The Rural Vote Is Again in Play

The midterms showed that rural voters must be an integral part of the Democratic strategy if they want to win in 2024.

George Goehl

John Fetterman declaring victory in his race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Joe Lamberti/ Getty Images

This spring I spent a couple of weeks traveling through the Midwest to meet with Democratic county chairs in rural areas. In my first meeting, before I could even take my seat, I got an earful about the struggle to simply get political yard signs out. This happened in nearly every meeting I had. These were committed and creative rural Democrats holding it all together with duct tape and bungee cords, crying for help.

It hasn’t always been this way. Former President Barack Obama won 43% of the rural vote in 2008 in what was an essential part of his coalition. Eight years later, those numbers dropped to 34% for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Joe Biden improved the Democratic rural vote share by a percentage point or two in the states that mattered most, Wisconsin and Michigan, and carried the presidency. 

The good news is that, since former President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, a small but growing group of organizers have joined the ranks of those building Democratic power in rural communities. Those investments are beginning to pay off. The main proof is this year’s midterms: In states where Democrats won tough statewide elections November 8, they did so in part by improving their showing with rural voters.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer turned the rural counties of Benzie, Grand Traverse, Muskegon and Isabella blue that went red for Trump in 2020. Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman’s campaign to seize an open Senate seat prioritized narrowing the gap in rural counties, including in his home turf on the western side of the state. Fetterman succeeded in every single county along the state’s western border. According to reporting from The Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues, the Fetterman campaign outperformed Biden’s 2020 rural showing by 2.4%. This was powered in part through rural turnout. The Daily Yonder reports that the turnout gap was biggest among rural voters and that Fetterman received 83% of the votes that Biden did in 2020, while Mehmet Oz garnered only 73% of the 2020 Trump vote” in rural areas. 

I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do, and we had that conversation across every one of those counties, and tonight that’s why I’ll be the next U.S. senator from Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said during his victory speech.

"I never expected that we were going to turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do, and we had that conversation across every one of those counties, and tonight that's why I'll be the next U.S. senator from Pennsylvania," Fetterman said during his victory speech.

There are 676 counties across the country that voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In 2016, nearly a third of those went to Trump. The greatest concentration of these counties is along the Mississippi River in the upper Midwest. Wisconsin’s Driftless Area was among the hardest-hit for Democrats in that 2016 election, but this year, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers put Vernon County back in the Democratic column for governor, moving the county more than 6 points toward Democrats and narrowing the gap in other small towns along the Mississippi.

The rural vote also helped power progressive champions to Congress during these midterm elections. Among the many progressives who outperformed expectations in rural counties is Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who championed her working-class roots and standing up to corporate interests in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, a perennial swing seat. Another is Democrat Gabe Vasquez, who narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell in New Mexico’s 2nd District. He ran on a platform of good jobs, affordable healthcare and combating climate change.

I credit the improved showing for rural Democrats to two things: First, when you take something away from rural voters, they push back. We saw this during the midterm elections in 2018 as many rural voters rejected Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which played a big role in the blue wave that followed.

Catalist, an organization that gathers and analyzes election data, estimated a six-point swing in the rural vote from Republicans to Democrats from 2016 to 2018, with single rural white women and rural white voters aged 18 – 29 moving 17 and 16 points, respectively, from Republican to Democrat. That shift clearly happened again in 2022, as many rural voters were not about to sign off on Republicans taking away their right to an abortion. Rural Democrats helped fuel wins to protect the right to an abortion in Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, Vermont and California.

This trend first appeared in Kansas, a state that supported Trump by nearly 15 points over Biden in 2020 but voted earlier this year to uphold state constitutional protections for abortion rights.

To be clear, in rural Kansas, the majority did vote against abortion rights — but the margin was much tighter than most expected. What may have caught the attention of Democratic strategists was how the pro-abortion-rights vote outpaced Biden’s own numbers in rural Kansas — for example, Biden garnered 17% of the vote in Russell County in 2020, while 45% voted in support of abortion rights in August. And in some counties, as the Kansas City Star reported, the majority of rural voters did vote for abortion rights: In Osage, a rural county with 11,900 registered voters (which has not gone for a Democratic president since the Johnson administration), voters leaned into abortion rights, 56% to 44%.

Second, if the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision set the context, it was rural organizers who took advantage. While most eyes were on the race for the Senate in North Carolina, voters in House District 73, a suburban and rural district outside of Charlotte, blocked a Republican supermajority by sending Diamond Staton-Williams, an area nurse, to the statehouse. The margin in that race was hundreds of votes.

Staton-Williams’ win didn’t come out of thin air, but was powered (in part) by Down Home North Carolina, a multiracial working-class organizing group that told In These Times that they knocked on 35,000 doors in District 73. They also said they knocked on 150,000 doors statewide, including in the state’s 13th Congressional District, where Democrat Wiley Nickel beat the Trump-endorsed Bo Hines.

Movement Labs, an organization that works to elect Democrats, launched a new project in 2021 to support the same rural Democratic Party chairs I met with this spring and others like them. Leveraging the existing but under-supported capacity of the rural county parties, Movement Labs moved to fill in the gaps — with messaging, media, texting and experimenting with service and mutual aid programs in partnership with local Democrats. Counties they worked in improved their vote share in Arizona and Michigan, and Movement Labs helped flip one rural Kansas county, Geary, from red to blue.

Now, hopefully more Democratic Party donors and operatives will decide it is time, once again, to contest for the rural vote. Whether it’s Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis or some other right-wing extremist seeking the presidency, we will need all the rural votes we can muster.

The Whitmer win in Michigan didn’t happen without help. It was due in part to organizations like Michigan People’s Campaign and We the People Action Fund, two organizations that have committed to deep canvassing in rural areas. Michigan People’s Campaign told In These Times that they contacted some 56,000 rural voters, focusing on the 3rd, 7th and 8th Congressional Districts, all wins for Democrats.

We the People Action Fund proved what is possible by investing in relationships and just plain showing up. Betsy Coffia, a We the People Action Fund organizer, won Michigan’s 103rd District House seat, the first progressive to win this lean-Republican seat in decades. She showed up for people in her district when they needed it, organizing meal deliveries for healthcare workers and standing with teachers and students when their school board meetings became a political battleground.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a campaign rally the day before the Nov. 8 election. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Coffia’s campaign lines up with the suggestions for rural Democratic candidates in a new report released by the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative. Successful candidates tend to be known by their constituents for a variety of reasons,” the report says. They have usually spent a significant amount of time in the district or state, if not their entire lives. They tend to have had jobs or careers of some visibility in their districts, often entailing a significant amount of public trust.” The findings are drawn from conversations with 50 rural Democratic candidates who outperformed typical rural Democratic candidates. They say half the battle is building a network of relationships and doing as much listening as talking. The report also says successful rural Democrats use common sense language that resonates with people in their specific district — something the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative says Fetterman, among others, did well in this cycle.

One of the main conclusions Democrats should draw from these midterms is that the rural vote is again in play and rural voters must be an integral part of the Democratic strategy if they want to win in 2024 and beyond. There’s new evidence every election cycle that rural voters are not static, and that it is nearly impossible in most states for Democrats to win without them.

The path to improving Democrats showing in rural areas seems clear: We need more organizers joining the fight for their rural communities. We need deep canvassing. We need common sense language that resonates. We need to build multiracial and working-class coalitions in rural areas that can truly engage and mobilize voters.

Now, hopefully more Democratic Party donors and operatives will decide it is time, once again, to contest for the rural vote. Whether it’s Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis or some other right-wing extremist seeking the presidency, we will need all the rural votes we can muster.

George Goehl is a longtime community organizer. He is the host of To See Each Other, a documentary podcast about rural organizing, and the former director of People’s Action, a national people’s organization working in urban, suburban and rural communities.

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