A group of heavy-hitting Democratic former lawmakers are banding together to help their party try to recover a foothold in the rural areas they once represented.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) are launching Rural Forward, an organization to advocate progressive ideas in rural communities and rebuild Democrats’ standing in parts of the country where they’ve been decimated over the last decade.
The organization, first unveiled to TPM, will be helmed by Etheridge, with the others serving as honorary co-chairs. Brad Woodhouse, a former Etheridge staffer who went on to serve as communications director of the Democratic National Committee and run American Bridge, will serve as senior adviser, with former Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker (D) as executive director and John Davis, a veteran of a number of Iowa races as well as the John Edwards presidential campaign, pitching in as well.
Those involved recognize it’s a steep challenge for Democrats to recover in rural areas – and that the group’s launch is a small first step towards meeting it.
“A lot of the states that have gone bright red used to be bright purple, and we want to make them purple again and we think there’s an opportunity to do that. But we need an agenda, we need candidates, we need just about everything to rejuvenate the party in these places,” Daschle told TPM. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, although Mr. Trump may be helping us more than we realize.”
The group’s initial goals are fairly modest, in keeping with their limited resources: organize town halls, help communicate how Democratic priorities like infrastructure investment and rural broadband expansion help rural communities, partner with local advocates to provide them with organizing tools. Its early efforts will be focused in states where the organizers have personal ties, like North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota.
“We’re doing this right now with duct tape and baling wire. We’ve raised thousands of dollars, this isn’t going to be in the millions, it’s going to be earned media and educational as opposed to ads,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get the ball rolling. We’re taking the long view of this work.”
They’re betting that a renewed focus on pocketbook issues can help lead a Democratic recovery in rural areas across the country, even as culture wars burn as hot as ever in the political sphere due to Trump.
The organization is a 501(C)4, so can’t directly focus on elections. But whether they can have some success is critical for 2018, as well as going forward. Democrats will need to pick up some rural House seats to capture control of the lower chamber, and are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won that have large rural populations, including Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
“These members from Montana or North Dakota, they’re flying by themselves, there’s very little infrastructure to help them trumpet their values. We want to help provide whatever it is, talking points and fact sheets, policy material and analysis,” said Woodhouse.
The group’s leaders share one thing in common: They’ve all won tough races in rural-heavy states and districts. But with the exception of Vilsack, the rest eventually lost reelection as their party brand was too much to overcome in tough Democratic years.
Democrats’ rural erosion has been happening for decades, but accelerated in the Obama era. Etheridge, a former part-time farmer, was one of many rural House Democrats to get wiped out in the 2010 wave. Landrieu was one of many rural-state Democratic senators who faced a similar fate in 2014. Trump’s election marked a new low for rural Democrats, who got shellacked in parts of the country like the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they’d long had strong support, as well as rural areas across the nation.
As Democrats have been washed out of those areas, the party has become increasingly dominated by coastal, urban and suburban leaders who haven’t tried as hard to work the heartland for support.
“It’s going to be hard. The trend is the other way, the party committees have really gone in the other direction too, in some places by necessity,” said Woodhouse.
But with Trump’s numbers sagging across the board (even though they’re not nearly as bad in less populated areas), Democrats see an opportunity to bounce back. And they think he’s giving them opportunities with things like his trade war with China, which risks badly hurting farmers who would face the brunt of retaliatory tariffs, or the GOP push to end Obamacare, which would have put rural hospitals in a bind.
“We think the longer he has the opportunity to show his true priorities, the more likely it is that we’re going to one again demonstrate a resurgence and a real opportunity to develop a strong two-party system,” Daschle said.