The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Progressives point the way to recapturing the rural vote

A sign in Brooklyn, Ind.
A sign in Brooklyn, Ind. (Chris Howell/for The Washington Post)
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When student activist Chloe Maxmin graduated from Harvard University in 2015, many of her classmates went on to lucrative jobs in big coastal cities. But Maxmin, who devoted much of her time on campus to a fossil-fuel divestment campaign that she co-founded, chose a different path. The native of Nobleboro, Maine (population 1,643), returned to her home state to work as a grass-roots organizer.

This February, Maxmin, now 26, decided to run for a seat in Maine’s House of Representatives. In a district that had never elected a Democrat, she campaigned with a progressive message focused on improving education funding, health-care access and transportation options for seniors. She won endorsements from unions, social workers and even former president Barack Obama. Last Tuesday, she defeated her Republican opponent by five points.

Maxmin is one of many progressive candidates who prevailed in this month’s elections despite the long odds that Democrats traditionally face in their districts. Yet her victory stands out even more because of where she was able to win: in a district that contains the most rural county in America’s most rural state. And as Democrats reflect on the midterms and plan their next moves, it shows how the party can build on its momentum.

While the battle for Congress dominated the mainstream media coverage, the midterms underscored the vital importance of competing in state and local elections, which are often decided by small numbers of voters whose motivations transcend partisan politics. In a recent piece co-authored with her campaign manager, Maxmin (who served as a Nation fellow) recounted how she earned the support of one voter by simply taking the time to visit his trailer at the end of a dirt road. “You’re the first person to listen to me,” he told her after their conversation. “They don’t bother to knock. I’m grateful that you came. I’m going to vote for you.”

The Democratic Party lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures during the Obama era — losses that came with disastrous consequences for redistricting, Medicaid expansion, voting rights and more. The party began to repair that damage last week, flipping at least 367 seats, gaining majorities in seven legislative chambers and picking up six “trifectas” with the power to advance progressive policies. But it will take a deep commitment to these races in the midst of a high-stakes presidential campaign for Democrats to protect and add to their gains in 2020.

It is also evident that one of the greatest obstacles in Democrats’ path to power at every level of government is their failure to compete in large swaths of rural America. Even as a blue wave washed over the suburbs last week, Republicans maintained a significant advantage in rural areas that are heavily populated by white voters without a college education. Some Democrats attribute their struggles in these areas to racism and cultural resentment, but many rural activists blame the party, not the people who oppose it. “They invested nothing, they built no bench,” one local party leader told Nation correspondent John Nichols in 2016. “They don’t even send signs anymore, which are a staple of rural politics.”

So how can Democrats win in places where voters believe the party has written them off? According to Maxmin, they need to do more to “translate progressive values to the realities of rural America.” One place to start, as Michael Tomasky argues in the New York Times, is with a more robust rural policy agenda, including serious proposals to address the opioid crisis and broadband access. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is developing a plan to fund the development of technology institutions at rural colleges and universities, an idea that he calls a “Land Grant for the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, it’s also important for Democrats to recognize that rural America includes not just white voters but black, native and immigrant communities that demand and deserve a voice in the public conversation. Over the past year, the grass-roots organization People’s Action and others have done invaluable organizing in rural communities of color as part of a broader rural strategy involving efforts in 90 counties across 14 states.

Democrats can take heart in what they were able to achieve in the midterms. But translating their gains into durable governing power will not be easy. With the midterms behind us, the national media has already started to focus on the effort to defeat President Trump in 2020. Still, as others look to the top of the ticket, Democrats would do well to remember a fundamental truth that this year’s elections only amplified: Real power is built from the bottom up.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: What House Democrats need to do

Richard Pildes and Jonathan Rodden: Why geography makes it difficult for Democrats to get along

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Will the blue wave overcome the red undertow?

Stephen Stromberg: Millennials’ political nightmare is coming

Jennifer Rubin: Why the Democrats’ prospects look promising