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The Path to Building Power Runs Through Rural America

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With investment in year-round organizing, populist economic policies, culturally sensitive messaging, and locally rooted, working-class candidates, progressives are making the small gains in rural areas that help sway elections.

Rural and small-city voters are key to winning statewide races, controlling legislative chambers, and making progress on the big challenges facing our families and communities. For too long, we have watched these voters shift to the right, a consequence of decades of policies that have sapped rural livelihoods. But sustained investment in year-round organizing, renewed focus on populist economic policies, better messaging to overcome perceived cultural divides, and locally rooted, working-class candidates are beginning to win over rural voters. These strategies have led to small gains across rural areas that can provide the margin of victory for Democrats. Together, they make the case for more investment in organizing rural voters.

Our growing geographic challenge

Over the last two decades, we have witnessed dramatic shifts in voting patterns. Progressive voters are increasingly concentrated in urban areas while rural and small-town voters have shifted to the right. One way to see that shift is in the decline in counties voting Democratic in presidential elections. In 1996, Bill Clinton relied heavily on rural counties for his victory, winning 1,100—about half of the 2,120 rural counties. (There are about 3,000 counties total.) Just over a decade later, in 2008, President Obama won a total of 876 counties (including those in non-rural areas). Twelve years later, in 2020, President Biden won a total of 538 counties, only 147 of them rural. Some of the strongest declines between 2008 and 2020 were in Midwestern states once considered part of a “Blue Wall.” In Michigan, for example, President Obama won 47 counties in 2008. In 2020, President Biden won only 11.

It’s not an overstatement to describe this geographic challenge as existential. At both the state and national level, our political structures ensure that rural voters have disproportionate political power.  At least two of these structures, the Senate and the Electoral College, are racist by design: the founders devised them to keep slave states in the union. Building progressive strength in rural areas thus has a major role to play in countering minority rule. In 2008, for example, Republicans held 10 state “trifectas,” meaning they had complete control of both the legislature and governorship. Despite some notable Democratic legislative gains in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania this past election, Republicans now have complete control of both the governorship and legislature in 23 mostly rural states (compared to 14 Democratic trifectas)—giving them the power to drive an increasingly extreme right-wing agenda. Even in a rural state like North Carolina, which has a Democratic governor, the lack of political strength outside of urban areas has kept Democrats fighting to block legislative super-majorities that could override vetoes.

The good news

All that said, there are clear signs that we’re turning a corner. This year’s midterms saw wins in rural areas where there has been sustained funding for year-round organizing, diverse working-class candidates, and great messaging focused on the tools and opportunities working families need to build a good life for themselves and their communities: access to quality jobs, affordable health care, educational opportunity, lower costs, and personal freedom.

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The organization I help lead, the Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI), is part of a growing network of funders who support rural organizing. Through this work, we are all learning how we can more effectively include rural America in our efforts to build the big, resilient majorities we need to make progress for our families, communities, country, and planet.

First, we must embrace the importance of small shifts in rural margins.

We don’t necessarily have to win outright in rural areas to build power. In an era of closely divided elections, gains of three to five percent—spread across enough small towns and rural areas—can provide major contributions to electoral majorities and even swing outcomes. That is exactly what happened this year in critical senate and gubernatorial races in states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

In Pennsylvania, for example, fantastic groups like PA Stands Up, PA United, CASA PA, and Make the Road PA have been building a statewide organizing presence over multiple election cycles. Senator-elect John Fetterman’s campaign also organized statewide with an “every county, every vote” approach that lifted up rural communities. While he improved on Joe Biden’s 2020 margins in every part of the state, Fetterman’s greatest improvement came from small cities and rural areas. The Daily Yonder reported that his improvement outside of metro areas yielded sufficient votes to cover his margin of victory.

And we saw clear evidence in other states of how rural margins matter:

  • In Michigan, statewide organizing by groups like We The People Michigan, combined with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s rural focus, helped the governor make her greatest marginal gains in small towns and rural areas (relative to Biden in 2020), flipping seven counties that voted for Trump.
  • In Arizona, organizations like Rural Arizona Action (RAZA), Worker Power, and LUCHA are building year-round organizing outside of the state’s large metro areas. RAZA, for instance, has invested in organizing Pinal County—one of the state’s most populous non-metro counties, which sits between Phoenix and Tucson. This past election, Senator Mark Kelly was able to improve his margin in that county, relative to Joe Biden in 2020, by 3.2%. His margin in Pinal County improved over 10% compared to Democratic performance in the Governor’s race in 2018.
  • Half of all the votes cast for Governor in Wisconsin came from small towns and rural areas. And in rural western Wisconsin, Governor Evers gained 1.5-3.5% compared to Biden. Governor Evers won about 44% of rural and small-town voters overall, thanks to great work by groups like Progress North, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, and Voces de la Frontera.
  • In Kansas, groups like The Neighboring Movement, Loud Light, and Vot-ER are organizing in rural communities one relationship at a time. In this election, rural and small city voters swung 10.7% for Governor Laura Kelly, compared to Biden in 2020. That’s a 140,000 vote swing in an election decided by under 21,000 votes.

Second, we must continue to expand investment in locally rooted relational organizing.

Thanks to pioneering work by national organizations like People’s Action, there is an expanding network of trained organizers across the country who are equipped to have transformational conversations with voters year-round. In 2022, we saw that work pay off in many parts of the country.

A few examples:

  • In Michigan, Betsy Coffia—rural organizing lead for We the People Michigan (on leave for the campaign)—won a boldly progressive grassroots campaign in rural northern Michigan’s 103rd district. Coffia’s campaign included migrant farmworkers who couldn’t vote but mobilized their neighbors. Along with Jenn Hill in the nearby 109th, Coffia helped flip the Michigan state House and deliver a governing trifecta for Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
  • Rural organizers fended off a conservative legislative supermajority in North Carolina. Down Home NC knocked on 35,000 rural doors in Cabarrus County for their State House candidate, Diamond Staton Williams, a working-class Black nurse. She won by 629 votes. In rural Person County, Down Home members organized to elect a local Black farmer, Ray Jeffers, to the State House, defeating a 12-year Republican incumbent. Wins like these not only increased Black political representation, they also blocked Republicans from achieving a supermajority that could override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes of bad legislation. And in rural Granville County, which is 40% Black, Down Home NC members helped elect the first Black sheriff in the county’s 276-year history.
  • Montana Rural Voters’ endorsed candidate, Paul Tuss, defeated incumbent Ed Hill in HD 28 – a district where President Biden received just 41% of the vote. Paul serves on the local hospital board and will be a leader on healthcare, tax credits for working families, and education.

Third, we must focus, message, and deliver on a “kitchen table” agenda that prioritizes working families.

Following the 2020 election, it became increasingly clear that progressives had lost the trust of many working-class voters across race. Rural voters are the most working class voters—70% non-college compared to 57% in urban areas. The absence of a compelling economic agenda and vision for rural communities among Democrats is a key part of the reason they’ve lost many rural voters.

Rural Democracy Initiative supported two key projects to help address this gap and provide fuel for rural organizing: 1) an effort led by organizers from across the country to develop a Rural Policy Action agenda to lift up policies that invest in rural communities; and 2) an ambitious project to craft a narrative architecture, the Winning Jobs Narrative (WJN), that progressive advocates and leaders can use to frame policies and connect more effectively with working-class voters.

For decades, elected leaders from both parties have failed to support policies that would bolster rural communities. Misguided trade policies offshored good union jobs, and concentrated corporate power in industries like agriculture has driven family farmers out of business and gutted many rural communities. The Rural Policy Action report created a roadmap for progressive leaders to reverse course for rural communities. In the first two years of the Biden Administration, Congress passed many of these policies and made the most significant investment in rural communities in 50 years through the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

But passing policies isn’t enough. We have to build a permanent organizing presence in rural communities and communicate with rural voters more persuasively to implement these policies, win elections, and continue building majority support for a bold progressive agenda. This is the goal of WJN. The WJN team reviewed more than two decades of prior research, held over 3,000 open conversations with voters across 17 states, and has completed more than 110,000 survey responses to date. They identified a five-point narrative architecture that provides a powerfully persuasive framework for communicating with working-class voters across demographics and geographies, including rural voters.

WJN’s massive dataset clearly shows that rural voters are aligned with most working-class voters in support of a progressive, populist economic agenda—what some rural leaders refer to as “prairie populism.” They want to see policies that put working people, not the wealthy and giant corporations, first by raising wages and driving down costs of public goods like healthcare, energy, childcare, and housing. They believe we need to rein in giant corporations that take advantage of consumers, farmers, and small businesses. They believe years of corporate outsourcing have robbed communities of quality manufacturing jobs and made our supply chains vulnerable, and they support efforts like the CHIPS Act to bring manufacturing back to America. They want to protect reproductive freedom, expand Medicaid, and strengthen Social Security and Medicare. And they believe that corporations and billionaires should pay the taxes they owe so that we have the funding we need to help working people get ahead.

Organizations like Down Home North Carolina, Somos Votantes, and PA Stands Up led organizing that powerfully centered a working people’s agenda across race and geography. Despite remarkably challenging headwinds, progressive candidates across the country actually did focus on an economic agenda more effectively than conservative candidates, and they did so in ways that centered and respected working people. They offered explanations for rising costs: supply chain breakdowns and corporate price gouging. And they offered solutions, like capping insulin costs, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, rebuilding our American manufacturing base, and reining in price gouging. Conservatives, by contrast, blamed rising costs on spending by the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress, offering only more tax cuts for the rich paid for by gutting programs like Social Security and Medicare.

It’s absolutely true that the Dobbs decision played a vital role in blunting the predicted red wave by helping mobilize voters. And it’s true that the rise in MAGA extremism, rejected by a majority of Americans, hurt a number of Republican candidates. But, according to exit polling from Data for Progress, Groundwork Collaborative, and Economic Security Project, more resonant economic messaging also played a major role in helping progressive candidates across the country outperform expectations.

Economic populism is a winning hand for progressives. We need to double down on this approach across the country as we build toward a pivotal and challenging election in 2024 and a Senate map that clearly shows how important rural, working-class voters will be. With Donald Trump already announcing his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election, we have no time to waste. 

We have a lot of work to do to win back working-class majorities, but there are clear signs in this election that we’re regaining our footing with working people and becoming a movement with a clear working-class heartbeat.

Convergence is co-publishing this article with The Forge as part of our “Election Reflections 2022” series.

Featured image: Down Home North Carolina members, courtesy of Rural Democracy Initiative.