seat to Democrats. That seat, held by a Republican since 2011, had previously flipped back and forth between Democratic and Republican members — though he mostly voted for the Republican presidential nominee.
“I think the Democrats fielded more candidates who are viewed as working class who knew how to speak common sense,” Goehl said. “I think a lot of progressives and Democrats speak a language that sounds more like ivory tower than street or street.”
In Illinois’ 17th Circuit, Eric Sorensen managed to retain the seat vacated by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, who held the seat through four election cycles, winning by larger margins each time — despite the district campaigning voted for Trump last two elections. Sorensen’s 3-point win also secures a Democratic seat outside of the Chicago metro area.
Sometimes Democrats lose… or wait for results
In Ohio, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan ran against Trump-backed Republican JD Vance but ultimately lost. Ryan was 264,000 votes (or 6.6 points) behind Vance compared to the last Senate race for that seat in 2016, when the Democratic nominee lost by over 1 million votes (or 21 points).
But closing the gap wasn’t enough.
“Tim Ryan was really focused on convincing voters outside of the Democratic grassroots and often got at odds with the Democratic grassroots,” Hildreth explained. “What we found is that Ohio’s grassroots voters are really put off, and any gains he’s made from those efforts have been undermined by low grassroots turnout.”
Voter turnout in Ohio was about 5% lower than 2018.
“I think it was just a failure to get the grassroots excited,” he said.
In Georgia, Senate Agriculture Committee member Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock spent some time campaigning in some of the state’s rural farmlands. However, he did not receive the 50% total vote needed to avoid a runoff. This race is still ongoing and the next election will take place on December 6th. Warnock is already planning new campaign events in rural areas.
Rural America could make the difference in 2024
Both parties are already setting the stage for the 2024 election, which will include a presidential ticket and likely higher turnout. The Biden administration will face the challenge of communicating its political platforms in rural areas — many issues, such as health care, student debt relief and abortion protections, are popular with some rural populations.
But rural advocates say the party often fails to communicate its policies to rural voters.
“The only discrepancy we see is that Democrats tend to contact rural voters at much lower rates,” said Matt Hildreth of Rural Organizing.
“I honestly have a lot of questions about what the White House is going to do. What is the lesson the White House will learn from this election? And will they listen to these Democrats who showed up and listened? agenda and deliver results? Or will they heed the advice of these Democrats and invest more nationally?” asked Hildreth.
“I hope they do. I don’t know if they will,” he said.
Both parties are also confronted with evolving rural demographics. Data from the latest 2020 census shows that rural areas are diversifying even though their population is declining. Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest growing populations in rural areas outside of metropolitan areas, and minorities make up nearly a quarter of all residents in those parts of the country.
“And when we write off these communities, we’re not only writing off the rural white vote, we’re also writing off the rural voters of color,” said Goehl, the rural community organizer.
“And I think copying it is a big mistake.”