What much of the party establishment doesn’t understand is that rural life is rooted in shared values of independence, common sense, tradition, frugality, community and hard work. Democratic campaigns often seem to revolve around white papers and wonky policy. In our experience, politicians lose rural people when they regurgitate politically triangulated lines and talk about the vagaries of policy. Rural folks vote on what rings true and personal to them: Can this person be trusted? Is he authentic?
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
While these defeats ought to prompt real soul-searching within the party, some political scientists and many mainstream Democrats have taken them as proof not that their own strategies must change, but rather that rural Republicans are too ignorant to vote in their own best interest. It’s a counterproductive, condescending story that serves only to drive the wedge between Democrats and rural communities deeper yet.
Chloe has knocked on more than 20,000 doors over the last two cycles, listening to stories of loss and isolation. One man told her she was the first person to listen to him; most campaigns, he said, didn’t even bother to knock on his door — they judged him for what his house looked like. Another voter said she had been undecided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump until Election Day but ultimately voted for Mr. Trump because, she said, at the Republican convention, he talked about regular American working people, and Ms. Clinton didn’t at her own convention.
Something has to change. The Democrats need a profoundly different strategy if they are to restore their reputation as champions of working people, committed to improving their lives, undaunted by wealth and power. In our view, the only way for Democrats to regain traction in rural places is by running strong campaigns in districts that usually back Republicans. This change starts with having face-to-face conversations to rebuild trust and faith not only in Democrats but also in the democratic process. Even though it’s hard work with no guaranteed outcome, it is necessary — even if we don’t win.
In our two campaigns, we turned down the party consultants and created our own canvassing universe — the targeted list of voters whom we talk to during the election season. In 2020, this universe was four times larger than what the state party recommended. It included thousands of Republicans and independents who had (literally) never been contacted by a Democratic campaign in their entire time voting.
Our campaign signs? Hand-painted or made of scavenged wood pallets by volunteers, with images of loons, canoes and other hallmarks of the Maine countryside. Into the trash went consultant-created mailers. Instead, we designed and carried out our own direct mail program for half the price of what the party consultants wanted to charge while reaching 20 percent more voters.
Volunteers wrote more than 5,000 personal postcards, handwritten and addressed to neighbors in their own community. And we defied traditional advice by refusing to say a negative word about our opponents, no matter how badly we wanted to fight back as the campaigns grew more heated.