Democrats Can and Are Winning in Rural Communities

As Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, I am on various calls every day with candidates and party leaders across the country all trying to share lessons and learn how to reach more rural voters.

Rep. Bustos, and her organization called CherPac, recently interviewed several Democrats who were elected in rural areas to get their advice and lessons.

My colleague Erica Etelson, author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide, wrote up a great summary that I include in this blog.

At the NDP, we also keep a page on rural resources available in our state as we continue to grow our outreach to rural communities. Learn more here.

Sen. Blood, who is running for governor, will be on a tour the first week of November visiting several rural towns to hear from voters — please join us.

Lastly, you can sign up for a national strategy session on Nov. 6 where lots of rural leaders will be discussing how we can start to win back rural communities. The national strategy session is being hosted by JD Scholten and Matt Hildreth from new group Rural Vote.

Our leadership team at the NDP is dedicated to reaching voters and supporting our party leaders and candidates as they work to make our state stronger and more responsive to the people.

If you ever have ideas or events you want us to highlight, please email us


CherPac Guide with Lessons from Candidates

Executive Summary of the Guide

Pointers made by several candidates on the forum:

  • Hold a lot of meet-and-greets and town halls with most of the time devoted to Q&A.
  • Invest in constituent services (this was the most frequently stated advice).
  • Stay on message — no matter what the national party is focused on, keep talking about the issues that are most important locally
  • Listen more, talk less.
  • Don’t talk down to rural voters — Dems are often perceived as snooty and intolerant.
  • Communicate in plain language so that your ideas are less susceptible to being distorted by right-wing.
  • Show up at local events, Rotary Club meetings, school sports events, church events, local businesses, etc — make it a surprise!
  • Door-knock every year (or phone bank if Covid makes canvassing impossible).
  • Stay focused on pocketbook issues b/c many voters believe GOP is better for their wallets.
  • In 2016, Dem Party focus didn’t align with what local Dem candidates were hearing at front doors.
  • Working and lower-middle class voters feel squeezed and are willing to support taxing the rich so long as their families are seeing the benefits.
  • Instead of being a policy wonk, connect with people at gut and heart level.
  • Hire consultants who are responsive to local culture and don’t just listen to national pollsters and party hacks who have never set foot in your community.
  • Run drive-time ads on local radio and local weekly newspapers which many rural voters still read cover-to-cover.
  • Get local validators to endorse you early.
  • Many of those we interviewed said you can be progressive and win in rural areas. And while most are for marriage equality and pro-choice, they lead with issues like roads, schools, and jobs. While the Democrats interviewed agreed the party should remain fierce advocates on many of these issues, they simply did not see those issues as being in the forefront of the minds of most voters they encounter. For those interviewed, it comes down to a matter of emphasis and pragmatism. “I can’t fight for transgender issues if I’m not in office,” said former Michigan State Rep. Collene Lamonte.”

Candidate’s advice:

Elisa Slotkin (MI-08):  “People in rural areas always tell me that they feel left behind and talked down to by Democrats so when we meet them where they are and demonstrate we’re listening, we’re more likely to earn their trust.”

Cindy Axe (IA-3): Appears on 4 weekly local radio shows in rural counties.

Matt Cartwright (MI-08): At beginning of every Town Hall, he does a 20-min slide show featuring constituent services stories that involve standing up to fed govt on behalf of small biz or individual.

Matt Cartwright (MI-08): “Campaign ads featuring real people from the district are critical.”

Darrin Camilleri (MI-23): “I knock on doors and visit every school in the district even in off-years.”

Darrin Camilleri (MI-23): Became known as “the train guy” b/c he ran on fixing #1 longterm local problem of train stoppages blocking the road.

Frank Burns (PA-72): “Many of my longtime supporters ask, “Why are you still a Democrat?” My response is always the same “A political party doesn’t define who I am as a legislator. The work I do in the community is what matters.”

Charlie McConkey (IA-15): When talking to voters at door, just listen to their stories and tell your own, don’t talk politics.

Charlie McConkey (IA-15): Don’t advertise endorsements that aren’t helpful in your area (eg. Planned Parenthood, Biden)

Julie Sandstede (MN-6A): “Independent voters that had supported me in past elections switched alliances, saying “It’s not you or the work you have or have not done, but it’s the ‘D’ after your name.”

Ted Bowman (IA-29): “Make the narrative helping Main St vs. Wall St.”

Collene Lamonte (MI-91): “Help small businesses with regulatory compliance.”

Chris Redfern (OH-89): “We need to reach out to farmers more — No one talks to them.”

Jeff Danielson (IA-30): “We cannot constantly challenge basic cultural norms with academic arguments and lose our audience because voters see us as hostile to their way of life.”

Collene Lamonte (MI-91): “I can’t fight for transgender issues if I’m not in office.”

John Patterson: (OH-99): “Jobs leave, businesses leave. There’s an additional sense of loss when their kids leave. Guns are seen as the last straw. Hunting and guns are part of the culture — it’s who we are.”

Andy Manar (IL-48): “For every comfortable place, such as churches or the chicken dinner circuit, he puts himself in an uncomfortable place — “places or events that tend to draw Republican voters…Just my presence there and showing my face goes a long way with those voters.”

–Chair Kleeb

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