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‘The brand is so toxic’: Democrats fear extinction in rural US


SMETHPORT, Pa. — Some Democrats in rural Pennsylvania are afraid to tell you they’re Democrats.

The party brand is so toxic in small towns 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh that some liberals have removed stickers and street signs and refuse to publicly acknowledge their party affiliation. These Democrats are used to being outnumbered by the local Republican majority, but as their numbers continue to dwindle, those who remain feel increasingly isolated and unwanted in their own communities.

“The hatred of Democrats is just unbelievable,” said Tim Holohan, an accountant based in rural McKean County who recently encouraged his daughter to get rid of a pro-Joe Biden sticker. “I feel like we’re on the run.”

The climate in rural Pennsylvania is symptomatic of a larger political problem threatening the Democratic Party as the November election approaches. In addition to losing votes in virtually every election since 2008, Democrats have been effectively ostracized from predominantly white parts of rural America, leaving party leaders with few options to reverse a cultural trend that is redefining the landscape. Politics.

The changing climate has helped Republicans limit Democratic inroads in 2020 — the GOP actually won seats in the House despite Donald Trump’s presidential loss. A year later, growing rural support allowed Republicans to claim the governorship of Virginia. A small but vocal group of Democratic officials now fear the same trends are undermining their atic candidates in Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, states that will help decide Senate majorities in November. and the White House two years later.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues to focus the vast majority of its energy, messaging and resources on voters in more populated urban and suburban areas.

In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a leading candidate in the Senate contest, insists his party can no longer afford to ignore rural voters. The former small-town mayor drove his black Dodge Ram pickup truck through five rural counties last weekend to deal with voters who almost never see Democratic candidates statewide.

Fetterman, dressed in his hoodie and gym shorts despite the freezing temperatures, described himself as a champion of ‘forgotten, marginalized and left behind places’ as he addressed around 100 people in a McKean County bingo hall, a Trump location won 72% of the vote in 2020.

“These are the kind of places that matter as much as any other place,” Fetterman said to cheers from the crowd.

The Democratic Party’s struggle in rural America has been building for years. And it’s getting worse and worse.

Barack Obama won 875 counties across the country in his landslide victory in 2008. Twelve years later, Biden has won just 527. The vast majority of those losses — 260 of 348 counties — were in counties rural areas, according to data compiled by the Associated Press.

The worst losses were concentrated in largely white areas of the Midwest: 21 rural Michigan counties fell from Obama in 2008 to Trump in 2020; Democrats lost 28 rural counties in Minnesota, 32 in Wisconsin and 45 in Iowa. At the same time, recent Republican voter registration gains in swing states such as Florida and North Carolina have been fueled disproportionately by rural voters.

Biden overcame rural losses to beat Trump in 2020 due to gains in more populous Democratic counties. Perhaps because of his victory, some Democratic officials fear party leaders may not appreciate the seriousness of the threat.

Democratic Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who recently announced he would not seek re-election to Congress this fall, warns the party is facing extinction in small town America.

“It’s hard to go lower than us right now. You’re almost automatically an outcast in rural areas if you have a D after your name,” Cooper told the AP.

Even as Democrats continue to score victories racking up urban and suburban votes, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota fears her party will have “unstable majorities” if it can’t stop the bleeding in rural areas.

“The Democrats have the House, they have the Senate, the presidency, but it’s an unstable majority. By that, I mean, the narrowest, which makes it difficult to advance ideas and build coalitions,” said Heitkamp, ​​who now runs One Country. Project, which focuses on engaging rural voters.

She criticized her party’s go-to strategy for reaching rural voters: focusing on farmers and committing to improving high-speed internet. At the same time, she said Democrats are hurting themselves by not speaking out more forcefully against far-left positions that alienate rural voters, such as the push to “defund the police.”

While only a handful of Democrats in Congress support removing that money from policing, for example, conservative media outlets popular in rural communities — particularly Fox News — are amplifying those positions.

“We let Republicans use far-left language to define the Democratic Party, and we can’t do that,” Heitkamp said. “Trendlines in rural America are very, very bad. … Now the brand is so toxic that people who are Democrats, those who stay, don’t fight for the party.”

To help win back rural voters, the Democratic National Committee tapped Kylie Oversen, a former North Dakota legislator, to work with rural organizers and rural caucuses in party states as chair of the national committee’s rural council. . The DNC also says it shares resources with people on the ground in rural areas to help improve training, recruiting and organizing.

So far, at least, those resources aren’t making life any easier for Democrats in northwest Pennsylvania.

On one of Fetterman’s weekends in rural Clarion, a group of voters said they were effectively ostracized by their community — and even family members, in some cases — for being Democrats. A woman brings her political placards inside at night so they are not vandalized or stolen.

“You have to be careful here,” said Barbara Speer, 68, a retired sixth grade teacher.

Nearby, Michelle’s Cafe on Clarion’s Main Street is one of the few gathering spots for local Democrats. A sign on the door proclaims support for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and other progressive priorities.

But cafe owner Kaitlyn Nevel, 33, is not comfortable sharing her political affiliation when asked.

“I’d rather not say it, just because it’s a small town,” she said.

One customer, 22-year-old student Eugenia Barboza, said the cafe was one of the few places in town she felt safe as a Latina immigrant. Just down the road, she said, a caravan of Trump supporters gathered on their way to the deadly protests in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Barboza said she’s grateful Democrats like Fetterman are willing to come to rural areas, but she doesn’t hope that will change much.

“It would take a lot more than him,” she said. “It would take years and years and years.”

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