The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a progressive champion from rural Maine can teach Democrats about winning

The Maine State House in Augusta in October 2017. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

The 2022 midterms are still 10 months away — but if much of the media is to be believed, the fight is already over before it’s even begun.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “alarm bells are ringing in the Democratic Party.” Politico says Democrats are confronting “the prospect of a 2022 hurricane.” CNN depicts “dejected” Democrats facing a “grim 2022 outlook.” One prognosticator at Vox has pegged Democratic chances of losing the House and Senate at 95 percent.

It’s true that history doesn’t bode well for the sitting president’s party during a midterm election. But if Democrats accept failure as inevitable instead of changing course, resignation will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s why, rather than despair over anticipated losses, Democrats and progressive allies could chart new paths to victory. One of those paths is a dirt road along Midcoast Maine, leading to a venison farm where Chloe Maxmin, a champion of progressive policies in deep-red rural America, grew up.

Maxmin is from Lincoln County, one of the state’s most rural counties, where 1 in 5 children grow up in poverty. She watched for years as places like Lincoln County were written off as Republican strongholds. In a 2018 article for the Nation (where I am publisher), Maxmin and her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward (co-authors of an upcoming book), offered a blunt assessment: “The left abandoned rural America.”

But Maxmin didn’t. After graduating from Harvard University, she returned to Maine to run for the state House in 2018 as an unapologetic progressive in a rural conservative district — and won. Then she ran for the state Senate in 2020, winning again and knocking off its Republican leader.

Clearly, Maxmin knows how to win in rural America, even as Democrats lose there at historic rates — and she can teach vital lessons about persuading those supposedly unreachable voters.

First, to reach someone, you have to reach out. Rural Democrats consistently lament that the national party hasn’t invested enough money or time in rural organizing. By contrast, during her 2020 campaign, Maxmin says she had 90,000 voter contacts, the most of any state Senate campaign in the state. Her closest opponent had just 35,000. As a result, she connected with persuadable Trump voters who had never spoken with a Democratic candidate.

And Maxmin didn’t just talk to voters; she sought to understand them. As she told me during an interview last year, her canvassing strategy was “to stand there for 10 or 15 minutes and have a conversation — and then go back and follow up.” The progressive advocacy group People’s Action calls this approach “deep canvassing,” and found that it helped decrease Trump’s margins where implemented in key battleground states.

But once you’ve started a conversation with voters, how do you connect your policies to their problems?

Many Democrats respond to any reflexive rural repulsion against “progressivism” by disavowing it and running toward the center. (Just ask any average Joe, be they Lieberman, Manchin or Biden.) But Maxmin has a different strategy. She makes progressive ideals concrete, real and relevant to people’s lives — so conversations can move past talking points and cut straight to what these changes could actually mean.

For instance, Maxmin ran unabashedly on a promise to pass a Green New Deal. But she won over Republicans and working people by framing climate discussions around the Gulf of Maine, which is already warming 99 percent faster than the rest of the world’s oceans. Those rising temperatures are stressing lobster populations and threatening the livelihoods of her constituents. Maxmin focused on protecting and creating jobs in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

When Maxmin introduced a Green New Deal bill in the state legislature, it received an unprecedented endorsement from the Maine AFL-CIO. And though the bill was scaled back, it ultimately passed by a wide margin — laying the groundwork for more ambitious climate action going forward.

In their 2018 article, Maxmin and Woodward describe an encounter when Maxmin, canvassing alone, walked down a dirt road leading to a nondescript trailer. She knocked on the door, which cracked open to reveal a man who appeared hesitant to hear from her. Nevertheless, she introduced herself and asked him about the issues he cared about most in the coming election. They chatted for a bit, and then he said something she may not have expected to hear: “You’re the first person to listen to me. Everyone judges what my house looks like. They don’t bother to knock. I’m grateful that you came. I’m going to vote for you.” If Democratic candidates who want to hear that last sentence more in 2022, Maxmin can show them the way.