Politics & Policy

Regaining the Rural Vote

Red State Democrats panic.

The Era of the Red State Democrat will have suffered a very short reign if Hillary Clinton wins her party’s nomination next year, at least according to the fears of some members of her party. While 2006 saw impressive Democratic wins on traditionally Republican turf, most notably Jim Webb in Virginia, John Tester in Montana, Nancy Boyda in Kansas, and Heath Shuler in North Carolina, some red-state Democrats warn that the “Hillary drag” may eviscerate their ranks in 2008.

#ad#Some are quiet about it, like the 39 Democratic state and local officials who told the Associated Press they would talk about their fears of Hillary Clinton dragging them down only if they could remain anonymous, fearing reprisals from the Clintons.

But some are louder, like Dave “Mudcat” Sanders, a consultant for John Edwards’s campaign, and one of the most colorful and lively Democratic strategists in America. He puts it simply: “Edwards has coattails; Hillary has anti-coattails.”

“For Hillary to go out into rural America, and tell us she’s going to help us, and tell us all the wonderful things she’s going to do for us, it takes gall,” Sanders says. He goes on to say,

If the Clintons had gone to the mat for universal health care the way they did for NAFTA and for crazy one-sided trade treaties and had listened about the giant sucking sound that Ross Perot told them about, we would still have our health care and our jobs. It takes gall for her to say she’s going to help us. She’s got a record of killing us.

The argument that rural America has driven Democrats’ recent gains, and that risking their advantage there may cost them control of the House, carries some weight, according to results of a survey by the Center for Rural Strategies. According to their June poll of 804 rural likely voters, these voters currently deliver a narrow plurality to a generic Democratic candidate for president, 46 percent to 43 percent. (For comparison, in 2004, President Bush won the rural vote in 2004 by 19 points.) At the congressional level, voters prefer Democrats 46-percent to 44-percent.

But the poll also found that rural voters remain more conservative than the nation as a whole, and it is accurate to say that Hillary Clinton is about as popular as illegal immigrants among these voters. When asked to rate their warm or cool feelings towards figures on a “thermometer” from 0 to 100, the “warm” (positive) rating for all three top Democrats was in the low thirties, but the “cool” (negative) rating for Obama was 34, for Edwards was 36, and for Hillary Clinton was 52. The only comparable cool ratings were given to George W. Bush (44) and illegal immigrants (55).

Sanders chalks up Democrats’ recent improved fortunes in rural America to an improved ability to connect with rural voters on economic issues while not alienating them on social issues. He contends that, aside from the perception that Hillary is socially liberal and has spent the past 15 years in Washington and New York, her past support for free-trade agreements will prompt rural voters to tune out her arguments that she can improve the economic fortunes in these regions.

“When Hillary Clinton talks about the ‘unintended consequences’ of NAFTA – hey, I was I was born at night, but wasn’t born last night,” Sanders says. “Unintended consequences, my a**. Everybody in rural and small town America knows they were unconsidered consequences. They didn’t give a s*** — all they cared about was holding on to their power!”

So which red-state Democrats will be sweating the most if Hillary is the nominee?

Margins of victory are usually thinner in House races, and big anti-Hillary turnout in Republican-leaning districts could really hurt Democrats. There are about 70 Democratic seats won by Bush in 2004, compared to four remaining Republican seats in districts won by Kerry.

One Democratic strategist, who works for a candidate preparing to challenge an incumbent Republican in a deep red district in the Midwest, has put together a list of 37 vulnerable rural or red-district House Democrats. Republicans would need to win 16 to retake control of the house.

“I’d say outside of Arkansas, any marginal southern races are gone [for Democrats] if Hillary’s the nominee,” says the strategist. For example, last year Georgia Democrats John Barrow and Jim Marshall faced tough reelection bids, and won by the skin of their teeth in a year marked by a Democratic tsunami.

“[Marshall] is in a district where Bush carried 60 percent; if Hillary’s the nominee, he’s toast,” the strategist says. “For Barrow’s district, it was a little closer (Bush carried 50.4 percent). But it’s a race Democrats will have to spend money on to keep. I mean, it’s Georgia, man.”

Other southern targets include Alabama’s fifth district, and Tim Mahoney in Florida’s 16th District (Mark Foley’s seat). “That’s going to be a tough one in any race, and with Hillary, I’m pretty sure we’ll lose,” the strategist laments.

This strategist sees three seats in Texas alone that could flip, if anti-Hillary passion stirs up the GOP base in districts that voted for Bush in 2004.

Lampson, [Tom Delay’s old seat in TX-22], he’d be toast with Hillary as the candidate. Chet Edwards [TX-17] survived John Kerry, but I’m not sure he can survive Hillary if he gets a serious opponent. It’s Bush’s home district [for his Crawford ranch]. It’s a tough thing even for a Ciro Rodriguez [TX-23].

In the Senate, the most obvious potentially vulnerable Democrats are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (who will be running with a different, post-Katrina electorate), and the recovering Tim Johnson of South Dakota. (Other red state seats, like Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa, don’t seem vulnerable.) Pryor’s vulnerability appears to hinge on the interest in presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

“Johnson, between the physical ailments and thin margin of victory last time, is going to have a tough time, and Hillary would just knock him out it,” says the rural strategist. “Landrieu is gonna have a fight no matter who nominee is, but I think Edwards is the only one who gives her a chance.”

There are also going to be four red state open Senate seats that could be pickups for the Democrats in the right environment — Nebraska, Virginia, Idaho, and in Colorado, where the AP noted that Hillary’s negative rating is 16 percentage points higher than her favorability.

Hillary’s drag in red states and districts may be mitigated, or exacerbated by the Republican nominee.

“If [Fred] Thompson’s the nominee running against Hillary, I don’t think she can beat him,” says the rural House strategist. He goes on:

Everybody says he’s lazy, or he didn’t start out well, but I’d say look at his announcement video. That scared the hell out of me as a Democrat. He’s got this gut-level connection — he’s the southern-fried Reagan. He’s got the voice, the gravitas built in… Huckabee scares me too sometimes. If you had a Thompson-Huckabee ticket, it would be sort of a reverse Gore-Clinton, Tennessee and Arkansas. And if you’re Hillary, what are you gonna do against that? You instantly wrap up the south, and there’s no chance of Virginia or Louisiana. I mean, Edwards would win Virginia straight up, but with Hillary, even Mark Warner revving everybody up couldn’t help her.

–Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.

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