Despite last year’s blue wave which washed over the House, the GOP increased its Senate majority in part by picking off some conservative Democrats in Republican-leaning states. Two of those who lost their seats were North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly. Now, Heitkamp and Donnelly have teamed up to apparently teach the Democrats how to “win back” rural voters. Despite the fact that they just lost all of those people.
Axios reports that the two are starting something called the “One Country Project,” after looking at data from the past 20 years of elections and concluding that the Democrats will be doomed to another popular vote-victory, Electoral College loss in 2020 if they don’t do better with rural voters.
“What we heard on the ground is that the Democratic Party no longer speaks for the entire country,” Heitkamp said. “They’ve forgotten the middle of the country and forgot to even show up. Even past Democratic voters didn’t recognize the Democratic Party of 2018.”
“Culturally, they’re focused on faith and family and country, and Donald Trump tells them all the time that we’re not, even though we are,” Donnelly told Axios.
At this point, we should probably make a distinction between “rural voters” and “Trump voters,” which is what Donnelly and Heitkamp are really talking about. “Rural voters” are not a monolith; some of Hillary Clinton’s strongest performances in 2016 came in the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi, and black and Native and Latinx communities dot rural areas all over the country. Those people, I’d argue, are also remarkably focused on “faith and family and country,” but somehow they’ve found it within themselves not to vote for a racist who very plainly cares about none of those things.
Donnelly and Heitkamp, two people who just soundly lost their elections while running at full speed away from the national Democratic Party and its progressives in particular, are odd messengers for this task. Donnelly, for example, largely got his ass kicked in rural Indiana. Where he did much better was in places like Indianapolis and Gary and Bloomington and South Bend, i.e. the largest and most diverse cities and biggest college towns in the state, and he underperformed in all of them relative to 2012, when he won election to the Senate. It stands to reason that had he focused on matching or increasing voter turnout in his 2012 strongholds, he would have come quite a bit closer to winning re-election than he did.
That’s not to say that it’s a dumb idea to at least start to claw back Trump’s gains with rural white voters; it’s obviously good to seek out more votes, although I’d argue that those gains are more likely to be won through people who didn’t vote in 2016 than people who actively went out and cast a ballot for Donald Trump. And the Democrats have done this before, to varying degrees of success, in rural parts of the country that have been dominated by Republicans for decades.
But given their track record, it’s more likely that Heitkamp and Donnelly’s vision of winning back rural voters includes the Democratic Party orienting itself in a more Trump-like direction fiscally and socially, rather than providing a viable alternative that focuses on people’s material needs. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t actually beat them by joining them. Why would you even want to?