Have Virginia’s Democrats forgotten about the Commonwealth’s rural voters? The answer seems to be yes. Virginia Democrats found their formula for winning — and it has worked — but for the most part it doesn’t include the vast swaths of Virginia that consider themselves rural.
That’s a shame. Not too long ago, within the last 30 years, Democrats had considerable support in rural Virginia. But, through a refocusing on the voter-rich Northern Virginia urban and suburban crescent, they allowed that support to wither. Rural Virginia in 2020 is decidedly Republican. In building their coalition, the Democrats left rural Virginian’s out in the cold. The thing is, they didn’t have too. What’s more, if they want to extend their base and grow their coalition, they might find that rural Virginia is more fertile territory than they realized.
However, at the moment, that’s not the view of many in Virginia’s Democratic Party. Plenty of my Democratic friends say the party, from an electoral sense, shouldn’t worry about reaching out to rural Virginia. They say they can’t reach those voters, and besides, they believe they have a winning strategy and it works. Oh yes, and Democrats would never win in rural Virginia no matter what they do, so why bother. Talk about a defeatist and myopic view of such an important and powerful part of the Virginia electorate.
There was a time when Virginia Democrats aggressively went after the rural vote. Mark Warner and Doug Wilder made a play for the rural vote. So, did the late Gov. Jerry Baliles. However, you have to go back to the 1970s and Henry Howell to find a Democrat who seemed to understand rural Virginia. That’s a long time ago, but his story still offers a lesson. He was liberal, but he campaigned on bread and butter issues. Back in his day it was the sales tax on food, the give-away guaranteed profits for the state’s electrical utility and the lack of rural health care. Goodness, how little things change.
Go back and check the results of his campaign for governor. He won counties that Democrats now routinely lose by big margins. He built a coalition with unions, African Americans (lots of African Americans live in rural Virginia by the way) and urban and suburban areas.
But then the polarization started. That Northern Virginia urban and suburban crescent, grew larger, denser and more liberal. The Democratic Party moved left, found a winning formula in sticking with its Northern Virginia base and started to forget about rural Virginia. But, in the long run, it’s a disservice to rural voters and to the Democratic Party. Democrats have a winning coalition. That’s great. But, why not try to expand it?
The Republicans managed it once. Albeit somewhat in reverse. Back in 2009, Bob McDonnel, a Northern Virginian, along with Bill Bolling, running a conservative, middle of the road campaign, managed to reduce the blue advantage in Northern Virginia to a tie, and of course, they did well in rural Virginia. That’s what’s called a coalition. It was also the last time Virginia Republicans won a statewide election. That’s a lesson for the Republicans to think about
However, this column is about the Democrats. They have the winning edge at the moment, but nothing lasts forever, and that said, doesn’t it make sense to widen the coalition, widen their appeal and make the case to Virginia’s rural voters, as well? It’s still a substantial part of the state. These regions have serious and daunting challenges and writing them off is not only bad politics, its bad governance.
What message and what actions can help rural Virginia? It’s not hard to find some issues. For one thing, while we’re all fighting the COVID epidemic, rural Virginia is still fighting and losing the fight against opioids, heroin, fentanyl and meth.
Then there is economics. Rural Virginia, particularly in regions where coal, rail and traditional agriculture have faltered, is in deep economic trouble. Joblessness and underemployment are high. At one time, Democrats aggressively championed rural economic development in Virginia. They need to again.
That leads to another problem. Democrats don’t seem to understand the culture of rural Virginia. They seem to forget that Wythe County isn’t like Arlington. As a rule, rural Virginia is more socially conservative. They’re more religious and they take their gun rights seriously. That’s the part that’s going to prove the most difficult. Democrats can’t just be the party of the left. They’re going have to allow more moderate members of their party to have a seat at the table.
With moderate candidates, a focus on bread and butter issues and a desire to reacquaint themselves with a part of the state they have all but written off, they might find some room to grow their coalition. And in politics, growing your base is what it’s all about.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at VCU and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.