Behind Biden win...a warning for Democrats

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2020, file photo people watch as the motorcade for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a campaign rally at Dallas High School in Dallas, Pa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2020, file photo people watch as the motorcade for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a campaign rally at Dallas High School in Dallas, Pa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

2020 victory hides weaknesses in rural America.

Posted: Nov 27, 2020 7:15 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrats once dominated Koochiching County in the blue-collar Iron Range of northern Minnesota. But in this month's presidential election, President Donald Trump won it with 60% of the vote.

That's not because voters there are suddenly shifting to the right, said Tom Bakk, who represents the area in the state Senate. It's because, he said, Democrats have steadily moved too far to the left for many rural voters.

“We’ve got to see if we can get the Democratic Party to moderate and accept the fact that rural Minnesota is not getting more conservative,” said Bakk, who announced last week that he would become an independent after serving 25 years as a Democrat. "It’s that you guys are leaving them behind.”

While Democrats powered through cities and suburbs to reclaim the White House, the party slid further behind in huge rural swaths of northern battlegrounds. The party lost House seats in the Midwest, and Democratic challengers in Iowa, Kansas, Montana and North Carolina Senate races, all once viewed as serious threats to Republican incumbents, fell, some of them hard.

Though Democrats’ rural woes aren’t new, they now heap pressure on Biden to begin reversing the trend. Failure to do so endangers goals such as curbing climate change and winning a Senate majority, especially with GOP Senate seats in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin up in 2022.

“The pressure for Democrats has to be on conveying an economic message for rural America,” said Iowa Democrat John Norris, a former candidate for governor. “We have a great one to convey, but we haven’t put enough emphasis on it.”

It has become a defining dynamic in almost every state where Democrats dominate urban areas and, for at least two elections, have clear momentum in the suburbs.

While Trump sought to squeeze more out of his mostly white, working-class base, he made little ground in places he barely won or lost in 2016, and slid in suburbs across the industrial and agricultural north. Instead, he supercharged his focus on places he won big last times.

Trump lost Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, after winning all three in 2016. But he won at least 60% of the vote in 126 counties in the three — 14 more than in 2016, according to Associated Press and state elections data. All of those counties are lightly populated.

Perhaps more telling, Trump increased his winning percentages in 90% of the counties where he reached the 60% mark in those three states four years ago. That includes all 24 counties where he won at least 70% of the vote last time, even while Biden was vastly outspending Trump on advertising.

The rural runaway was even greater in Iowa and Ohio, where polls late in October gave Biden's campaign hopes of a close race or narrow win, only to see him lose them by the same margins Clinton did.

Trump's greater dominance in rural Ohio surprised even Republican strategists. In Ohio's 6th Congressional District, 18 counties that hug the Pennsylvania border and Ohio River, Trump improved from 64% of the vote to more than 66%.

“I'll be the first to say I was doubtful President Trump could exceed what he did in 2016,” said Ryan Steubenrauch, a senior adviser to 6th District Republican Rep. Bill Johnson.

Though Biden fulfilled Democrats' long-sought goal of carrying Georgia and Arizona, albeit narrowly, it wasn't because he concentrated on reaching beyond their metro hubs, said Steve Jarding, a veteran Democratic strategist who has long argued for greater party engagement in rural America.

“Democrats have found a way to win in the country, at least they believe this to be the case, by not concentrating much in big parts of the middle of the country," he said. “That's a scary proposition.”

Jarding worries that by winning Arizona, Georgia and the northern swing states without addressing the rural economy, Democrats might believe the states are now trending their way as the result of favorable population and demographic shifts.

“We didn't win Georgia because we had a great message to rural Georgians,” said Jarding, who helped Mark Warner win the Virginia governorship in 2001 by advising him to campaign aggressively far from the booming Washington, D.C., suburbs. “If Democrats say, look, we got into Georgia and we won it without having to talk about rural issues, they are dead wrong. It will flip back."

In clinging to their majority, House Democrats lost rural seats, notably the one held for 30 years by Rep. Collin Peterson in western Minnesota. The setbacks prompted accusations from moderates that the party's prominent liberals, such as New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, had become representative of a party foreign to America's farming and small manufacturing towns.

“I would argue everyone talks about the big tent. It’s not as big as it used to be,” Minnesota's Bakk said.

Biden campaigned little in person, even less in rural areas. Trump, on the other hand, whipped up enthusiasm at rallies in places like Wausau, Wisconsin, in the state's rural north where he dominated, as well as Saginaw in Mid Michigan, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, surrounded by counties he carried by more than 70%, even 80%.

Democrats also spent little time and money combatting Trump's attacks.

Unanswered, Trump's claims that Biden and other Democrats are proponents of socialism and eliminating police departments, as unfounded as they were, resonated in small towns, according to VoteCast, an Associated Press survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.

“We have to address this in a really more aggressive way,” said veteran Democratic strategist James Carville, especially Trump's claims that Democrats are anti-police. “There were some serious kind of headwinds there.”

Democrats need to not just defend against attacks but recruit more candidates among rural Americans and argue that progressive policy is to their advantage.

“We obviously have a brand problem in rural America,” said former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat defeated in 2018. “But if you want to be an alternative, you can't go there empty-handed.”

Heitkamp credits Biden for including specifically rural provisions in his policy plans, such as a transportation component in his health care proposal, considering many people in sparsely populated areas must travel some distance to see a doctor.

For now, Democrats' future in rural America rests largely on how Biden is viewed there, Heitkamp said.

“A good way to start out would be to make sure in his inaugural speech and state of the union, he talks about rural America,” she said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 594427

Reported Deaths: 7389
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1229681733
Ramsey51530876
Dakota46037452
Anoka41844440
Washington26983283
Stearns22293222
St. Louis17814305
Scott17324126
Wright16121140
Olmsted1326598
Sherburne1175388
Carver1051245
Clay816792
Rice8075108
Blue Earth751941
Crow Wing666990
Kandiyohi657383
Chisago603251
Otter Tail575878
Benton572397
Goodhue478772
Douglas468576
Mower466732
Winona455150
Itasca440556
McLeod425459
Isanti424864
Morrison419860
Nobles408148
Beltrami397859
Steele389315
Polk384968
Becker381153
Lyon361251
Carlton346054
Freeborn342129
Pine329122
Nicollet326443
Brown305840
Mille Lacs305353
Le Sueur293123
Todd282832
Cass274628
Meeker257340
Waseca236522
Martin230932
Roseau209419
Wabasha20643
Hubbard190241
Dodge18543
Renville180543
Redwood174537
Houston172016
Cottonwood165823
Fillmore156710
Wadena156122
Pennington153719
Faribault152619
Chippewa152438
Kanabec145126
Sibley143910
Aitkin135336
Watonwan13329
Rock128419
Jackson121812
Pipestone116026
Yellow Medicine114220
Pope11096
Murray10639
Swift105818
Stevens91511
Marshall88117
Clearwater87016
Koochiching84315
Wilkin81612
Lake81120
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5788
Mahnomen5539
Norman5409
Unassigned49593
Kittson48622
Red Lake3987
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3273
Cook1660

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367374

Reported Deaths: 5946
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57696628
Linn20903335
Scott20071242
Black Hawk15825308
Woodbury15141228
Johnson1449883
Dubuque13382209
Dallas1118698
Pottawattamie11140168
Story1062848
Warren577889
Clinton556193
Cerro Gordo541289
Sioux514574
Webster512293
Marshall483275
Muscatine4812100
Des Moines458966
Wapello4305122
Buena Vista424940
Jasper419472
Plymouth401280
Lee376255
Marion363175
Jones299157
Henry292037
Carroll286052
Bremer284960
Crawford266240
Boone265134
Benton256655
Washington253950
Dickinson248543
Mahaska230451
Jackson222142
Clay215725
Kossuth215564
Tama209871
Delaware209741
Winneshiek196935
Page192722
Buchanan191532
Cedar190123
Hardin185743
Fayette185241
Wright184637
Hamilton180249
Harrison179673
Clayton169756
Butler165034
Madison162519
Mills162422
Floyd161142
Cherokee159038
Lyon158241
Poweshiek154934
Allamakee151451
Iowa148924
Hancock148434
Winnebago142631
Cass138654
Calhoun138413
Grundy136433
Emmet134240
Jefferson132735
Shelby130937
Sac130519
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose128049
Mitchell126442
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120821
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100224
Unassigned9720
Keokuk95931
Monroe95229
Ida90635
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83524
Monona82730
Osceola78816
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7498
Taylor66012
Fremont6229
Decatur6089
Van Buren55918
Ringgold55824
Wayne53923
Audubon50910
Adams3384
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