Democrats Look Beyond City Limits

Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill, right, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been touring rural areas of the state in a 31-foot RV. During a stop in Mexico, Mo., in April, she chatted with Shirley Winter, a supporter.
Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill, right, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has been touring rural areas of the state in a 31-foot RV. During a stop in Mexico, Mo., in April, she chatted with Shirley Winter, a supporter. (By Kelley Mccall -- Associated Press)
By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2006

When Claire McCaskill ran for governor in 2004, she followed a tried-and-true blueprint for Missouri Democrats: She focused heavily on turning out voters in the urban strongholds of St. Louis and Kansas City while working to cut her losses in the vast rural reaches of the state.

She lost.

This year, McCaskill, the state auditor, is back for another statewide race -- against Republican U.S. Sen. James M. Talent -- but with a new commitment to rural areas.

McCaskill formally announced her campaign for the Senate in Houston, Mo., in the state's southern reaches, and since then has made four rural tours through towns such as Hannibal, Springfield, Branson and Mexico. On those trips she travels in a 31-foot RV with her mother, Betty Anne.

"What 2004 demonstrated is that we have ignored rural Missouri at our own peril," McCaskill said.

The wooing of rural voters is essential to Democrats' hopes for taking back the Senate this November, party strategists say. Rural voters wield real electoral power in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia and Arizona -- all of which are being targeted this fall by Democrats.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the Bush administration's economic policies have created an opening for his party to argue that rural voters have a self-interest in backing Democrats. "The way to get in is not to try to avoid being who we are, but put far greater emphasis on the issues of common ground and talk to people in a language that they speak," he said.

The raw numbers are daunting. Exit polling in the 2004 presidential race showed Bush carrying rural areas 57 percent to 42 percent over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Similar margins have fueled Republican victories on the state and local levels, where candidates have repeatedly used social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage to advantage over Democrats.

Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, who represents a largely rural district in Alabama, expressed skepticism about Democratic attempts to make inroads among his constituents.

"Most rural Americans tend to be more conservative," he said. "They see the Democratic Party nationally, and certainly no one has ever labeled [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean or [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi a conservative."

Focus groups conducted in 2005 by Democracy Corps, a consortium of Democratic consultants, reinforced that sentiment. "Democrats had lost all credibility as champions of the middle class; as a result, voters saw no real difference between the parties on the economic and quality-of-life issues that mattered most to them," wrote pollster Karl Agne.

But developments over the past year, such as higher gas prices and increased health-care costs, have created a sense of pessimism among rural Americans, according to more recent focus groups conducted by Agne in places such as Little Rock and Golden, Colo. While Iraq remains the dominant issue for this voting bloc, it is the "growing economic pressures facing these voters that really caused fireworks," Agne said.


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