The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why winning rural areas should be a progressive priority

Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison holds a drive-in campaign rally at Wilson High School in Florence, S.C., on Oct. 24.
Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison holds a drive-in campaign rally at Wilson High School in Florence, S.C., on Oct. 24. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)

South Carolina Democratic Senate hopeful Jaime Harrison says his campaign is testimony to what can happen when Democrats decide “to compete everywhere.”

Iowa’s Theresa Greenfield and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, two other Democrats bidding to defeat incumbent Republican senators, each used the same five words when asked what advice they had for coastal Democrats. “You’ve got to show up.”

These axiomatic observations represent a radical and innovative form of realism. Creating a degree of national unity in a nation split between small towns and big metro areas depends upon rolling back single-party dominance in the countryside.

And for Democrats and progressives, the success of candidates such as Harrison, Greenfield and Bullock could spell the difference between real power in the Senate and either fragile control or no control at all.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

The undemocratic nature of the Senate is maddening to all friends of genuine constitutional democracy. When the 68.5 million people in California and Texas have the same number of representatives as the 1.2 million people of Wyoming and Vermont, the idea of “one person, one vote” becomes an absurdity. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by a president who lost the popular vote, was confirmed by 52 senators representing 13.5 million fewer Americans than the 48 who opposed her.

Follow E.J. Dionne Jr.'s opinionsFollow

But changing the structure of the Senate is rendered almost impossible by the Constitution, and adding new states won’t be easy. So Democrats have no choice but to compete hard for voters in states that are home, as Greenfield describes Iowa, to “small towns and small businesses.”

That’s why I spoke this week to three Democrats with a shot at prevailing in states President Trump carried handily in 2016. All three point to how rural America is changing in ways that are compatible with practical progressive politics, and how disappointment with Republican policies — particularly on health care, taxes and Social Security — is pushing many rural voters to reconsider their GOP loyalties.

Harrison has electrified his party by getting within striking distance of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). He explains his success by pointing to long-term organizing in the state (he was once chair of its Democratic Party) and Graham’s disappointing record in the Trump years (“He’s not the same Lindsey Graham that many of us used to respect”).

But Harrison also pointed to a reversal of the early to mid-20th century Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans moved northward. “The grandkids and the great-grandkids of those folks are now coming back home . . . to the South to raise their kids and start lives and families.” This is transforming politics in his state, and also in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

And all three candidates think Republicans will regret their ongoing attacks on the Affordable Care Act, a lifeline to rural areas.

South Carolina’s refusal to adopt the Medicaid expansion, Harrison said, left 250,000 low-income people without health-care coverage in his state even before the coronavirus pandemic. An additional 400,000, he said, have lost coverage because of layoffs even as “four of our rural hospitals . . . have closed over the past few years.”

In Montana, Bullock, who as governor fought to expand Medicaid, can point to what that expansion did accomplish: “Almost 10 percent of our population receives health care through Medicaid expansion, with three out of every five businesses in our state getting health care for one or more of their employees through expansion. It’s become very important not only for the health of our people, but to our economy,” he told me. He’s hitting GOP Sen. Steve Daines hard for his opposition to the ACA, and also for his positions on on Social Security and Medicare.

And in Iowa, Greenfield says health care is the “number-one topic” voters have raised at her more than 350 town halls and Zoom events. Medicaid expansion, she said, “has really been a lifeline to Iowa’s hospitals, in particular our rural hospitals.”

Progressive populism is by no means dead in rural and small-town America, either.

Bullock attacks Republican tax cuts with this promise: “I’ll never support anything where my kids’ teachers are paying more in taxes than the largest corporations.”

Greenfield points to “progressive leaders who invested in education” and allowed a “young, scrappy, poor farmer girl like me” to attend Iowa Lakes Community College. She finds a bipartisan way to criticize the current generation of right-wing Republicans (she is trying to unseat GOP Sen. Joni Ernst) by praising the late and legendary GOP Gov. Robert D. Ray for being one of those progressives.

Consider: As recently as 2010, three out of the four senators from North and South Dakota were Democrats. Greenfield talks of bringing “hometown” values to Washington. A Democratic Party and a progressive movement that paid attention and “showed up” could begin to build a sustainable majority, even in the Senate.

Read more from E.J. Dionne’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Lyz Lenz: Iowa Republicans are only pivoting toward the center to save their hold on the state

Kathleen Parker: Lindsey Graham is ripe for a takedown. Jaime Harrison could give it to him.

Henry Olsen: Deep-red Montana could be Democrats’ biggest catch in 2020. Can they land it?

Jennifer Rubin: If Republicans are struggling in Iowa, they are in deep trouble

Jonathan Capehart: Lindsey Graham whines about Jaime Harrison’s cheddar