Two Democrat losers to 2020 candidates: Talk to rural voters

What’s that old expression? Those that can, do; those who can’t, teach. That’s what’s happening with two Democrats who lost re-election races in 2018. Former Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly want to turn their failures into success for other Democrats.

As crazy as it first sounds, Heitkamp and Donnelly want to teach other candidates how to talk to rural voters. Ponder that for a moment. The party of identity politics is so accustomed to dividing potential voters into specific categories, with a focus on urban voters, that regular Americans living outside of heavily populated cities are now looked upon as an oddity. The task of demystifying rural voters has been taken up by two so-called moderate Democrats from states with plenty of such voters.

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign made the fatal miscalculation of ignoring states like Wisconsin, taking victory there for granted. Wisconsin ended up as the tipping point on election night because that state’s 10 electoral votes brought Trump’s electoral vote tally to 270, the number needed to win. Trump won by a small margin of votes, 47.2% to 46.5%. In Pennsylvania, the margin was 0.72%, the narrowest in a presidential election for the state in 176 years. Hillary’s campaign concentrated on winning the popular vote in large urban areas, mostly on the east and west coast, while the rest of America became Trump voters.

Meanwhile, the Democrat party continued in the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections to focus on fever dreams of turning Texas into Beto country, for example, and failed to hold on to a couple of Senate seats held by members representing flyover country, Indiana and North Dakota. Those two states swung back into the Republican column and Senator Cruz won re-election in Texas.

Enter Heitkamp and Donnelly. They have formed a voting initiative called One Country Project. The goal is to “reopen the dialogue” in areas that vote Republican. The focus is on middle America and the 2020 presidential election as well as Democrat Senate races.

“What we heard on the ground is that the Democratic Party no longer speaks for the entire country,” Heitkamp said. “They’ve forgotten the middle of the country and forgot to even show up. Even past Democratic voters didn’t recognize the Democratic Party of 2018.”

Without the support of rural America’s votes, Democrats face the same result as in the 2016 race. They may win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. So Heitkamp and Donnelly plan a professional approach to organize delivering outreach to voters. It is back to basics in messaging.

Heitkamp and Donnelly will work with campaigns before the election, giving them messaging, data, polling, and a strategy to break through with these voters who “didn’t feel that we shared their beliefs” in past elections, Donnelly told Axios in an interview.

“Culturally, they’re focused on faith and family and country, and Donald Trump tells them all the time that we’re not, even though we are.”

The party of infanticide may have a bit of an uphill battle for the votes of culturally conservative America, though. Also, it must be off-putting for blue-collar middle class workers who sit in pews every Sunday to learn that the Democrats have abolished God from their party platform. Trump may not be a perfect messenger to faith-based America but he talks to voters about the right to life and religious freedom.

Heitkamp is using leftover campaign funds to pay for the initiative. She launched One Country Project Thursday, with the stated top priority of denying Trump a second term as President.

On Thursday, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp launched the One Country Project, which is designed to be a clearinghouse for research on rural voters, to criticize Trump’s record on issues they care about and to press Democrats to engage more in rural areas.

Known for a blunt speaking style, Heitkamp seemed to acknowledge the thorniness of the issue at the group’s launch in Washington, D.C.

“America wants to get stuff done again,” she said. “I could put a different word in there, which I usually do, but I won’t,” she tacks on.

Getting stuff done, though, is Trump’s mantra in office. He is often criticized for plowing ahead and acting without the help of Congress when an issue gets clogged up in the legislative process. He’s a businessman, not a politician, and is results-oriented. Heitkamp may talk about the need to present common ground with the other side, and she sometimes worked with Trump, but today’s highly motivated Democrat voter base isn’t interested in working with Republicans or even old-school moderate Democrats.

Put plainly: If a Democrat is going to win the White House in 2020, they can’t be writing off as much as one-fifth of the voters. After all, according to the Census, almost 60 million people live in rural areas and Trump did 29 percentage points better in rural areas than in urban ones. In Pennsylvania, that urban-rural gap was 46 percentage points.

Heitkamp isn’t thrilled with the DNC’s efforts with outreach to rural America yet. She wants to see a 50-state plan, not just a focus on the urban areas. There is a glimmer of hope for her, though: A new hire for the DNC is optimistic about Chairman Tom Perez’s leadership.

The DNC has hired Liberty Schneider, who served as Heitkamp’s 2018 re-election campaign manager, as its new director of rural outreach and engagement, which has not been previously reported. Her main role will be to engage and mobilize rural voters for the 2020 cycle.

“Our party is at its best when we are connecting with people from all across the country, from Boston, MA to Bowbells, ND, and the DNC is committed to a 50-state strategy that helps us win up and down the ballot in 2019, 2020, and beyond,” Schneider said in a statement to Axios.

“Under the leadership of Chair [Tom] Perez, the national party has made extensive investments to make sure we are connecting with folks in rural communities and talking about our shared values.”

Color me cynical. Trump gets it. He can speak to middle America’s concerns without looking like he’s forcing it. Democrats are going to have to find candidates who are comfortable in any state, not just the northeast or California. Flyover country doesn’t want to be treated as a petting zoo. Regular middle-class Americans aren’t a novelty to be handled at arm’s length. With Democrats promising free everything and prisoners voting in jail, rural American taxpayers aren’t going to get on board with welcoming a socialist vision of America. As long as the economy continues to roar, Trump has a good shot at winning re-election.

David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022