Shortly after Republicans’ stunning Election Day sweep, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack grabbed Vice President Biden in a receiving line.
Vilsack had an urgent message, and he sensed that in Biden, he would find a receptive audience. The two politicians had served together throughout President Obama’s eight years in office and had known each other for decades. Both are nearing the ends of long and successful political careers, built on speaking to the ambitions and anxieties of white, working-class voters who turned decisively to Donald Trump in this election.
“We need to speak more directly to our folks in rural America,” Vilsack recalled telling the vice president. “And we have to spend time there.”
Biden nodded, and Vilsack kept moving, unsure whether his message — one that he had been pressing for years — had penetrated. Their hurried exchange is a small part of a broader reckoning that is happening among Democrats as they struggle to make sense of their election losses.
Democrats have pinned their recent failings on a variety of causes: websites that fed fake news to an anxious electorate, Republican-backed voter-identification laws, a racist backlash aimed at a black president and an increasingly diverse country, a sexist bias against a female commander in chief.
Others point to Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory, Obama’s high approval ratings and demographic trends projecting increases in pro-Democrat minority voters as proof that the party is healthier than it appears. “The American people agree with my world view on a whole bunch of things,” Obama said following Democrats’ defeat. “Sometimes people feel as if we want to try something to see if we can shake things up.”
Vilsack is among a group of old-school Democrats who are offering a far more dire perspective on the party’s prospects.
Even before Trump’s surprising victory this month, Vilsack was complaining, sometimes loudly and often with little effect, that his party had essentially given up competing in large swaths of the country that it needed to win Senate seats, governor’s races and state legislatures.
“Democrats need to talk to rural voters,” Vilsack warned this summer. “They can’t write them off. They can’t ignore them. They actually have to spend a little time talking to them.”
Today, the former Iowa governor compares Democrats to a tree that “looks healthy on the outside but is in the throes of slow and long-term demise.”
“Basically, that’s the Democratic Party as we know it,” he said.
To make his case, Vilsack focuses on his home state of Iowa, which is 95 percent white and shows in microcosm many of the problems that plague Democrats in rural America. When Vilsack won his long-shot race for governor in 1998, it was the first time Iowa had elected a Democrat to the office in 32 years.
Eight years later, Vilsack was replaced by a Democrat who for the first time in four decades had a Democratic legislature. “I personally took over managing legislative races,” Vilsack said. “We won the House and the Senate, and we had three of the five members of Congress.”
Iowa voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping decisively to Trump in 2016.
Today, Republicans dominate every facet of state government and control both Senate seats and three of the four House seats. To understand the depth of the problem that Democrats face, Vilsack pointed to the returns from Sioux County in the northwestern corner of the state. Trump took more than 80 percent of the vote in the sparsely populated county, giving him a 12,000 vote advantage over Clinton.
Two years earlier, Sen. Joni Ernst (R) captured a stunning 87 percent of the vote in winning the open seat that had belonged to Democrat Tom Harkin.
The vast margins essentially erased Democratic gains in Des Moines and surrounding Polk County, which has a population of 434,000, more than 10 times as large as tiny Sioux County. The pattern was repeated throughout rural areas of the state.
“If Democrats show up in these places, they are not going to win, but they are not going to get shellacked,” Vilsack said. “And that’s the key. It’s about not getting beat so badly.”
Vilsack’s argument has an ally in Obama, whose 2008 victory in Iowa proved that he could attract the support of white Midwestern voters. Obama often talks about the Iowa caucuses as “the most satisfying political period” of his career.
“It’s my view of what politics should be,” he said in an interview with Politico this year.
After Trump’s victory, Obama pointed again to Iowa, but this time, he used it as a lesson to Democrats and the Clinton campaign, which had focused heavily on urban, suburban and minority voters. “I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa,” Obama told reporters. “It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry. . . . And there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points.”
Vilsack’s warning, based on his experience in Iowa and his eight years traveling rural America as agriculture secretary, is that Democrats will have to do more than simply show up. He said that Democrats must build organizations with loyal memberships and the ability to deliver in Washington. “Who would you rather have on your side [in Washington], the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association?” Vilsack asked. Such new groups, he added, could help offset losses in traditional Democratic bastions, such as unions.
And he called on the party to retool its message so that it can better appeal to rural voters who are skeptical of government regulation and help.
“As Democrats, we tend to say we have a program. We have a program to retrain workers or help with health-care costs or reduce the costs of education,” Vilsack said. “Here’s how that is heard in some corners: ‘Man, you must really not be able to take care of yourself. You must be really dependent.’ ”
A better message, Vilsack said, would be built around partnering with local communities to retool economies hurt by technological change or globalization. Such a partnership, he said, would emphasize the good of the country and “combine their challenges with the country’s challenges,” Vilsack said. “One part of the country is not stronger or weaker. Instead, we are all in this together.”
Vilsack said he tried out a version of his approach at a recent meeting with state agriculture secretaries and commissioners — an overwhelmingly Republican group.
He pressed them to think about the consequences for farmers if the Trump administration follows through on campaign promises and triggers a trade war with China and Mexico.
“That is our number one and number three agriculture customer,” he said.
He warned that mass deportations of undocumented immigrants could deprive farmers of essential workers needed to harvest, process and package their crops.
The agriculture commissioners, meanwhile, had other priorities, such as curbing Environmental Protection Agency regulations on farming and eliminating the estate tax.
“They get it. They know their sales are directly related to trade,” Vilsack said. “But we haven’t said, ‘Hey guys, here’s the problem.’ We just haven’t connected with them.”