Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Democrats thought they had bottomed out in rural white America. It was not the bottom

Hot Springs, Virginia. Virginia’s increasingly liberal policies have been a painful place for the residents of this conservative town of 499 in the Allegheny Mountains. But last week, as Republicans stormed their victories, thanks in part to turnout in rural areas like Bath County, local voters cheered.

“We got our Virginia back,” said Elaine Neff, a 61-year-old resident. “And we haven’t had any victories for a long time.”

Neff said that after the election, she cried with happiness and relief. She does not want to take the coronavirus vaccine and believes that Glenn Youngkin, the defeated Republican nominee for governor, will weaken the state’s powers. Outside a nearby grocery store, Charles Hamilton taunted the Democrats.

“We are a county of old village people who want to do what they want,” said 74-year-old Hamilton. “They learned the hard way.”

In the conundrum of electoral politics, Democrats often focus their energies on vibrant, electoral-rich suburbs and cities, content to largely ignore the many conservative, white, rural communities. Part of the belief was that the party had already hit rock bottom, especially during the Trump era, when Republicans raised the number of white voters in rural areas to dizzying heights.

Virginia, however, is proof of this: it could be worse.

In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70% or more of the vote in that year’s presidential race. There was no party above 75% anywhere. This year, Yangkin topped 70% in 45 counties and topped 80% in 15 of them.

“Look at some of those rural districts in Virginia as a wake-up call,” said Steve Bullock, the former Democratic governor of Montana who ran for president of the United States in 2020, in part because his party needs compete in more conservative regions. country. “People do not feel that we offer them something, hear or listen.”

Not only did Yangkin win the less populated areas by a record margin – he beat former President Donald Trump in 2020 even in the reddest counties, including by 6 percentage points in Bath County – but he also successfully pushed back democratic gains in dormitory areas for outside Washington and Richmond. where many college-educated white voters rejected Republicanism under Trump.

The double results raise a grim opportunity for Democrats: the party simply rented suburbs during the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even much of rural America.

Republicans have never had such a solid demographic footing as black voters for the Democrats, a group that provides the party with 9 out of 10 votes. But some Democratic leaders are now sounding the alarm: What if rural white voters, of whom there are many, begin to vote as reliably as Republicans?

“It is unacceptable for our party to continue beating in America’s small town,” said Rep. Cherie Bustos, of Illinois, who led the 2020 Democratic division of the House of Representatives.

“We have a problem branding Democrats in too many parts of our country,” said Bustos, who is retiring from the provincial state of Illinois, where Trump has lived twice. She called it “political negligence” and “it is disrespectful to think that you can increase your bill in big cities and just neglect smaller cities.”

There is no easy solution.

Many of the ideas and concerns that inspire a democratic base may be off-putting in small towns or not tied to rural life. Bat County voters, many of whom are avid hunters and conservative evangelicals, have long opposed liberal positions on gun rights and abortion. Some Democrats are urging the party to simply appear larger. Some believe that liberal ideas such as universal health care and a free community college can spread. Others are calling for a refocusing on kitchen table economies such as employment programs and rural broadband to improve connectivity. But it is not entirely clear to what extent voters are even willing to listen.

Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who changed the Republican-held seat outside Minneapolis in 2018, said his party suffers from a “disease of disinterestedness” when it comes to issues surrounding rural America.

He particularly regretted that his party’s strategists usually advise candidates to “fish where there is democracy fish, instead of taking canoes a little further along the lake.”

“For a party that’s grounded in inclusiveness,” he added, “I’m afraid we’re being terribly exclusive.”

Phillips called on Democrats to include “geographic equality” on their agenda alongside racial and economic equality, noting that he is a proud member of the state’s Democratic Party, which is officially known as the Democratic, Farmers and Workers’ Party. “I’m a DFL fighter, and yet F and L don’t vote for us,” he said.

The share of rural voters in America has been steadily declining, but remains large enough to have political clout. A nationwide exit polling in 2020 estimated that one in five voters lived in a rural area or small town in America. By categorizing voters on the basis of population density, the Democratic news company TargetSmart classified 30% of the electorate as rural.

But while some Democratic politicians are now grasping the scale of their rural problem, the words of Bath County voters demonstrate the difficulty of finding solutions. In interviews with a dozen white rural voters who supported Yangkin, politics was less important than discontent and their own identity politics. And voters, fueled by a conservative media bubble that speaks in apocalyptic terms, were convinced that America was on the brink of an abyss with a string of social movements going too far.

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The Confederate Soldiers Monument stands next to the Sheriff’s Office in Hot Springs, visually demonstrating the cultural divide between its residents and the Democratic base. The city is only accessible by a two-lane highway that winds through the mountains near the West Virginia border. It is best known for The Homestead, a luxury resort founded in the late 1800s that hosted golf tournaments, conferences for the United Nations and presidents including William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

Neff, who owns a hardware store adorned with images of Trump as Rambo and Terminator, was in Washington, DC on January 6 to support the former president but declined to go into details. Citing false evidence, she called the coronavirus vaccine “poison” and said she was worried Democrats were planning death camps for Trump supporters.

Karen Williams, a Bath County resident who manages vacation rentals, said she is outraged by current Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for closing schools during the pandemic, pursuing progressive race-centered policies, and demolishing statues and monuments of the Confederation. She called it an example of a critical theory of race, an academic foundation for graduates that has become a shorthand for controversial debates about how to teach race and racism in schools.

White children “are no longer allowed to be children; we treat them like little monsters, ”Williams said.

Hamilton, a Vietnam War veteran, said his vote for Yangkin was in fact the voice of a Trump confidant. Of President Joe Biden, he said, “The best thing that can happen is to get him and this woman out of there.”

John Wright, a 68-year-old retiree, said he only listened to Trump-supporting programs.

“I don’t care if the media says the moon was full of cheese and that there was an astronaut who brought some cheese,” Wright said. “If the media said it, I won’t believe it.”

Some of these voters are simply out of reach of Democrats, incompatible with the party’s support for black rights, transgender rights and #MeToo.

But the politically pressing problem for Democrats is that rural America has moved away from them faster and further in the past 20 years than urban America has moved away from Republicans. Cities moved 14 percentage points towards Democrats from 1999 to 2019, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. At the same time, the countryside shifted 19 percentage points towards the Republicans. The suburbs remained mostly tethered.

Amanda Litman, executive director of Run for Something, which seeks opportunities for Democrats to run for local offices across the country, said she would recruit candidates in crimson small towns and lure money into what is likely to be a losing streak. not easy.

“We just have to try to lose less,” she said. “And ‘investing for less loss’ is not a pleasure for Democratic donors. But it is what it is. “

Democrats operating in conservative territory often distance themselves from the national party’s brand. When Monica Tranel, a Democrat, began her bid for a new seat in Montana’s Congress in the summer, she regretted how few people she grew up with still vote Democrats. “They think Democrats are looking down on rural America,” she said in a video launching the campaign.

Ben Tribbett, a Democrat strategist from Virginia, has watched his party’s rural vote decline for three decades.

“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Tribbett said. “This is a problem because I have to create content for political campaigns.”

How far can the party fall?

“In rural America, the bottom line for the Democratic Party is zero,” said Ethan Winter, senior analyst at Data for Progress, which studies voter behavior. “I’m serious about this.”

In the past, rural white voters in the North had historical ties to the labor movement and were close to the Democratic Party. These voters are increasingly culturally closer to their southern neighbors than to their local towns and suburbs, Winter said.

Tom Bonnier, one of the leading Democratic voter data experts and CEO of TargetSmart, agrees. “Look at places in the Deep South where white rural voices are close to 90% Republicans,” he said. “It’s absolutely worrisome.”

According to an exit poll, Youngkin won the Virginia Mountains with 70% of the vote, up from Trump’s 63% last year. And among white voters without college degrees, Yangkin scored 76% – a dramatic improvement from Trump’s 62% in 2020 and higher than in 2016.

In Bath County, a small group of voters pointed to economic considerations explaining why the area has become more conservative. They spoke in almost mythical terms about the time when both sides had a foothold in the region – before the rise in gas prices, inflation and stagnation of wages.

Sharon Lindsay, a 69-year-old librarian, said people were offended that today’s liberals believed their area was inherently racist or fanatical. “We know they wrote us off,” Lindsay said. “They never talk to us. We never see them. And we see Republicans all the time. “

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