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Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington

January 10, 2018


By Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Robin Johnson

To download “Hope from the Heartland” in a printable PDF, click here.

Executive Summary

Democrats’ national level of support has seen better days. Much better.

By the numbers, Democrats are at their lowest in nearly 100 years.

While the party had a successful night in off-year elections on Nov. 7, 2017, and in the Dec. 12, 2017, special election in Alabama for U.S. Senate, Democrats will not return to majorities in Washington or the states without earning stronger support from the rural, working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump to victory in 2016.

Moreover, the party must listen to Heartland voters and embrace the opportunity to elevate their very real concerns in Washington.

After interviewing 72 successful local officials from rural areas in Midwestern states now dominated by Republicans, consistent themes emerged about how Democrats can both regain trust and import wisdom from those in places that feel forgotten by both national parties.

Our approach is unique. We sought out people who regularly face voters in rural and working-class areas. These leaders have not only witnessed cultural and economic shifts over time, but they have also prevailed on the front lines of recent political battles by addressing the real concerns of their constituents.

Those interviewed said national Democrats must acknowledge and stay focused on the bread-and-butter challenges facing hardworking families. Too often, they said, Heartland voters view national Democrats as fixated on siloed messages to specific groups that don’t include them or are too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns.

Instead, they urge national Democrats to stay focused on championing new policy solutions in infrastructure, education and small business that will elevate the economic fortunes of all voters, especially those in rural areas and small towns who feel their concerns aren’t being addressed. When they open the paper in the morning or flip on the news at night, too often they see Democrats talking about things that don’t directly relate to them.

They also recommend the party develop better communications tools to counter Fox News, talk radio and conservative social media. They urge the national party to listen to and engage rural constituencies and to welcome into the party those who share Democrats’ broader goals, but may dissent on particular social issues.

Finally, those interviewed recommend a comprehensive review of campaign committees and consultants to re-think winning strategies unique to campaigns in rural areas.

With only a few election cycles until the next redistricting, there is limited time to listen and learn from those who have succeeded in these hard-to-win areas. However, if we do, Democrats can not only begin to reverse years of Democratic decline in the Heartland, but also better serve all Americans by delivering the economic change craved by those who have felt overlooked.

To download “Hope from the Heartland” in a printable PDF, click here.