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Bleak midterms ahead for Democrats?

The party confronts its struggling image, especially in rural America

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., at a rally for Joe Biden in October 2020 Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik, file

Bleak midterms ahead for Democrats?

Florida’s Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch announced Monday he won’t run for reelection, making him the third Florida Democrat and 31st House Democrat to bow out ahead of this year’s midterm elections.

“Ted Deutch knows House Democrats’ majority is doomed so he made the smart decision to forgo reelection,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Mike Berg said about Deutch’s departure.

Deutch’s seat will likely go to another Democrat, but a large number of Democrat retirements could foreshadow a red wave in November. Democrats could easily lose their slim congressional majorities this fall, partly because a president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections. In the U.S. House, Democrats have an 11-seat lead over Republicans. The Senate is evenly divided, with Vice President Kamala Harris available to break ties in Democrats’ favor.

A February Morning Consult poll suggested deeper problems for Democrats: 65 percent of rural voters disapproved of the party. Urban and suburban voters helped carry President Joe Biden to victory in 2020, but further rural erosion will make it difficult for Democrats to build and maintain stable congressional majorities.

In addition to House Democrats who are retiring altogether, several said they’re leaving to run for other offices or take private-sector jobs. Deutch has accepted a job as CEO of the advocacy group American Jewish Committee. Some Democrats have been frank that redistricting after the 2020 census worsened their reelection prospects. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who announced at the end of January that he wouldn’t run for reelection, said his state’s redistricting meant “there’s no way, at least for me in this election cycle.”

In 2020, Biden won in just 509 of the United States’ 3,006 counties—348 fewer than Barack Obama won in 2008. The numbers show how heavily Democrats rely on densely populated areas to help them win elections. While rural voters made up just 17 percent of the electorate in 2016, exit polls showed Trump beat Hillary Clinton by at least a 2-to-1 margin in those areas. Data from the progressive analysis company Catalyst showed Democrats’ share of the presidential vote in rural areas dropped from 39 percent in 2012 when Obama ran for reelection to 33 percent in 2020.

In the Morning Consult poll, top priorities for rural voters included reducing the national debt, supporting the police, and securing the U.S.-Mexico border—priorities that correlated strongly with disapproving of the Democratic Party. Rural voters were also much less likely than other groups to agree with liberal Democrats that discrimination against black people is one of the biggest problems in America or that white people start out with an advantage.

Joe Shepherd, founder of political action committee United Rural Democrats, says part of Democrats’ problem is that Republicans have poured more effort and money into rural areas. After noticing poor rural outreach while working Democratic campaigns in Wisconsin and Iowa, Shepherd used the flexibility of a year of COVID-19 online school at Iowa State to travel, interviewing small town and rural voters. “A lot of people feel like the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them,” Shepherd said. He argues the party should encourage young Democrats to work in small communities instead of jumping to national campaigns, and spend money to support them. That way, he said, liberal Democrats who make headlines won’t be rural voters’ primary exposure to the party.

Shepherd points to Dan Ahlers, a former representative in the South Dakota State Legislature who won his election while Hillary Clinton lost his district. “People in his community didn’t know him as Dan the Democrat,” Shepherd said. “They knew him as Dan the guy who ran the local video store and coffee shop for years.”

Shepherd predicted tough midterms for Democrats but said they could gain ground in future elections if they courted rural voters instead of leaving them to Republicans. He challenged Democrats who hope urban voters can carry them to long-term majorities. “If we do choose to abandon rural communities, they have absolutely no reason to come out for us. And this means that Democrats will lose in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in particular, which are states they’re going to need if they want to hold on to national power in the long run,” Shepherd said. “We simply cannot let the other side run unopposed through rural America.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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