By Chris Cillizza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2006; A05
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.
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.
Hoping to capitalize on this discontent, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is reviewing the voting patterns of rural and exurban voters in the targeted states and has sought advice from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.).
"The successful campaigns of Ken Salazar in 2004 and Tim Kaine in 2005 prove that Democrats are capable of making inroads with these communities and can, at the very least, reduce the large deficits in exurbs that have fatally damaged other candidates in recent history," Schumer wrote in a memo to his colleagues.
How successful Democrats are in this effort will be one of the determining factors in which party controls the Senate in 2007.
This fall's contest in Virginia between Sen. George Allen (R) and James Webb (D), a secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, is an example.
Once viewed as a long-shot race, Virginia now counts among Democrats' top eight potential takeovers. Their optimism springs from a belief that Webb's r?sum? as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and longtime Republican will allow him to blunt the traditional GOP edge in largely rural central and southwestern Virginia.
Steve Jarding, a strategist for Webb, said the key for Democrats to be competitive in rural America is simple: Just show up. "You can't write it off," he said. "We need to quit conceding turf to Republicans."
It was not by accident then that Webb announced his candidacy in Gate City, in the far southwestern part of the state. Scott County, of which Gate City is part, voted 65 percent for President Bush in 2004 and 63 percent for Allen when he defeated then-Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) in 2000. Webb must improve on those numbers to have any realistic chance of winning, analysts say.
While Webb's r?sum? may be appealing to rural voters, his positions on issues are out of whack with their beliefs, said Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams. He said that while Democrats make "cosmetic" arguments on why they can appeal to rural voters, there is no substance beneath that style.
"Showing up at a NASCAR race wearing a flannel shirt does not do anything to change the reality that Democrats are by and large out of touch with rural voters on fiscal and cultural issues," Wadhams said.
James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, said that while recent Republican struggles have narrowed the partisan gap among rural voters, the perceived liberalism of national Democrats makes any wholesale shift among this group unlikely.
"If you don't prime rural voters on the issues that they care about, a lot of them will go your way because they are Democrats," Gimpel said. "If you remind them of how conservative they are and how liberal the national Democratic party is, those Democrats would say they will vote for the man, not the party."