By campaigning everywhere and delivering for rural voters, Democrats closed margins and stopped the Red Wave...for now.
For the past decade, RuralOrganizing.org has been the rural and small-town voice in the room, asserting that Democrats need to lose less in rural communities while improving urban margins, need to deliver for rural voters, and prioritize sustained investment in rural civic infrastructure and perennial organizing efforts.
In 2022, candidates like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Marie Glusenkamp-Perez in the Washington 3rd congressional district closed rural margins and turned out the Democratic base in major cities with an economic populist agenda and authenticity that could reach across the aisle. With abortion access on the ballot in many rural (& red!) states, Beltway pundits learned what rural progressives have known for a while: rural voters do not believe abortion should be illegal.
And finally, looking towards the future, rural voters will continue to have a massive impact on the Senate and Supreme court, with 70% of the US population living in 15 states by 2040. Democrats desperately need a red-state strategy, and in order to inoculate against this wing of the GOP, Democrats must isolate and weaponize the vulnerabilities of Republican election-denier candidates and emphasize election denial as a core tenet of the Republican party.
In 2022, Democrats who utilized a both/and strategy when courting rural voters won their races.
Candidates who embraced abortion access and progressive economic populism but refrained from xenophobic and racist messaging toward minority constituencies fared better in their races than the Democratic candidates that touted Republican tropes and talking points.
PRO-ABORTION AND PRO-ECONOMIC POPULISM CANDIDATES
Following our extensive post-2020 election research, including polling of rural voters, we knew that candidates could improve the Democratic brand in rural communities by embracing “boldly progressive, proudly rural” messaging and policies, letting rural Americans know who is really fighting for small-town and rural communities, and including racial justice as an essential component of their platform.
Marie GluesenKamp Perez (WA-03)
In a recent interview with MSNBC, Glusenkamp-Perez said that “rural voices are critical to America” and rural voters “want Congress with a little bit of grease under their nails who get stuff done.” Glusenkamp leveraged the discourse about inflation to drive a narrative about how large companies are outsourcing jobs but did not blame the Democratic party or immigrants.
“Gluesenkamp Perez said inflation is the top issue affecting voters in Washington, but she stopped short of criticizing President Joe Biden or Democratic leadership for rising costs. The forces that have created this inflation have been coming down the road for decades; look at American manufacturing; look at our jobs numbers, we have been relying on other countries for cheap goods and offshoring our jobs. That’s a huge problem.”
Gabe Vasquez (NM-02)
Vasquez ousted Republican incumbent Yvette Harrell by doubling down on support for labor rights and corporations paying their fair share of taxes. He also championed immigration reform, including support for DREAMERS after having “lived on both sides of the border.”
“Across my district, people are dealing with the rising costs of goods and inflation. I’m running for Congress to support not only antipoverty programs but also to be a congressperson who will champion jobs, a fair day’s work with a fair day's pay, reducing inequality from Republican policies from the Trump administration, investing in rural broadband in native and sovereign communities, taking advantage of state legalization of marijuana.”
Angie Craig (MN-02)
Rep. Craig clinched her third term this month, shaving off Republican votes by running on her record as a rural prosperity champion and running up metro margins by making abortion access a focal point of her campaign. Rep. Craig was the House sponsor of RuralOrganizing.org’s Rural Prosperity Act in addition to sitting on the Rural Broadband Task Force and Rural Health Advisory Council. Throughout her campaign, she also drew a stark contrast between her abortion position and her opponents, which she believed drove youth turnout in her district: “The kids hit it out of the park."'
John Fetterman (PA-Senate)
Running on a “workers, wages, weed” platform, Fetterman traveled to the reddest counties in the state with an economic populist message; he prioritized local media by publishing op-eds in rural newspapers elevating his love for the Pennsylvania Farm Show, and he doubled down on fighting for the rural way of life by committing. to "right-to-repair" legislation for Pennsylvania farmers. He also leveraged his wife’s undocumented history to draw a connection to his support for immigrant communities.
“Mr. Fetterman’s biggest gains were in deep-red counties dominated by white working-class voters. He didn’t win these places outright, but he drove up the margins for a Democrat by three, four or five points compared with Mr. Biden. Pennsylvania elections are about margins, and he cut into the margins Republicans had across the counties that they usually control,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “He got a lot of looks from voters who aren’t very open to looking at Democrats right now."
Josh Shapiro (PA-Gov) Shapiro won by a margin of 56.4 to 41.8 - over 780,000 votes. According to the AP, Shapiro ”cut losses in rural and exurban stretches where former President Donald Trump is popular.” After his victory, Shapiro appeared on CNN’s State of the Union. When Dana Bash asked him, ‘What is your message to other Democrats on how to reach those who they have lost and be competitive in rural America in particular?’ Shapiro explained his strategy, “Well, look, I can just tell you what we did. We showed up. And we treated people with respect. And we spoke to them about practical things that would improve their lives. We ignored the noise coming out of Washington, D.C., and instead focused on the good people of Washington County, Pennsylvania. I think it's just a matter of showing up, treating people with respect, and showing them how you're going to make their lives better, helping them understand how you can actually build a bridge between the parties to kind of take down the temperature and get real things done.” The video of the interview is here.
Laura Kelly (KS-Gov)
After opening an Office of Rural Prosperity in 2020, Governor Laura Kelly has utilized her influence and position to support rural programming such as funding community arts programs, expanding rural housing development opportunities, and a rural freight technology project: her track record paid off as she outperformed the most in rural western Kansas getting over twice the vote share of the Democratic House candidates. In addition to riding the coattails of the abortion referendum victory, Gov. Kelly challenged her opponent’s inflation accusations by blaming the extreme Republican policies and saying that she’d cut taxes….on food sales, diapers, and women’s hygiene products.
“People realize you can go too far and policies can be too extreme,” Kelly said in an interview. “And that’s not what the mainstream wants.”
PORTSMOUTH VS. CHINA
Despite multiple outlets listing Ohio’s Senate race as one of the unexpectedly closer races this cycle, Rep. Tim Ryan decided early on to make America’s dependence on China a focal point of his campaign despite backlash and outcries from Asian-American representative groups in Ohio. Although he did meet with workers from AAMP (Asian American Midwest Progressives) after his May primary win, he doubled down on his China rhetoric, including wearing shirts that read “Portsmouth vs. China.” AMMP and its progressive partners across the state, including those with large operational field programs, did not prioritize the Senate race as they did other races due to Ryan’s flippant comments about student debt cancellation and his continued support of the border security.
Instead of pointing the finger at corruption, billionaires, and corporations, he decidedly elevated China as the villain. From AAMP’s post-election statement: “Centering the use of nationalist, fear-mongering rhetoric only pushes conflicted voters to the right and shifts blame away from the policymakers and U.S. corporations which have engaged in union-busting and allowed prices to skyrocket
Despite the call for Democrats to focus solely on “inflation and jobs,” candidates who also focused on abortion and protecting democracy made gains with rural voters.
In 2022’s national election exit poll sponsored by progressive organizations, including RuralOrganizing.org, 40% of rural voters were deeply concerned with extremism and white nationalism with half of the rural and small-town voters supporting passing a federal law to guarantee access to abortion nationwide. Although inflation and the economy were motivating factors, abortion access and the threat of a national abortion ban drove Democratic turn-out, especially for new and late-deciding Democratic voters: winning candidates leveraged both issues taking advantage of the national political climate.
Gretchen Whitmer (MI-Gov)
With being the target of a far-right militia kidnapping and as the Governor in a state with abortion on the ballot, Governor Whitmer made her race a referendum on extremism and abortion economics with her “Save abortion to save the economy campaign” slogan. She repeatedly labeled Jan. 6th as an act of “domestic terrorism” and doubled down on Trump’s violent-inciting rhetoric and its generation of domestic terrorist activity like the foiled kidnapping plot of the Governor. Finally, Governor Whitmer articulated how the price of parenthood is inherently an economic issue, especially for people who can become pregnant.
“But for Whitmer, the choice between abortion and the economy was a false one. On the contrary, women’s reproductive health and their state’s economic future were inextricably linked – if you take away the former, you jeopardize the latter.Clearly, the message hit home for voters: Whitmer won in a landslide against an anti-abortion extremist, racking up double-digit margins in a state that famously swung red back in 2016. Moreover, while about a quarter of voters nationwide ranked abortion as their top issue, that number was 45% in Michigan – a higher share than those who cited inflation in the state.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-9)
As the longest-serving woman in the House of Representatives and having voted for President Biden’s seminal legislation, Rep. Kaptur was a high priority for the NRCC as they sought to add to their “Red Wave” congressional margins. Running against a January 6th participant and openly QANON supporter J.R. Majewski, and in more red and rural district post-redistricting, Rep. Kaptur ran digital ads and commercials calling Majewski and extreme Republicans threats to our democracy. The incumbent, although having a record of siding with Catholic organizations on abortion restrictions and previously calling herself a “pro-life” Democrat, Rep. Kaptur asserted that abortion access is a “freedom” and campaigned aggressively on reproductive and abortion rights.
“I think people want that decision to be made freely, within the confines of their own family, and they don’t want politicians or Washington taking away their freedom.”
Far-right election deniers will continue to shape Republican politics, especially in red and rural states: Democrats should leverage this weakness for 2024.
With the 2024 Senate map less sympathetic to Democrats, the Party needs to exploit GOP candidate vulnerability, gain control of the “election security” narrative, and double down on “election denial” as a core component of the Republican party.
According to RuralOrganizing.org’s new analysis highlighting the election-denier and conspiracy candidate trends this cycle, candidates demonstrated a series of election security policy objectives; they ran for top-of-ticket and down-ballot races, especially in red states where they can steer the party’s direction; within the Republican party, there is limited election denier intra-party debate; and finally, Democrats have few pickup opportunities in election denier districts barring a significant effort to appeal to rural voters who currently support Republicans.
To inoculate against election-denier narratives, which will be pervasive in 2024, Democrats should isolate and weaponize the vulnerabilities of Republican election-denier candidates and emphasize election denial as a core tenet of the Republican party. Finally, Democrats need to go on offense regarding “election security” discourse, especially in an off-year, to set the narrative for 2024.
Ahead of 2024, continued rural field experimentation & research are needed to identify organizing and communications gaps.
We know what tactics work for contacting voters (and winning elections!) in urban cores might be varied or not as effective in rural and small-town communities. In 2022, RuralOrganizing.org ran an experimental communications and field experiment in Ohio, layering multiple modes of direct voter contact in our three target counties. Although we’re still analyzing the results, our qualitative evidence suggests, for example, that there is no replacement for local-to-local door knocking and that electoral “cold SMS” is not an effective turn-out tactic for rural and small-town turn-out. We hope Democratic institutions and donors will prioritize the experiments and research necessary to test best practices for engaging rural voters. Below are some examples of our innovative approaches to understanding rural voters and communities.
After the success of our 2020 rural organizer exit interviews, RuralOrganizing.org plans to capture again, analyze, and share the lessons learned by rural civic and electoral leaders from the 2022 campaign cycle. This effort ensures key lessons learned by rural organizers on the front lines of the 2022 election cycle are documented and recorded to inform 2024 efforts.
Historically, these organizers and local candidates spend months accumulating valuable insights, but campaigns typically close up shop before collecting valuable feedback on tactics, platforms, and messaging from those who were actually on the ground talking to voters. Because these frontline insights never make it back to campaign leadership, critical real-world experiences are excluded from the post-election analysis and planning for the future. Instead, media pundits develop their own analyses, which political strategists then adopt and share with philanthropists. They, in turn, invest in plans that aren’t informed by those in the field on the front lines.
We plan to launch the exit interviews in December 2022 and debut our list of recommendations in early 2023: we recommend Democratic institutions and campaigns create space for debriefing and reflection, as what we learned from this cycle will be invaluable for 2024.
LOCAL PROGRESS REPORTS
This year, RuralOrganizing.org Education Fund worked with three local Ohio organizations to conduct door-to-door community assessments called “Local Progress Surveys.” This “front porch polling” utilized an innovative use of a drop-off/pick-up survey methodology, an approach that has been shown to reduce nonresponse bias and takes canvassing for community perspectives to a new level. Blending door-knocking and community-based research techniques, this approach empowers local leaders to develop the right questions for their neighborhoods, hear from a wider range of community members than can be reached by traditional canvassing techniques, and generate local solutions that respond to local needs.
Local progress reports defined a holistic set of community perceptions, amplified the needs of ignored neighbors, and turned these community needs into a winning rural prosperity agenda that the local groups could utilize during an election year. We recommend that Democratic institutions embrace more community-driven strategies that build the capacity of local groups ahead of 2024.
SHIFTING THE PARADIGM POLLING
In 2022, RuralOrganizing.org commissioned a national poll showing a candidate's pro-choice position was the most important issue tested among rural voters polled in 10 battleground states, even outpacing party ID (i.e., being a Republican), which came in second. Additionally, another key finding of the survey was the fact that for a Democratic candidate, an endorsement from a pro-choice organization boosted a candidate's appeal more than an endorsement from the Farm Bureau or a labor organization. We recommend that Democratic institutions continue to rethink their stereotypes about rural voters and design public opinion research that shifts the paradigm about rural voters and surfaces opportunities for improvement through progressive issues, messengers, and messages.
LANDSCAPE ASSESSMENTS IN KEY 2024 STATES
In 2021, RuralOrgnaizing.org conducted a five-state landscape analysis to assess rural power-building momentum and rural power building challenges in states with large rural populations that are critical to winning federal elections in 2022 and 2024. In all five states, we identified a set of rural issues and local leaders being under-prioritized by mainstream progressive powerbrokers at the state and national levels and provided recommendations as to how to reverse this trend by empowering these local leaders to design and implement solutions to their problems in ways that could be used to boost local support for progressive candidates. In 2022, we hope to build upon the intel in these landscape assessments by including new priority states and updating our 2021 landscape reports and civic directories. We recommend that Democratic institutions start mapping existing rural infrastructure, including rural civic leaders and organizations, in order to emerge leadership and opportunities for 2024.
Democrats should continue to deliver for and invest in rural and small-town communities to maintain their Senate majority in 2024.
Democrats must continue delivering for rural voters and communities by passing the “Rebuild America Act,” fully funding the RECOMPETE pilot program, and ensuring rural provisions in the Farm Bill are fully resourced. Additionally, Democrats must start, if not already, heavily investing in key Senate rural communities and organizations: this investment in organizing will pay off in marginal gains in battleground state rural counties. RuralOrganizing.org is already engaged in supporting local rural civic leaders in building informal leadership networks in these communities where 2024 candidates can tap into this existing infrastructure and leverage for their platforms, outreach, and messaging.
Progressive rural activists and candidates are heavily concerned with the lack of investment in local infrastructure. In 2021, RuralOrganizing.org convened a panel on this subject at 2021 Netroots Nation entitled “When Millions Are Spent, and No Infrastructure is Left Behind,” which included panelists Rep. Anna Eskamai from Florida, J.D. Scholten from Iowa, and Rep. Ricky Hurtado from North Carolina. All three are from states where massive expenditures are made by Democrats, yet there is little left behind to show for it. This sentiment was shared widely across our network in 2020 and featured in our exit interviews.
This cycle, we want to uplift two House districts where national Democrats either failed to spend or withdrew funding too soon. In Wisconsin’s Third District, Brad Pfaff lost by a 52-48 margin, much closer than expected but without much outside help. And, in Oregon’s Fifth District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner lost 51%-49% after the national Democrats pulled funding from her race. This is a pattern that needs to be broken if Democrats want to compete and win rural districts in 2024.