Democrats must reconnect with rural America

BY JOHN K. DELANEY

Democratic presidential candidate from Maryland

One of the reasons I’m proud to be a Democrat is that we believe that everyone deserves a seat at the table. But somewhere along the way, our party abandoned rural America. That’s got to change. We have to do better and back up our words with actions. I don’t know what other candidates are going to do about it, but I’m going to make sure that my campaign doesn’t ignore rural America. From the time I announced my run for President, my campaign has made a commitment to showing up and campaigning everywhere. The only way our party is going to be able to reconnect with rural America is to go where they live and work, look them in the eye and answer the tough questions.

Over the past three decades, Iowans have witnessed diminishing returns of Democratic politics, and the numbers are staggering. In 1996, President Clinton won 80 counties here. In 2008, President Obama won 53 Iowa counties. In the last presidential election, Secretary Clinton won… six. I don’t need to tell you who also won Iowa and who the Electoral College. It’s not just about altering the playbook for Democrats. It’s time for an entirely new game plan.

If you look across the Midwest, you’ll see similar declines. Democrats have not only stopped winning in a lot of places, they’ve stopped being even remotely competitive – and that’s meant that it’s nearly impossible to win statewide contests. Shockingly however, the latest “big idea” in pundit circles inside the Washington Beltway is that Democrats should give up on trying to persuade people who haven’t voted for us and focus only on turning out Democratic voters. I don’t believe in giving up and I don’t think it’s a winning strategy.

During this year’s election, Iowa Democrats ran exciting and ambitious candidates who started the long road back to viability in rural Iowa. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer won back enough voters in small towns to win their districts. In the 4th District, JD Scholten gave Steve King the fight of his life by tirelessly campaigning in every zip code and talking to voters about the issues they care about: jobs, health care, and opportunity. But, the work has just begun.  

That’s why I made it a priority to talk to voters in all 99 Iowa counties, something no other Democratic presidential candidate had done in a decade. We hit our 99th county in Carroll in August and we’re just getting started. For me, showing up doesn’t mean showing up just once. We’re going to make connecting with rural voters a priority and that’s going to take time. That’s why I got into this race early and that’s why we’re making grassroots organizing the base of our campaign. I don’t believe you can run for president from a cable news studio; you’ve got to get out there and talk to people face to face.  

What Iowans have told me in places like Red Oak, Chariton, Winterset and St. Ansgar is that they feel like they’re no longer being heard. But they haven’t just been ignored by the political class, they’ve been ignored by the country at large.

We all know that the economy has really changed in the last thirty years, but I don’t think there’s an appreciation for just what this change has looked like. Globalization and technology have created winners and losers and in a lot of places, small town America and rural America have been left behind. In recent years, 80% of the startup capital that helps create new jobs and new opportunities has gone to just four areas: Northern California and Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. What’s left is most of the rest of the country. When you zoom in at the state level you see a similar story. Here in Iowa, there’s been growth and investment in Des Moines, but a lot of rural counties are struggling, struggling even to maintain their population. The foundation of the American Dream is opportunity, but for a lot of kids growing up in rural America, that opportunity only comes attached to the back of a moving truck. 

Republicans have been very good at speaking the language of rural America, but President Trump’s policies have done very little for them. His trade war has imperiled Iowa’s agricultural economy and the trade assistance his administration offered has completely failed to solve the problem. As the Des Moines Register reported recently, dozens of Iowa farmers received less than $100 in assistance. Farmers have lost access to foreign markets and received very little in return.

My message to rural Iowa has been straightforward: nothing happens without investment and it’s time to start investing in small towns again. My platform includes a transformative infrastructure program that will include upgrading rural broadband. Infrastructure will create good-paying jobs nationwide in the short term and connect communities – making it easier to do business in more places. I’m also pushing for a massive new opportunity zone initiative that will get private capital flowing into the counties outside Silicon Valley by making it advantageous to invest in regions that have been left behind. More broadly, we need a free trade agenda that will open up the world’s fastest growing economies to America’s farmers and ranchers. Trump’s trade war has led to depressed sales and a spate of new farm bankruptcies and is putting us at a global disadvantage. Finally, broader national efforts like universal health care and universal pre-K will make it easier for more young people to live in rural America – where many would want to be – bringing new growth and vitality back to these communities.

I grew up in North Jersey. It wasn’t exactly the heartland, I’ll admit. But I had a blue-collar family and my dad was an electrician. There were times when he had a lot of work and some tough times when he didn’t. I watched him put on his boots every morning and go to work. He taught me the value of showing up every day, rain or shine. It’s time for Democrats to reintroduce themselves to rural America as the party of unity, as the party that can bring the country together instead of deepening the divide.