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 Observer - - News -

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.

Pho­to­graph by Dave Kaup/ Reuters

LEFT Laura Kelly cel­e­brates vic­tory on Tues­day in the Kansas gov­er­nor’s race over Kris Kobach, a Trump ally.

Bar­croft Im­ages

ABOVE Trump’s grip on the Se­nate was strength­ened by suc­cess in ru­ral states.

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