The Democrats’ next challenge
The party took back the House last week – but it can no longer ignore farming states if it wants to beat Trump. Chris McGreal reports from Sioux City, Iowa
The defeat was written across the face of every Democrat in the room as JD Scholten walked forward to concede.
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 a sitting eight-term Republican congressman, Steve King, 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 campaign donations from around the country for Scholten, the Democratic party candidate. 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 a Democratic-controlled Congress was required to keep him in check.
Scholten criss-crossed the huge district knocking on doors. Just about everyone knew who he was and what he stood for. He talked about plans for affordable healthcare and how to reverse the decline of dying rural communities. Scholten’s flush campaign coffers allowed him to outspend King in television advertising and social media campaigns.
Yet on election night it was the Democrat stepping up to concede. 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.”
Scholten 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 listening to Scholten, wasn’t taking much solace in that. She was close to tears as she considered the implicaas tions of the defeat for the 2020 presidential election and the challenge to Trump in this crucial swing state.
“There was a lot in JD’s favour. 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,” she said.
Last 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 retain 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 the party considers the implications of those victories, losses and groundbreaking campaigns elsewhere in the country in framing its 2020 presidential election campaign, Democrats are also being forced to confront the legacy of neglecting millions of rural voters for the past two decades who may yet prove crucial to winning back power.
For some Democratic strategists, Beto O’Rourke’s blazing challenge to Senator Ted Cruz, which came unexpectedly close to unseating the Texas Republican, suggests that an unashamedly progressive campaign gets Democratic voters to the polls. Victories for a string of younger candidates in cities – including the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and an avowed Democratic Socialist from New York – strengthen 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 Senate seats in midwestern states – Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana. But the party clung on 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 state governorships lost nearly a decade ago the party retreated from the fight in rural America. Among the defeats most celebrated by the Democrats was of the union-bashing Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.
But Tom Vilsack, a Democratic former governor of Iowa who served as President Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years, thinks his party fell short of its potential in conceding the Senate, and is failing to connect with the rural voters it needs to win the next presidential election.
“We won the House. 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,” he said. “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.”
Rural votes carry outsize weight because of the structure of America’s political system. With each state electing two senators no matter what the size of their population, Iowa and Kansas, with just three million people, have the same representation as California with 40 million. It’s that system that allows the Republicans to take more Senate seats when the Democrats won nearly 13 million more votes across the country.
‘As a Democrat you have to thread a needle here to appeal to the rural folks without selling your progressive values’ Tom Vilsack, left
Similarly, these states are critical in totting up the votes of the electoral college in the presidential race.
Vilsack said that Scholten worked hard to run an effective campaign and nearly pulled it off but in the end was let down by the failure of the Democratic party, and 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 the concerns of urban supporters.
The Democratic party pulled back from fighting for large parts of rural America over the past 20 years 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 policies of tax and spending cuts, underpinned by an anti-government ideology, while the Democrats failed to offer alternative visions for communities grappling with the contraction of small family farms, the loss of factory jobs, and shrinking populations in small towns left with boarded-up high streets and ageing residents. On top of that, rural America has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic that the Obama administration largely ignored.
“I don’t think our party leadership has understood the emotional toll all that is taking in rural places. 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,” said Vilsack. “It’s just frustrating to me 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 spendingcut 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. But 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 spending, and accounting tricks that involved borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Brownback finally left office earlier this year to become Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, so setting up a race for his job. Ethan Corson, the 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 its 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,” said Corson.
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 Republicans’ margin in their 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 Democratic party in balancing the demands of its urban progressive wing 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.
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 antigovernment 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 the Democratic leadership still doesn’t 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. 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,” he said.
But Corson said it is also important that rural voters hear their concerns reflected in the positions of the national Democratic leadership.
“We want to be sure that in the national leadership – in the Senate , in the House – that we’re hearing from Democrats in all parts of the country. That’s very, very important,” he said.
LEFT Laura Kelly celebrates victory on Tuesday in the Kansas governor’s race over Kris Kobach, a Trump ally.
ABOVE Trump’s grip on the Senate was strengthened by success in rural states.