How Democrats slowly turned their backs on rural America

Democrats largely ignored rural America in November's election – to their cost, in a few key states. But the trend had been building within Congress for six years. Now they're struggling to find a remedy.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Rep. Tim Ryan (D) of Ohio, seen in reflection, pauses while speaking to members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington following the House Democratic Caucus elections for House leadership positions on Nov. 30. Representative Ryan challenged House minority leader Nancy Pelosi but lost.

There is no shortage of ways to sum up the disappointment that was 2016 for the Democrats.

Just looking at the presidential election, there are the obvious concerns, such as the loss of Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And then there are the more nuanced signs of trouble, such as the collapse of support among rural Americans, whom Democrats lost by eight points in 2008 and by 28 this year.

But one trend that in some ways predicted those losses has been staring Democrats in the face since before the first vote was cast: In Congress, the face of Democratic leadership has become increasingly dominated by the coasts, with less representation from the vast center that delivered the White House to Donald Trump.

When President Obama assumed office and Democrats controlled both chambers, only 35 percent of Senate committee chairmen came from coastal states. In the House it was 45 percent. In the Congress that’s just ending, Democrats from the coasts held 70 percent of the top Democratic slots on committees in each chamber.

Some of that is pure attrition, especially in the Senate. The Republican wave election of 2010 also wiped out many moderate Democrats outside urban and coastal blue bastions. And seniority played a role, with the most experienced Democrats – who generally get the top posts – hailing from coastal states.

But during 2016 Democrats appeared to double down on the idea that their populous liberal bastions would be enough to win the White House and the Senate. Now, Democrats are coming to the realization that they may have lost their foothold in the heartland and Rust Belt and are struggling with what to do about it.

“Historically, the Democrats were the party of the have-nots. Now they are becoming the educated haves and the Republicans are the have-nots,” says Gary Nordlinger, a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.

Rust Belt revolt

This year’s poor performance – only six House seats gained, two Senate seats added, and the White House lost – caused a revolt among House Democrats after the election. Rep. Tim Ryan (D) of Ohio challenged minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California for the leadership and was backed by a third of the caucus, some from the swath between the coasts.

In response, Representative Pelosi expanded the leadership team and opened some positions to caucus elections and to people with less seniority. A bigger tent is also apparent in the Senate leadership, where, for instance, Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia) were added to the team.

Overall, in both chambers, the number of top Democratic committee members from coastal states will decline in next year’s Congress.

Clearly, changing the face of congressional leadership is only a small step toward addressing what some see as the Democratic abandonment of middle America. But it is an important one. Committee leadership provides a political and policymaking megaphone, as well as a farm team for higher office.

“We as Democrats have to have a stronger economic message that appeals to Midwest and white blue-collar voters,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in an email.

Some Democrats take issue with the idea that the party has drifted too heavily to the coasts.

“Certainly in this election, it looks that way. But four years ago, Democrats carried a lot of states in the Midwest with President Obama,” says Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. In Michigan, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only a third of a percentage point.

Democrats point to the fact that Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote. And they criticize the last-minute revival of a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into Clinton’s emails (which found no wrongdoing), as well as the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails by Russia-linked groups, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The Democratic economic message was not coming through,” Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday.

Not an either/or choice

Still, many agree that Democrats need to focus on an economic message that appeals more broadly to voters who don’t feel the economy is working for them. And to deliver that message, Democrats need to show up in middle America, observers say. Clinton’s last visit to Wisconsin was in April, and Donald Trump’s visit to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on the weekend before the election was scoffed at.

“Early on in the presidential election, as I looked at the effort to reassemble the Obama coalition [which focused on supercharging turnout in blue America], I remember having a pang,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, at a recent Monitor breakfast.

The calculation was that even if Clinton could not get quite the same showing from all the various groups that supported Obama, those fleeing Mr. Trump would put her over the edge, he said. But there were signs that the Obama coalition has largely worked only for Obama. The party has lost 958 seats in state legislatures around the country since he took office, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Having a message that appeals to the Obama coalition and rural, white voters is not “incompatible,” said Representative Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

“That great mass in the middle of the country really ought to be most responsive to the message of the Democratic Party,” he said. “We’re going to have to win them back.”

The grocery store remedy

Putting in the time, listening to constituents, and focusing on the economic message is how Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois became one of only eight House Democrats to win in a district carried by Trump this year. She won reelection in her rural district by a generous margin of 20 points.

Her secret? On Saturdays, she walks up and down the aisles of super markets in her district of 7,000 square miles and 14 counties. She stops moms and dads as they shop for corn flakes for their kids and asks them what’s on their minds, and what they want her to know when she goes back to Washington.

“You learn a heck of a lot when you talk to people not in a formal setting, not in a roundtable discussion, not in a town hall meeting, but just when moms and dads are shopping at a grocery store,” she says.

She also works the jobs that her constituents work, something she calls “Cheri on shift.” So far, she’s worked at about 50 jobs, from UPS package delivery to carp processing to spot welding.

If she were to write the Democrats’ autopsy for 2016 – and she’ll have a hand in it as one of the newly elected co-chairs of the House Democrats’ policy and messaging arm – she says her message would be to “not only talk about jobs and the economy, but do something about it.” 

That’s not so easy when you are in the minority, and in a party where progressives are pushing hard left – perhaps appealing more to coastal and city voters than those in rural areas in red states. 

Says Michigan party leader Mr. Dillon: “Everyone needs to take a deep breath, especially after presidential elections when we always end up writing one party’s obituary and then the next election we write the other party’s obituary.”

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