Progressives are criticizing fellow Democrats over their approach to rural voters, arguing their lack of investment outside cities and suburbs is costing the party support in states they believe could be winnable.

What progressives see as an absence of a long-term rural strategy or clear economic message, combined with a seeming apprehension about wading into Republican terrain to tout their side’s accomplishments, is adding to their frustration just one week from the midterms. 

“We’re really not going to where people are,” said David Yankovich, a Democratic strategist working in Oklahoma. “We’re in a 24-hour news cycle, but we only show up every time it’s time to run for reelection.”

In battlegrounds that could decide the Senate majority and in districts that could ultimately determine the makeup of the House, liberals say rural voters could swing tight elections — and that Democrats have been ignoring that fact at their peril.

They say Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are prime examples.

“It’s got to be a long-term plan,” said Rep. Terry Brown (D), a state House member from Charlotte, N.C.

“In rural communities, smaller communities, people don’t want you to just parachute in in August or September of an election year,” he said. “They want to see that consistency.”

Brown, like many local Democratic officials, spends substantial time in areas that national leaders tend to overlook. Sure, he fears swaths of voters may go Republican, a worst-case scenario for those in the party who see the GOP as an assault on their political worldview.

But like many progressives, he’s more concerned that they won’t show up at all. 

“When we’re going out to these rural areas,” Brown said, “a lot of times we’re focusing on the issues that we feel like rural voters care about, but we also have to understand rural voters are like any other voters. We have to be more worried about the apathy of staying home and not voting.”

Some activists and strategists are homing in on one contest in particular, the Pennsylvania Senate election, as a case study of an unconventional Democratic approach. 

Populist John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has traveled to red and rural spaces throughout his campaign, taking his message of economic empowerment to blue-collar voters in hopes of winning their support against his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz.

Fetterman recently took that pitch to another red place: Fox News. In an op-ed that addressed two of Republicans’ biggest campaign focuses — crime and inflation — he sought to convince readers he had the right approach to the issues many polls say they care most about. In doing so, he took a page out of the playbook of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose rural strategy nabbed independents and voters who went for former President Trump.

“I know we need to tackle crime because I live in a community with a serious crime issue. I know that costs are too high because I see it with my own eyes when I’m at Costco,” Fetterman wrote. “I get these issues because I’ve lived these issues.” 

Progressive operatives and organizers across the country say Democrats have been leaving votes in rural enclaves on the table for years. 

In 2008, as liberals were expressing a rush of enthusiasm following former President Obama’s victory, Republicans were already laying groundwork in rural towns and counties meant to stretch beyond the Obama years. They crafted messaging labeling his policies as socialism and questioned his nationality. The following year, the Tea Party formed into a major conservative movement with widespread grassroots appeal.

Much of the GOP’s success, some Democrats believe, was due to them outorganizing the party in power in places where Democrats refused to spend resources and dismissed as unimportant. They also say that while Democrats tried to do too many things at once, Republicans stuck to a core message: lower taxes, lower crime, more freedom.

Well over a decade later, progressives say the establishment wing of the party is continuing to slip with voters they should be wooing and are bumping up against the same issues they faced in the early Tea Party days.

This cycle, a handful of left-wing candidates traveled to places Democrats usually bypass. Fetterman, for example, went to Butler, McKean and Venango counties and drew a crowd in Trump-centric Clarion County.

But while Fetterman is slightly ahead of Oz in current polls, others who have tried a similar approach are facing more uncertainty. A week is a long time in campaigns, but Democrats are nervous about Wisconsin. 

Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes has seen his polling dip in the last leg of the election as national Republicans have spent considerable money to paint him as soft on crime against incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Wisconsin is notoriously swingy, with inconsistent voters who choose to cast ballots in some elections and stay home for others. 

Progressives argue there are communities all over the map that could benefit from a consistent presence on the ground, even in states that Democrats say are practically lost to the GOP.

Many Democrats believe Florida is in danger of becoming a solidly red state, and there is an ongoing debate about what size of an investment should be made in the place where Trump and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis are both popular fixtures. 

Despite President Biden’s loss to Trump there in 2020, the White House believes the state is still worth pursuing. Biden was in Florida on Tuesday to raise money for Democratic Senate nominee Val Demings, who is competing against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, who wants to unseat DeSantis. Both are considered tough races for Democrats.

Many of the state’s rural pockets are untapped, operatives on the ground say, offering a fresh opportunity for engagement. 

“The Democratic Party has not paid as close enough attention to those communities as they should,” said Dwight Bullard, a senior political adviser for the progressive group Florida Rising and a former elected official in the state. “Part of the work that we’re trying to do is do outreach in areas that have not gotten traditionally touched by the Democratic infrastructure.” 

Across the country, Biden made some progress with rural voters, but liberals say there’s plenty of room for improvement. Some of his policies that skew to the left, including the student loan forgiveness executive order he issued in August, may help inspire turnout among younger voters looking for economic relief. Progressives also see policies such as expanding health care and reducing prescription drug prices as winners.

“Take credit for the victories that you had,” said Bullard. “For things like student loan debt, health care expansion, even around the notion of reproductive rights. When we think of access to prenatal care, OB-GYN care for rural women, that’s something that you should definitely be standing on. A woman in a rural community deserves as much access to that level of care as a woman in an urban dwelling.” 

Even as many Democrats are bracing for bruising defeats, organizers are hoping that their efforts mobilizing and messaging around Biden’s agenda and the policies the Democratic-controlled Congress has passed will help them make some important gains and help shake the party’s consciousness beyond Nov. 8.

“The Inflation Reduction Act and other Democratic legislation make unprecedented investments in rural communities, which will spur job growth, reduce energy costs and build new infrastructure,” said George Goehl, a progressive Democratic organizer. 

“If Democrats got big on telling that story on the doors and in the media in rural communities this week, it could make all the difference when the votes are counted,” he said.

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