During the Spring of 2023, RuralOrganizing.org launched a project to analyze, evaluate, and identify the top 100 counties for building progressive power building in small towns and rural communities.
For the final 10 counties, we asked our network if they wanted to add a rural county to our list, and we received over 50 suggestions! A big thank you to our network for being engaged in this project!
The counties selected for this effort have an impact across various campaigns and contribute to the success of rural progress on multiple fronts.
This effort aimed to identify the counties or combination of counties that would have the greatest impact in creating this progressive rural power. In some cases, the county alone provides a clear reason it was selected. Other times, it requires the power of multiple counties in a particular district and/or state to demonstrate the reasoning behind our selections.
The process started by analyzing the rural counties with the closest margins in federal elections since 2020. From there, we examined points of greatest impact for the counties, i.e., shared House/Senate seats, etc. This data analysis resulted in 22 of the 45 House Seats and 10 of the 11 Senate Seats considered “battleground” races in the 2024 election. The list we have compiled does not include every rural county that had a margin of 5-10% and/or a significant House/Senate seat. Some counties met this criteria, but were excluded due to smaller population numbers or because a county with similar results shared more impact points across several elections. Additionally, some counties were included in this list that will not significantly impact state and federal elections. We included those counties because they present significant opportunities for local progressive leadership.
COUNTIES WHERE RURAL VOTERS WILL IMPACT CRITICAL 2024 RACES
With the changes in ranked voting and Independent candidates, Alaska is a challenge in its Gubernatorial and Senate races. The Presidential race is a different story. The 2020 race was decided by a 10% margin of 36,173 votes. With nearly half of the registered voters in ED 15, ED20, ED22, and ED23 not casting a ballot, there is a tremendous amount of impact progressive organizers can make. By rallying these inactive registered voters to the polls to vote for Democratic or progressive candidates, groups can make up 69.39% of the voting difference from the 2020 Presidential election. Such a performance would significantly impact the 2022 Alaska At Large House race.
Rural voters in Arizona will determine the outcome of the Presidential election and impact both a critical Senate and important House battleground race. The 2020 Presidential election was decided by less than one-half of a percent in this state with a difference of 10,457 votes, and both the Senate and House elections had a less than 5% margin. With the right selection of counties and strategy, rural progressives can make a powerful move in 2024.
The counties chosen in Arizona are in the top 15 in terms of population rank, which would lead some to believe they are metropolitan counties and not relevant to our list. Not true. Pinal County is a perfect example, with a population of over 460,000 with almost 22% of it rural.
The highest election voter turnout still had 160,991 registered voters not voting in Cochise, Gila, Greenlee, Navajo, Pima, Pinal, and Yavapai. That’s more than enough to cover the voting difference in the Presidential, Senate, and House AZ-06 elections.
In addition to AZ-06, these counties also play a role in District 2, another key seat in the House for 2024.
With solid Democratic wins in the 2020 Presidential and 2022 Senate races, Alamosa, Archculeta, Conejos, Garfield, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Rio Grande were selected because they are all part of House District 3, Rep. Lauren Boebert’s seat. Boebert won her last race by a .16% margin of 546 votes. Five of these 7 counties had margins in the 2022 House race of 200 votes or less, with 27,859 registered voters not voting.
Changing the outcome of District 3’s seat would tremendously impact nationally as it removes one of the most far-right voices in Congress.
Although not traditionally considered a rural state, Florida has counties with high percentages of rural voters that could impact the 2024 Presidential and Senate races. According to our network member Will Atkins, Osceola County, for example, has a Democratic voter registration advantage of 33k and is populous enough that a small turnout increase could have outsized effects for state-wide races. US Sen Rubio won this county by 1.5%, DeSantis by 6%, a state senator (Dem) by 0.2%, and a State Rep (Rep) by 1.1%. This county is next to a Blue stronghold, where organizing efforts can be easily shifted. Other counties include Jefferson, Monroe, and St. Lucie counties.
Georgia and its counties were selected due to their 2020 Presidential and 2022 Senate election results. In 2020, Georgia became one of the focal points in the country, and we continue to feel the effects of that election as the Fulton County DA winds down her investigation into the actions of former President Trump. Just 11,779, 0.3% of the votes, separated Biden and Trump.
73,241 rural people live in Baldwin, Dooly, Early, Jefferson, Peach, Twiggs, and Washington counties; 20,752 registered voters did not vote in the Presidential election. In the 2022 Senate election, that number increased to 24,283. Winning just the people already registered who aren’t turning out to vote allows us to double the Presidential winning margin and enlarge the Senate margin by almost 65%.
Iowa has always been an important state in the politics of our country. Educating and mobilizing the inactive registered voters from the 2022 Senate race and cutting the Republican lead Grassley held last time by 28.7% would send a strong message that would have ripple effects throughout the state and the country. We’re especially closely monitoring the rural voters living in Muscatine, Des Moines, Scott, and Jefferson counties, critical geographies in the first congressional district.
Although Maine leans Democratic for the presidential and Senate races, its PVI (partisan voting index) is D+2, with Rep. Jared Golden currently holding a competitive House Seat. Many counties and townships in Maine have the opportunity to be flipped and have less than a 5% margin. However, in Hancock, Knox, Sagadahoc, and York counties, the registered voters who are not voting account for 41.5% of the voting difference in the Senate race, and there are 156,656 rural registered voters.
Big Horn, Deer Lodge, Gallatin, Lake, Lewis & Clark, and Silver Bow counties are home to 107,111 rural people making up almost half the population.
The 2020 Presidential election had a daunting margin of 16% that could be reduced by 39.01% if the 98,816 registered voters who did not vote in 2020, were mobilized to vote for a progressive candidate in 2024.
The impact of rural Montana voters doesn’t stop at the Presidential election. House District 1 had a 3.1% margin in the 2022 election, and four of our six counties are in that district. 57,895 inactive voters could crush the 7,837 vote difference and flip that seat.
Michigan has 10 counties that are 23-100% rural with 640,111 registered voters and a rural population of 332,213. They make our Top 100 Rural Counties list because they have a powerful impact on all three federal elections and multiple key House races. House Districts 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8 have one or more of these counties in their voting population, with 3, 7, & 8 being considered battleground seats for 2023.
Benzie, Eaton, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Isabella, Leelanau, Manistee, Midland, Muskegon, and Saginaw had 175,252 registered voters in the 2020 Presidential election who did not vote. That’s more than enough to cover the 154,188 vote difference. The Republican Party has a strong rural game, and if progressives want to keep, and possibly extend, the margin that won in 2020, focusing on these 10 counties is a must.
The 2022 Senate race had a margin of less than 2% , a voting difference of 92,335, and 179,984 registered voters who did not participate in the election. Benzie, Emmet, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau are in House District 1 and had 52% of the registered voters needed to flip the seat who didn’t vote in the last election.
The numbers are clear and the data gives us a path to short-term wins and long-term success. There are seats that can be flipped within the next cycle and others where the needle can be moved forward in a strong, definitive way.
Five counties: Erie, Lorain, Mahoning, Portage, Athens and Wood make our list from Ohio for several reasons. 163,537 registered voters did not cast a ballot in the 2020 Presidential election and an additional 100,000 who didn’t vote in the 2022 Senate election. Mobilizing these voters would cover 53% of the vote difference from the Presidential election and have 115% of the votes needed to flip the Senate seat.
At the same time, battleground House Districts 9 and 13 gain critical ground.
The data strongly demonstrates that by ensuring the 182,915 rural voters of these counties are registered, empowered, and mobilized prior to the 2024 election cycle, progressives can have meaningful, measurable wins that give them power in this crucial state.
The Democratic candidate won the 2020 Presidential election in Nevada by less than 3% and the 2022 Senate election by less than 1%. Douglas, Lyon, and Nye had 25,603 and 41,196 registered voters who did not cast a ballot. They would have been enough to increase the Presidential margin by 75% and the Senate by over 500%. It is not enough to simply win. These counties allow progressives to capitalize on the momentum and make permanent strides to secure the State. House Districts 2 & 4 are also covered by these counties with District 4 being considered a key race in 2024.
With population ranks of three, six, and seven that are 31-37% rural, Douglas Lyon, and Nye have approximately 57,730 rural people within them. If the rural percentage is the same for registered voters as it is for population, 39,719 rural registered voters. Ensuring that the remaining 18,011 rural people who are eligible to vote are registered to vote and participate in the election process is critical to the continued progressive process in Nevada.
Nine counties in New York on our list contain three of the key House races for 2024. Districts 18, 19, and 21 are all impacted by the 420,108 rural people living in Broome, Clinton, Columbia, Cortland, Essex, Orange, Otsego, Saratoga, and Warren counties.
As with Texas, these counties are less than 3% of the voting difference in the 2020 Presidential Election with just 53,411 registered voters who did not cast a ballot. While the Senate also has a strong position for the Democratic candidate, the 391,162 registered inactive voters can strengthen that margin by almost 50%. The most powerful places these counties will make a difference are their respective House races, especially District 19.
House District 19 was decided by a 1.6% margin, 4,495 votes. The 113,348 registered voters who did not cast a ballot in the 2022 race are more than enough to flip this seat. It is important for progressive organizers and the Democratic Party not to forget rural New Yorkers. There are almost ½ a million in just these nine counties. They impact federal elections as well as state and local.
North Carolina is about flipping the Presidential and Senate results while expanding the current lead in the House District 1 seat. The 2020 Presidential election was decided by 1.3%, 74,483, votes. Anson, Lenoir, Martin, Nash, Pasquotank, Scotland, and Washington counties had 80,600 registered voters not voting in that election. More than enough to have changed the outcome. The same is true of the numbers for the 2022 Senate race.
Five of those seven counties are in House District 1, a key seat in the 2022 cycle and an expected battleground for 2024. While won by the Democratic candidate, the race was decided by little more than 12,000 votes – a 4.8% margin. The Republican party is dialed into rural communities and they have been successful which makes it so important for progressive organizers to reach the 176,207 rural people living in these counties.
Centre, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, and Washington make Pennsylvania a triple threat. The Presidential, Senate, and House District 8 elections all had margins less than 5%; 1.2%, 4.92%, and 2.4% difference, respectively. Investing in the rural game in these areas for progressive campaigns is a no-brainer.
There are 286,393 rural people in these five counties alone. While not all of them are registered voters, there are enough to cover the voting difference of all three elections. A combined effort of voter registration, education, and turnout in these counties makes Pennsylvania one of the strongest power plays available in the rural game.
An interesting point in the data is the 2022 Senate results with a margin of 4.92% – the largest of all three elections. It’s also the race with the largest number of registered voters not voting. This reinforces the belief that we win or come closer to it when we turn out.
Focusing on the following rural counties in Wisconsin can dramatically impact the next Presidential and House elections. In the 2020 Presidential election, Biden won by less than 1% of the vote. All the Republican party needs to flip the state is 20,682 votes. 187,379 rural people are living in Crawford, Dunn, Grant, Jackson, Pierce, Portage, Trempealeau, and Vernon counties with 178,759 registered voters.
In the 2020 Presidential election, these counties had 16,628 registered voters who did not vote. By focusing on these counties and capturing those votes for progressive candidates, we reach 80.4% of the vote difference in 2020 and expand the Democratic lead significantly. Additionally, these eight counties are part of House District 3 which the Democratic candidate lost by 11,766 votes in 2022. In that election, 49,712 registered voters did not vote. Winning those voters in 2024 would be more than 400% of the votes needed to flip the House seat.
Virginia makes the list as one of our purple states that has had a recent swing towards the conservative party including its last Gubernatorial and House elections. Districts 2 & 7 are both considered key races in 2024 and our list includes counties in both. An unexpected find was 3 counties in District 1 who had 34,486 registered voters who didn’t vote in the 2022 House election. Those voters are enough to cover 77.3% of the vote difference and flip that seat.
The 2021 Senate election found three of these counties with vote margins of approximately 100 votes or less. One of those, Northampton, is in House District 2. The overlapping importance of these counties made them important to the progressive movement in Virginia. They strengthen our Presidential and Senate positions, while gaining ground on the Gubernatorial and House fronts.
On the Gubernatorial side, the non-voting registered voters account for 40% of the margin from the last election.
BUILDING LOCAL POWER FOR THE FUTURE
Being driven by the data is how we identified four counties in Texas where powerful progressive plays could be made that have an impact on a federal level. While the 2020 Presidential election was decided by less than 6%, the counties of Brewster, Frio, Kleberg, and LaSalle don’t have a population pool that would have a substantial impact on the votes needed to change the outcome of that race. In fact, the 16,236 registered voters who did not vote would only account for 2.57% of the vote difference.
The place for significant potential movement with these four rural counties is in the House. With three of them in District 23 and the last in District 34, all of our counties are in key Congressional races for 2024. In District 23, 12,137 inactive registered voters did not cast a ballot. They account for more than ⅓ the voting difference and represent a solid movement forward in a state most do not think of as an opportunity for the progressive movement.