Democrats Set Sights on Winning Back Rural Voters

Boosting health care and broadband access is seen as key to winning back rural America for Democrats.

The rural Big Bend region of West Texas. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

MILWAUKEE (CN) — Democrats tackled how to court rural voters during a meeting of the Democratic National Convention’s Rural Council on Tuesday, emphasizing that rallying rural America behind Joe Biden will require key infrastructure investments and a legitimate ground game to meet voters where they are.

It’s hardly a secret that rural America and the Democratic Party have in large part turned away from each other in the last half century, something that was not lost on Tuesday’s panel of congressional lawmakers and hopefuls, DNC officials and two former secretaries of agriculture, among others.

Early in Tuesday’s meeting, Nevada Lieutenant Governor Kate Marshall said that “if we learned anything in 2016, we learned that we need rural voters. We need to listen to rural voters.”

Marshall, who referred to rural voters as the Democratic Party’s “firewall” in 2020, offered that liberals must recognize the unique problems of regions of the country too often painted as monolithic and take real stock of rural community members who were essential “long before that term became a work of art.”

Expanded, reliable access to broadband internet and quality health care were two central refrains of the council meeting, which also touched on education, good paying jobs, green agricultural initiatives and a shot in the arm for infrastructure like roads, bridges and airports as key to winning back rural America for Democrats in November.

The realities of keeping up with rural Americans’ needs traced through a conversation between Tom Vilsack, former agricultural secretary in the Obama administration, and Mike Espy, a former ag secretary from the Clinton years currently running to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate.

Espy, who grew up in rural Mississippi, outlined that in some cases “the stake is survival” for rural communities, including on the fronts of education, jobs and hospitals, noting that the U.S. has seen around 130 rural hospitals close in the last 10 years, including  five in Mississippi, “that in so many rural communities form the foundation of the community.”

A big reason these hospitals are closing is due to hanging on to the costs of uncompensated care, according to Espy.

“When people get sick, they fear the bill, and when they go they can’t pay it, so the bill stays on the counter for the rural hospital to handle,” Espy said.

Espy and others offered that one solution to this problem is expanding Medicaid, even though that option is often derided by Republicans at the state and national level, with many states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Wisconsin still refusing such an expansion as crafted in the Affordable Care Act.

Vilsack addressed the balance of combining practical, jobs-based plans for rural Americans and plans attractive to urban policy wonks for the benefit of both groups.

A transition to net zero agriculture is an example of this. Vilsack said Democrats should offer concrete plans like paying farmers to trap methane, convert agricultural waste into useful byproducts and invest in renewable fuels and energy.

“That will create the jobs to attract young people to small towns” and allow some who grew up in small towns to come home, he said, as a big part of the problem is that young people are fleeing their small home towns due to a perceived lack of opportunity.

The Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, the location of a scaled down 2020 Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

Espy added that President Donald Trump’s trade wars have hurt the rural Americans he swore on the campaign trail he would represent, such that when Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum he said “‘watch out, China’s going to retaliate in the areas we value most, which is agriculture,’ and they did.”

Espy’s home state of Mississippi, he said, recently lost its soybean market, which was taken over by Brazil when the Magnolia State could no longer compete.

But he and other panel members stressed that farmers do not necessarily want bailouts, avowing that “all Republican farmers want to do is compete on a level playing field” and “a president that will listen to them.”

Everyone at the council meeting agreed that access to reliable broadband internet is one of the most daunting barriers facing rural Americans.

Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, in whose home state alone 475,000 people lack access to high-speed internet, stressed that “the new virtual world of the pandemic is not an option for many rural people.”

“The internet is just a fundamental necessity,” and Democrats need to think big about broadband expansion in the same way President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s federal projects brought electric power to rural America, Jones said.

Congresswoman Cindy Axne of Iowa aligned with Jones’ thinking and said that taking broadband expansion seriously calls for spending up to $100 billion over several years to update service in underserved areas, something featured in legislation she introduced in the House in June.

Expanded high-speed internet is a necessity for the operation of schools and hospitals, especially given that virtual learning and telehealth might be the only options for some amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County judge running to be the Place 4 judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, said high-speed internet access is also a resource issue for courts, explaining that in rural areas the broadband can often be too poor to hold virtual hearings, which will be the norm in many courts for the foreseeable future.

Jaime Harrison, a self-proclaimed “dirt road Democrat” challenging Senator Lindsey Graham for his South Carolina seat this fall, joined Judge Clinton’s point that the conversation about serving rural America is ultimately about investing resources in small communities and respecting their diversity and distinct hardships.

“The one myth I want to dispel is that rural does not just equate to white folks,” Harrison said. “The diversity that we see in our urban areas is the same diversity we see in our rural communities.”

Abiding respect for diversity and not treating rural voters like they have big city problems aside, the group of Democrats making up the Rural Council on Tuesday all conceded that the most important thing liberals can do is show up and keep showing up in rural areas, listen to their problems without condescension or judgment, and turn what Democrats claim are their inclusive values into tangible action.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who has gained some recent profile for his clashes with President Trump, admitted that “we haven’t done our due diligence in rural America.”

“We need to show up, and when we show up, we got two ears and one mouth, so we should act accordingly,” he said.

Tester laid out that even though Trump’s policies have hurt rural America in some critical ways, “if you don’t show up in rural America, you can’t expect to get those votes.”

Debbie Stabenow, a U.S. senator from Michigan, concurred, but contextualized that making an honest effort to show up in rural communities also gives those communities an opportunity to dispel false notions they may have about Democrats.

“It’s a lot harder to paint the horns on us when you’re in their living rooms,” Stabenow said.

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