- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2021

A political action committee led by college students is catching the eye of influential party insiders in its efforts to elect Democrats in rural America.

United Rural Democrats, started by 20-year-old Joe Shepherd of Iowa State University, seeks to support and elect Democrats in rural communities, which have become staunch GOP strongholds for decades.

“I think that as rural America and urban America become more separated from each other culturally, community trust is going to be even more valuable for the Democrats that remain out there, and we build the bench,” Mr. Shepherd told The Washington Times.

United Rural Democrats has a network of 200 people involved in its efforts, has attracted more than 23,000 followers on Twitter and has had the support of top campaign staffers who’ve worked for Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race, as well as Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.

So far, the PAC has raised more than $50,000 to help elect Democrats in rural districts since its founding in September 2020.

Democrats have struggled to gain traction in rural areas for years.

Earlier this year, Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne of Iowa and Cheri Bustos of Illinois launched a rural task force in communities around Des Moines to shore up support ahead of the critical midterm election.

A handful of swing-district Democrats including Mrs. Bustos, who co-chairs the New Democrat Coalition’s rural taskforce, have announced retirements ahead of 2022.

Republicans also need to net just five seats to overtake the House majority.

Kollin Crompton, the communications director for the Iowa GOP Party, dismissed the notion that Democrats can make inroads in rural areas.

“Iowa Democrats could not be more out of touch with the values and issues that resonate with rural Iowans,” Mr. Crompton said in a statement. “Their party leaders represent Iowa’s urban centers only and fundamentally believe rural Iowans are part of the problem. Their lack of success has never been about organizing, it’s always been about Iowans rejecting their extreme agenda.”

Michael Morley, a senior adviser to Mr. Ryan who helped advise Mr. Shepherd‘s PAC, said Democrats need to better communicate with rural areas in order to strengthen inroads.

“I think to a large extent, it’s improving our communications with that constituency because I think the Democratic Party, based on what the party stands for, very much can be attracting those voters,” Mr. Morley said. “So we need to reach out, communicate with them, and let them know where we as a party stand.”

Mr. Shepherd said the PAC is starting to develop a board of advisers to shore up organizers across the country.

A former campaign staffer close to United Rural Democrats said he believed its ability to organize young people to help elect rural lawmakers was a key factor in its early efforts.

“I think it’s great that this is a kind of youth-led organization,” the staffer said. “I think that’s one of its strong points, as it … competes for space in the larger kind of advocacy universe.”

• Mica Soellner can be reached at msoellner@washingtontimes.com.

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