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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Democrats look for ways to win back rural voters

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Good morning, Early Birds. Will Disney flee to … Denver? Send tips to Thanks for waking up with us.

In today’s edition … The Post's Matt Viser and Anna Phillips on how President Biden’s urgent moves on gas prices are colliding with his lofty climate goals … The Justice Department will appeal mask mandate ruling if the CDC says it’s needed … Russia's deadline for Mariupol to surrender nears … but first …

The campaign

Democrats try to shore up support in rural America ahead of the midterms

The Biden administration is rolling out a new initiative to help rural communities, as Democrats work to halt an erosion of support for the party in rural America.

The new effort, led by the Agriculture Department, will deploy federal staffers next month to rural areas in five states. They'll will help communities there take advantages of federal resources, including funds from the infrastructure law and the covid relief package that President Biden signed early in his presidency.

Several of the places where staffers will be deployed are also expected to be battlegrounds in the midterm elections this fall, including Arizona and Georgia — where Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) are facing tough reelection fights — and districts represented by Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.).

The administration plans to expand the initiative this summer to Puerto Rico and five more states, including Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin, all of which are home to top-tier Senate races.

The White House says political considerations had nothing to do with deciding where to start the program, which the administration eventually hopes to expand to all 50 states.

“We overlaid counties of persistent poverty with the distressed community index and the CDC's social vulnerability index,” a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “And those three indices created, in essence, a bullseye.”

The administration included “qualitative factors” and aimed for geographic diversity when choosing the second set of communities, the official added.

Fading support in rural communities

The new effort comes as Democrats labor to shore up support in rural America ahead of the midterms.

The party has been losing ground in rural America for nearly two decades, and 2020 was no exception. Reps. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), T.J. Cox (D-Calif.) and Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) all lost their relatively rural seats.

The party’s struggle with rural voters were reinforced in November, when former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe won less than 20 percent of the vote in more than a dozen rural counties in the Virginia governor’s race, helping to cost him the election.

“As Democrats, we should no longer be allowed to be surprised when we find a new floor in rural areas, especially rural areas that are mostly White,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Alabama.

Democrats have identified a range of reasons they’re winning ever-lower shares of the rural vote, from failing to campaign in rural communities to prioritizing issues that don't animate rural voters to being unwilling to go on the offensive against Republican attacks.

“As Democrats, we’re getting beat up 24/7 on issues that are mostly cultural,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair who represents a largely rural district. “And rather than punch back and punch back harder, we just sit there and take it.”

Several remaining rural House seats held by Democrats are at risk this fall, even as the party works to win back some rural districts that slipped away in 2020. Rudy Salas, a California state assemblyman who's challenging Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), said he'd won rural voters at the state level by tacking away from his party on some issues.

“I was the only Democrat to vote against the gas tax,” Salas said in a statement to the Early. “I’ve supported increasing oil production here in the Central Valley so we don’t get hit at the pump for importing so much foreign oil. I’ve also worked to lower drug prices on things like insulin because the people I represent are struggling to keep up with rising costs.”

‘Rural voters are not listened to’

Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock wrote in a New York Times op-ed after McAuliffe’s loss that his party’s feuding over the infrastructure law and Biden’s now-mothballed Build Back Better Act hadn't helped win over rural voters.

“You had Democrats fighting Democrats, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and desperately needed progress was delayed,” Bullock wrote in December. “It’s no wonder rural voters think Democrats are not focused on helping them.”

But Chloe Maxmin, a Democratic state senator in Maine who won in rural, Republican-leaning districts in 2018 and 2020, said she didn’t think her constituents especially care about bickering in Washington. Instead, they’re troubled by a sense that the Democratic Party doesn’t value them.

“Rural voters are not listened to,” said Maxmin, who wrote a forthcoming book with her campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, on wooing back rural voters. “They’re not heard. Their voices are not integrated into the Democratic Party. And so why should they listen to us?”

What advice does she have for Democrats trying to win in rural areas this fall?

Knock on as many doors as they can, she said.

“I can't even tell you how many times I've showed up at a house and just the simple fact that I drove down someone's dirt driveway, knocked on their door, left my cell phone number — it's just that basic act of showing up wins votes,” she said.

On K Street

Biden’s urgent moves on gas prices collide with lofty climate goals

Dreams, meet political reality: “Biden entered office triumphantly rejoining the Paris climate accord. He created powerful new climate positions, including one for former secretary of state John F. Kerry. He reversed Trump-era policies, revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. And he declared the threat of climate change the ‘number one issue facing humanity,’” our colleagues Matt Viser and Anna Phillips report.

  • “But over the past few weeks, he has authorized a historically large release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, resumed selling leases to drill on federal land and announced he is waiving an environmental restriction to allow summer sales of ethanol-based gasoline — all moves that are anathema to climate activists.”
  • “Some advocates are increasingly frustrated over the discordant approach, arguing that Biden is sacrificing some of his long-term goal of combating climate change — and a presidential legacy of helping steer the nation away from fossil fuels — in exchange for the short-term aim of lowering prices at the pump. Beyond that, some contend the moves will barely affect gas prices.”
  • “The collision between lofty aspirations and political pressures comes to a head Friday when Biden visits Seattle to celebrate Earth Day, where he probably will be joined by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has built his political career on fighting climate change. Protesters are expected to rally in front of the White House on Saturday to demand that Congress pass new climate legislation.”

From the courts

Justice Department says it will appeal mask mandate if CDC says it is necessary

A federal judge struck down the federal transportation mask mandate on April 18, but that doesn't mean masking doesn't still offer protection. (Video: John Farrell, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Appeal or no appeal: “The Biden administration said Tuesday it would appeal a judge’s ruling that blocked a transportation mask requirement if federal health officials determine the mandate is still needed,” our colleagues Lori Aratani, Dan Simmons, Mary Beth Gahan and Jennifer Oldham report. “The Justice Department continued to defend the administration’s policy and said in a statement that it would … defer to the CDC’s assessment of health conditions before filing any appeal.”

  • Big picture: “Officials are worried about the fallout if the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Florida, upholds the ruling,” Politico’s Sarah Owermohle, Adam Cancryn, Erin Banco and David Lim write. “That could prove a politically embarrassing loss and set a precedent that could hamstring future public health crisis response efforts.”
  • “The appeals court is made up of a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents, including six installed by former president Donald Trump, and it’s unclear which three of those judges would hear the legal challenge.”
  • Bigger picture: “Nationwide injunctions blocking federal regulations have opened a debate among experts and lawmakers about whether the practice politicizes federal courts – or whether they are the result of presidents attempting to act unilaterally in the face of congressional gridlock,” per USA Today’s John Fritze and Michael Collins.

At the White House

Mariupol surrender deadline nears, as the West sends more fighter jets to Kyiv

Russia's new deadline: The Kremlin has issued a fresh ultimatum for Ukrainian fighters holed up in the southern city of Mariupol: Surrender by 2 p.m. local time (7 a.m. Eastern) Wednesday or face a bitter end.

More than 5 million refugees have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations — the majority to neighboring Poland. Charles Michel, president of the European Council, arrived in Kyiv, the latest European official to visit the country. President Biden is set to announce around $800 million in additional military aid for Ukraine in the coming days, an official familiar with the decision said. Ukraine is also receiving fighter aircraft from multiple nations, according to the Pentagon.

Key updates:

The Media

What we’re reading: 


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