Over the past 3 decades, Democrats have lost their foothold in rural America.
Once the bedrock of Democratic support, there are now hundreds of rural districts that are considered too “red” to even field a candidate.
The reasons people cite for this fall are many. Some might blame the prevalence of right wing radio and TV which dominates the media in rural areas. Others might point to gerrymandering, which has sought to fracture Democrats in rural areas. Still others might point to a consistent trend at the DNC of focusing on driving turnout in solidly “blue” areas rather than slogging it out in hard to win, more remote districts.
Personally, I think all three have played a role. But if I had to put my finger on a specific timeframe, I’d put the 1994 mid-term election near the top of the list…and just about every national election since. That election brought a new breed of Republicans, highly trained and well funded through a cabal of corporate funded “grassroots” organizations.
The 1994 election, and the ones that followed, changed how Democrats perceived they could win nationally. Rather than fighting hard to win back lost territory, Democrats chose to double down on critical mass in urban areas, which can work in some really big states, but not the mid-tier 7-12 electoral vote states.
People think Florida is the reason Al Gore lost the Presidential election in 2000. The reality is more complicated than that. Gore lost his home state of Tennessee…which, with 11 Electoral College votes, would have put him over the top and made the Florida recount moot. That happened partially because the Gore campaign decided sinking resources into Florida made more sense in the long-run.
It almost worked. Unfortunately, rather than learning the lesson of the 2000 election (rural states matter), Democrats have doubled down on a strategy of specifically ignoring a growing list of states that are deemed “too red to win”. The result has been the loss of state legislatures and governorships en masse.
Now, out of power at the national level, and struggling to remain relevant in upwards of 31 state governments, Democrats have a huge task ahead. Tennessee is a shining example of just how “uphill” that battle will be.
The Ugly Truth
This is a map of TN State House Districts by the party each representative holds.
It is dire.
There are 25 Democrats in the State House by my count. Just 5 in the State Senate. I couldn’t bring myself to publish that map.
This isn’t news to anyone. Its been like this, or some version of this since the 2010 election.
I’ve been writing about it since Democrats lost the majority of the State House in 2008.
Each time I’ve talked about it I’ve stressed that Democrats can’t win statewide with urban areas alone. This was made even more clear while I was analyzing the statewide results by County and Population.
Here’s a quick glance of what it looks like:
60% of Tennesseans live in Counties with a population of 250k or less.
More than 70% of those Tennesseans voted for the GOP candidate for POTUS. That’s 42% of the total electorate. No Democrat can win any election giving up on 42% of all the voters in the state.
If you’re thinking about running as a Democrat statewide, this is what you’re up against.
In the 2016 Presidential Election, the Democratic nominee only won the top five counties because of Shelby and Davidson Co. If I had made another split starting at 500k, the 250-500k counties would have looked similar to the rest of the state. (Ed. Note: I have made that change to the spreadsheet. It is reflected above)
We can’t win the state with Shelby and Davidson Counties alone. What that means is there has to be a real and concerted effort to get our message and our messengers out into the other 93 counties.
Democrats Need An Army of Rural Organizers
Across the state there are groups of Democrats and Democratic aligned organizations. But very few of these groups can be found in rural areas. The Indivisible Group Guide is a shining example. Every major urban area sports at least one, and in most cases, several groups. But outside of those urban areas, it’s pretty slim. There’s only one group in West Tennessee outside of the region’s two largest counties…Shelby and Madison.
For Democrats to begin making a dent in the GOP supermajority in the state, we need a whole lot more organizing going on. We need an army of rural organizers.
Rural organizing isn’t like organizing in urban areas. People are more spread out. There are fewer media outlets. This can make organizing actions and gaining traction in the community more difficult.
The great thing is, there are models for this kind of organizing. The Rural Organizing Project has quite a few tools to help people organize in rural America. I found this organizing guide quite informative.
As an urbanite who spent much of his childhood in a rural farming town, I understand building an organization to win back rural areas has to be organic. It has to be run by people in rural areas. It can’t be imposed by people in Memphis or Nashville. Even Jackson is too far removed. It has to be organized from the ground up.
But it also needs support from people all over the state…including Memphis and Nashville. That support can include anything from training and the distribution of tools to helping fund specific goals.
Proof of Life
Now it may sound crazy, but this has worked in other red states. Look at Oklahoma. The state may have overwhelmingly supported #45 for President, but it also defeated a proposal backed by Corporate agriculture interests that would have crippled family farmers.
Clinton may have only won 28.9% of the vote in Oklahoma, but corporate Ag lost in the state thanks to rural organizing.
You might think this meant running to the right, but Joe Maxwell, the organizer of the campaign looks at it differently:
“Democrats don’t have to throw out their values,” Maxwell insists. “Democrats don’t even have to abandon their issues. It’s about how you frame it. It’s about connecting with people and showing them how your ideas fit with their values.” – Joe Maxwell Source
That’s what it takes, making a personal connection and showing people how it fits with their values.
Democrats aren’t doing that in Tennessee…or any other southern states. If anything, Democrats have a “live and let live” mentality about rural America that boxes rural voices out of the conversation.
That is why, without doing some serious organizing in rural communities, we cannot and will not ever win a statewide election. There are just not enough voters in urban areas to run up the score and win statewide.
Since 2008, both here and at Speak to Power, I’ve been advocating for more work organizing rural communities. It was one of the signature causes behind Speak to Power that Trace Sharp (aka Newscoma) and I identified when we started working on that blog.
At the time, we called on Democrats and Democratic organizations (party organs) to do more. What I’ve realized in the years since then is that it has to be a local effort. We’ve had 3 Chairs since the 2008 debacle: two from Nashville, one from rural west Tennessee, and none have been able to mount a real rural organizing effort.
Its not really their fault. Its not the role of a state party to micromanage local efforts. State parties need to support local efforts with tools and training…but they can’t run them from Memphis or Nashville.
So the task is clear for Democrats living in rural Tennessee. Its up to you to fight back against the things that are happening in your communities. Its up to you to ask for help and raise hell if you don’t get it.
That’s your task.
For people, like me, who live in urban areas, our task is to support these efforts without getting in the way. We’ve got plenty of work to do in organizing our own areas to maximize Democratic turnout without butting in to the efforts of rural organizers. But to the extent that we can lend our support, be it moral, financial, or tactical, we must. Its the only way we can win our state back.