What the Progressive Surge in Rural America Means for the Election — and Beyond

A wave of progressive populists is running values-driven campaigns, competing seriously in districts that national Democrats have long written off.

Leslie Cockburn, a Democratic candidate for Virginia's 5th District, speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP)
Leslie Cockburn speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., on Oct. 22, 2018. Photo: Taylor Irby/The News & Advance/AP

Before deciding to run for Congress, Leslie Cockburn grabbed her notebook and her pen and spent three months touring Virginia’s 5th District, which stretches from the North Carolina border all the way to the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C. The reporting trip came naturally to Cockburn, who’d spent the last three decades as an acclaimed investigative journalist, including at CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

This time, though, she wasn’t looking to uncover any official malfeasance. Instead, she was trying to find out just how well her own politics meshed with those of the voters in the district. The conventional wisdom would predict a poor match — Donald Trump, after all, carried the district by a comfortable 11 points, and Cockburn had no interest in cynically shading her progressive politics to get elected.

That wouldn’t be necessary, it turned out. The people she met were not the conservative caricatures of rural voters drawn by consultants in Washington. Instead, they held broadly progressive views, even if they might reject that label. “If you talk to people in these rural areas, you find out that there are a huge number of very … what I call just mainstream, old-fashioned Democrats. It’s simple. Basic. They believe in a living wage. They believe in collective bargaining. They believe in decent health care for everyone,” Cockburn told The Intercept at a campaign event outside a Social Security office in Farmville, Virginia. She was there to accept an endorsement from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which had chosen her over her GOP opponent Denver Riggleman, a Trump-backed Air Force veteran.

The Democratic Party has told anybody who’ll listen that it sees its path back to power in the House running through so-called Whole Foods districts populated by college-educated white voters who are turned off by the GOP’s more explicit turn toward bigotry in recent years. Those districts largely went for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and are currently represented by Republicans in Congress, even after many of them went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. CNN has predicted a suburban tsunami,” as these Romney-to-Clinton districts reorient themselves toward Democrats. Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping to win back the more working-class districts that went for Barack Obama in 2012 and then flipped to Trump in 2016.

Rural America, this wave of candidates thinks, is ready for a realignment.

But Cockburn and a host of progressive populists around the country are looking to take it a step further, focusing instead on districts that went for Romney in 2012 and also for Trump in 2016. They’re running values-driven campaigns that take aim at the establishments of both parties, and the result shows a surprising number of close races in districts that national Democrats have long written off. Rural America, this wave of candidates thinks, is ready for a realignment.

“If You Build It, They Will Come”

On stage last weekend in Ames, Iowa, congressional candidate J.D. Scholten gave a nod to the Whole Foods meme making the rounds among pundits. “I saw this tweet the other day. It made me laugh. It said a blue wave means that Democrats are going to do very well within 20 miles of a Whole Foods,” said Scholten, drawing chuckles from the audience. “This district doesn’t have a Whole Foods. And I’m OK with that.”

Scholten, who is challenging white nationalist Steve King in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, has rejected the Blue Dog approach to targeting rural districts, which leans hard on business-friendly centrism, militarism, and social conservatism. He’s instead embraced the populist approach of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who traveled to Iowa to campaign on Scholten’s behalf.

In arguing that Democrats can win in the district, which Republicans have held for more than two decades, Scholten often recites the famous quote from the movie “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.” He’s not talking about building a Whole Foods or even a baseball stadium among the corn stalks — although he was once a minor league pitcher. He’s talking about offering a political platform that appeals to thousands of citizens in his district who want jobs, health care, and other signs of socio-economic comfort associated with the high-end grocery franchise. He believes that if he runs on these issues, voters will respond.

It was easy to believe him last weekend as he drew big crowds campaigning alongside Sanders. At one of more than half a dozen stops in the Hawkeye State, Sanders joined a small parade making its way through downtown Ames, where autumn had brought a carpet of yellowing ginkgo leaves to the sidewalk, and the crisp brick storefronts oozed with small-town appeal. Sanders trailed a small float topped by a papier-mache clock tower and a cardinal, both Iowa State symbols. But behind him was a throng of supporters in cornflower-blue “Scholten for Congress” shirts, followed by the candidate himself, bringing up the rear in his now-iconic Scholten for Congress camper, named Sioux City Sue.

UNITED STATES - July 27: JD Scholten, Democratic candidate for Iowa's 4th congressional district, is interviewed by CQ Roll Call at their D.C. office, July 27, 2018. (Photo by Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).

JD Scholten, Democratic candidate for Iowa’s 4th congressional district, is interviewed by CQ Roll Call at their D.C. office, on July 27, 2018.

Photo: Thomas McKinless/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Powered by ethanol and emblazoned with his logo, “Standing Tall for All,” the van has been home to the 6-foot-6 former ballplayer as he’s visited every county in the district — often, he jokes, sleeping in Walmart parking lots. “If you want change, you’re going to have to get uncomfortable,” he said during his stump speech. “I promise you, for the last 15 months, I’ve been uncomfortable.”

Before the parade, as participants gathered in a parking lot off the main procession route, Cynthia Paschen, the wife of Scholten’s primary opponent, John Paschen, told The Intercept that she didn’t hesitate to support Scholten after her husband’s loss. Between the candidate’s character and his platform, she explained, it was a no-brainer. Her affection for the candidate bordered on maternal — perhaps looking to play matchmaker, she noted to a reporter that Scholten was still single.

It was difficult to tell whether the audience was more excited about getting Steve King out of office or about the heady empowerment of independent grassroots fundraising.

Later, an Iowa State University crowd applauded as Scholten riffed about the climate crisis and whooped as he referenced debt-free college. But the biggest applause line followed his pronouncement that he’d out-fundraised his opponent, King, 2-to-1 — without taking corporate PAC money. Opposition to King, who notoriously courts white supremacist news outlets and retweets neo-Nazis, was a popular theme at campaign stops throughout the weekend. The Sioux City Journal, which had for years endorsed King, flipped this year to support Scholten, arguing that he would “bring no embarrassment to the district.” But on this occasion, it was difficult to tell whether the audience was more excited about getting King out of office or about the heady empowerment of independent grassroots fundraising.

As of October 17, Scholten had raised $1.7 million to King’s $740,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports; King has less than $200,000 on hand to spend in the final week, and Scholten’s television ads are airing unopposed. On Wednesday, Scholten announced that he’d raised more than $350,000 in the last 24 hours alone. It doesn’t appear that the national party will be coming to his rescue: Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, cut ties with him on Tuesday.

During the parade in Ames, 75-year-old Bevin Trembly called out “politicians for sale” while dressed as the Monopoly man, his costume complete with a white mustache and top hat. He held a sign that read, “If you can’t afford one, then vote!” Later, he reappeared at his alma mater, the University of Iowa, in plainclothes but on message with an ink stamp that read, “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” He offered to stamp the legal currency of any interested passersby.

It’s issues like these — corruption, “Medicare for All,” free public college — that resonate in both red and blue states and allow progressive Democrats to defy expectations in places far outside the influence of the Whole Foods set.

Trump carried the 4th District by nearly 30 points, but a new poll has King up by just 1 point, with a mere 38 percent approval rating, a flashing-red warning sign for an incumbent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put two Iowa races on its Red to Blue list, but Scholten isn’t on it.

Progressives in this red-for-now state seemed particularly eager to have someone, or a pair of someones, to be excited about. It’s not every year that a candidate emerges who inspires a trip to the polls, and it’s not every day that he’s willing to campaign with Bernie Sanders in rural Iowa. As a woman with a hand-drawn “be a voter” sign passed by on the parade route in Ames, one little boy asked, “Can I be a voter?”

“You can eventually!” chimed his caretaker.

At Iowa State, Scholten explained to the crowd why generating enthusiasm for progressive ideas really matters. He told a packed audience of several hundred people, mostly students, that he couldn’t afford health insurance as a baseball player. “My health insurance was praying at night,” he said. And, he noted, the district’s vitality is declining as a whole: Only 18 percent of tech grads from Iowa State stayed in Iowa after graduating. He wants to make the district a place where people want to stay.

Jennifer Lewis, a Democratic candidate for Virginia's 6th Congressional District, speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP)

Jennifer Lewis speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., on Oct. 22, 2018.

Photo: Taylor Irby/The News & Advance/AP

Rural Virginia’s Leftward Turn

On a Monday evening in October, Lynchburg’s local Chamber of Commerce hosted four congressional candidates: Cockburn and Riggleman were joined by 6th District candidates Ben Cline, a GOP state delegate, and Jennifer Lewis, a mental health worker and anti-pipeline activist.

Lewis’s hill is much steeper than Cockburn’s. Cook Political Report lists Cockburn’s district as R+6, meaning Republicans have a 6-point registration advantage and could generally be expected to win a neutral race there by 12 points. But in a wave year with the right candidate, it’s doable, and University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato recently named the race a toss-up.

Lewis’s district, meanwhile, is listed as R+13 and rated as solid Republican across the board. The 6th District also lacks some of the variables that help make a rural district competitive, such as a decent-sized city or a large university. In an era when partisanship drives a substantial portion of voters, too many Republicans who see the election as a team sport — or, perhaps, a blood sport — can put a district out of reach.

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who won the 6th District by more than 30 points in 2016, is retiring, and Goodlatte’s son, who now lives in San Francisco, surprised everyone back home by endorsing Lewis. But it’s difficult to find people who believe she has a path to victory.

Another advantage that Cockburn has in the 5th District — which, in fact, does have a Whole Foods — is that it includes Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia. Major universities can pump the type of culture into a district that can create an opening for a progressive message to be heard.

Denver Riggleman, a Republican candidate for Virginia's 5th District, speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. (Taylor Irby/The News & Advance via AP)

Denver Riggleman speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., on Oct. 22, 2018.

Photo: Taylor Irby/The News & Advance/AP

That Cockburn’s district is more favorable terrain affirms that not all rural districts, and not all rural voters, are the same. Lynchburg has a well-known college, too, but it’s the ultra-Christian Liberty University, which has the effect of producing a conservative infrastructure, rather than a liberal toehold. “White, working-class voters” is now shorthand for Trump and the GOP’s base, but that simplification erases key distinctions within the white community, most significantly religious affiliation. Pew Research Center found that white evangelicals — three-quarters of whom lack a college degree, a status often used as a proxy for working class — made up a fifth of the electorate in 2016 and went overwhelmingly for Trump, 77 percent to 16 percent. That means that Clinton actually won the remainder of white voters without a college degree by roughly 57 percent to 34 percent. In a district not dominated by evangelicals, that gives Democrats a shot.

At the forum, the two parties offered genuinely different visions for the future of the district. Both Riggleman and Cline, for instance, said that they opposed a federal minimum wage. Riggleman deployed what is often the most effective counter to hiking it to $15: the argument that Lynchburg, Virginia, is not Manhattan, and that different levels of income are appropriate in different areas.

The novelty of Cockburn’s argument demonstrates the upside of running candidates who are creative and independent.

But Cockburn responded with an innovative twist, arguing that a minimum wage of $15 an hour is important for workers so that they don’t put in a full week’s worth of work and still remain in poverty. Farmers, she noted, get subsidies from the government because we as a society have decided that farms are important as an end in themselves — both for what they produce but also for their value to local culture. Why can’t small businesses be treated as equally important? If a mom-and-pop shop is demonstrably contributing to the life, economy, and vitality of a small town, the government, she argued, should subsidize its wage costs. The novelty of her argument demonstrates the upside of running candidates who are creative and independent, rather than those who read from scripts written by consultants in Washington.

When it came to health care, Riggleman, who hopes to join the right-wing Freedom Caucus, nevertheless defended major elements of the Affordable Care Act, a sign of how far left the conversation has shifted.

Cockburn, for her part, spoke of single-payer health care. As a first step, she said, Medicare, with its low overhead, ought to be offered on the ACA exchanges to drive down costs, and in the meantime, the country should be moving toward making it universally available. The audience, which appeared to be dominated by Cockburn supporters, approved.  

While Republicans around the country have gone to absurd lengths to link their opponents to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — Dave Brat, in the neighboring district, cited her 21 times in a debate against Abigail Spanberger, prompting a response that went viral — Cockburn never misses a chance to lump Riggleman in with the Freedom Caucus.

That linkage — along with Riggleman’s party identity — allowed Cockburn to tie her opponent to the caucus’s attempts to slash Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, potent issues in rural districts that tend to include older voters. Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, joined Cockburn at the Farmville Social Security Office. Later that day, the duo led a discussion with voters at a campaign office on the same theme.

Cockburn thinks that her position on environmental issues — even if they’re not framed as green — also works in her favor. “We have wells, we care about water,” she said, noting that in the south side of the district, people are worried that the federal government may lift a ban on uranium mining. “The Trump administration has weighed in on that,” she said. “That is a bipartisan issue down there because everybody knows what happens when you have uranium tailings.”

A Nationwide Push

The dynamics of each congressional race vary from state to state and from district to district, but this cycle’s progressive populist push shows that Democrats can galvanize voters pretty much anywhere in the country — so long as their policy priorities reflect the reality on the ground.

James Thompson effectively kicked off the populist push in April 2017 with a surprisingly close special election run against Republican Ron Estes in Wichita, Kansas. The seat was previously held by Mike Pompeo, who resigned to become Trump’s CIA director and is now secretary of state. After losing by 7 points while running on an unapologetically progressive platform in Kansas’s 4th District, Thompson launched back into a challenge against Estes in 2018. Thompson out-raised the incumbent by some $50,000 last quarter.

The progressive messaging is also resonating in Pennsylvania’s 11th District, effectively channeling Amish country. Lancaster City, with its population of roughly 60,000 (including one Whole Foods that opened in June), provides something of a progressive base from which organizers can work outward into the countryside. Colleges dot the region, too. Trump carried the district by 26 points in 2016, but Democrat Jess King has made it a single-digit race and has several times more cash on hand in the homestretch than incumbent Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker. Five Pennsylvania races have made it on to the DCCC’s Red to Blue list, but not this one. The most recent poll has King within 4 points.

In West Virginia’s 3rd District, where Trump beat Clinton by an astounding 49 points, state Sen. Richard Ojeda is polling even with his Republican opponent, Carol Miller. The district is home to Huntington, West Virginia, with a declining population of 47,000, as well as Marshall University and its 12,000 students. Ojeda’s force of personality — and his bold populist positions — has willed the district into play. The military veteran is now included on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Matt Morgan was booted by the state election board from the primary ballot in the 1st Congressional District. But a boost from high-profile Midwestern leftist Michael Moore helped him pull more than 30,000 write-in votes to make it on to the general election ballot. Morgan is an underdog in a district that Democrats haven’t held since Bart Stupak retired in 2010. But there’s been little polling in the district, and he could wind up a surprise winner Tuesday night. The DCCC has four races in Michigan on its Red to Blue list, but Morgan’s is not one of them.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., left,and challenger John James shake hands after their debate at the Detroit Economic Club, Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, in Detroit. Stabenow is seeking a fourth term and has led comfortably in polls, and James, a business executive and combat veteran, participated in their second debate before the November election. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and challenger John James shake hands after their debate at the Detroit Economic Club on Oct. 15, 2018, in Detroit. Mich.

Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP

Changing the Map

None of these candidates are favored by the prognosticators at FiveThirtyEight to win their races, but they all have a shot — some, admittedly, more than others. And simply by competing, they’re helping to change the map for Democrats. By cutting down margins in rural districts, these candidates could make the route to a Senate seat or the governor’s mansion easier for other Democrats in their states. Ojeda could help lift Sen. Joe Manchin over the finish line in West Virginia, and organizing by King, Morgan, and Scholten, for instance, could be a benefit to statewide candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa, respectively.

Simply by competing, they’re helping to change the map for Democrats.

In Michigan, for instance, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow has run an underwhelming re-election campaign and is facing a surging GOP opponent. Every Democrat that Morgan brings to the polls gives Stabenow a boost. Michigan and Pennsylvania both have important gubernatorial and legislative contests, whose outcomes will not only help shape policy, but also determine who has control of the redistricting process.

A full-court rural press also forces Republicans to expend resources on so-called safe states and districts — such as Texas, to beat back Beto O’Rourke in his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz — meaning that they have less to spend elsewhere to go on the offensive.

Aggressive competition in the rural districts of Iowa, Pennsylvania, or Michigan can only help Democrats’ chances of retaking those state legislatures. And in Kansas, there are a number of state Senate and House races within Thompson’s congressional district that are competitive in ways they might not have been without his organizing. Monica Marks, for instance, is running to flip a state House seat in northeast Wichita. She was a volunteer for Thompson’s special election campaign and his team recruited her to run, a prime example of how organizing begets opportunities in unexpected ways. With a slight shift in the legislature, the state could be able to expand Medicaid even if Democrats don’t take over, as a number of moderate Republicans now support it.

Because these candidates break the DCCC mold, which tends to prefer centrists who are business owners, prosecutors, or veterans — or all three, if they get lucky — it’s been hard for Washington to recognize what’s happening in some of the races. The Washington Post recently highlighted four districts in Virginia that could potentially flip on Election Day, but it designated three of those as the “most competitive” — with Cockburn’s considered the longest shot. Yet, at the same moment, the New York Times was finalizing live polls that found Cockburn up a point over her opponent, while one of the other three candidates, Democrat Elaine Luria in Virginia Beach, was down against hers by 8.

What makes Luria appear more competitive? Perhaps it’s her establishment bona fides. Luria had the backing of the DCCC in her contested primary against a progressive challenger. She’s a business owner and a former naval commander: She feels like a Democratic frontrunner. Cockburn faced two similar opponents in her own primary: R.D. Huffstetler, a Marine veteran with heavy financial backing, and Andrew Sneathern, a prosecutor who grew up on a farm.

The candidate presumed to be the frontrunner, Huffstetler, did not have the DCCC’s official backing but was endorsed by the New Democrat Coalition, a pro-business group of House Democrats who gave his campaign $8,000. He also had the support of Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who has been amassing clout within the Democratic caucus by recruiting and fundraising for military veterans — especially those of the moderate-to-conservative variety. His organization helped raise $100,000 for Huffstetler, and in a joint fundraising agreement with the state party, the candidate raised another roughly $40,000. He raised a total of $1.1 million, largely from big donors, before withdrawing from the race prior to the party’s nominating convention.

Democrats in Cockburn’s district used a county-by-county caucus to nominate their candidate, which played to both her politics and her strategic decision to focus heavily on her field program. Even in rural areas — in fact, particularly there — many of the most active Democrats are strong progressives. This reality has long frightened national Democrats, who worry that the activists will nominate somebody too far to the left to win in the general election — a fear used to justify intervening in favor of centrist candidates in primary elections.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has noticed that the Democratic emphasis on suburban areas, many of whose residents voted for Romney in 2012 but Clinton in 2016, is not justified in the polling data. “The Romney-Clinton districts have been the subject of an awful lot of attention and even talk of a ‘suburban tsunami’; the Obama-Trump districts, less so. The thing is, though, if you actually look at the polls,” he wrote, “Democrats are doing just as well in the Obama-Trump districts. Probably a little better, in fact.”

If Cockburn and some of the other populists win, it could change the way the party approaches rural America.

If Cockburn falls short, the loss will no doubt be chalked up to her progressive politics and unique profile. The same criticism will be saddled on any other progressive that doesn’t get across the finish line. But if Cockburn and some of the other populists win, it could change the way the party approaches rural America.

A rural-urban alliance has been the holy grail for political strategists since the first city was built. Linking the interests of workers in urban areas with laborers in the countryside is reminiscent of the New Deal coalition, with its populist economic program that reined in big banks and monopolies, lifted wages, and strengthened financial security, while investing heavily in development projects in the countryside. Aside from momentary alliances, however, such a coalition has largely remained elusive on a long-term basis, amid cultural divisions between town and country. But as the United States becomes more connected and homogeneous — the same chain restaurants, retail stores, and fashion styles are now found from coast to coast and in between — those cultural differences may be fading enough to create something closer to a level playing field for progressives.

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