Liberal Democrats are taking their message to rural America, testing the appeal of progressive politics in communities that remain supportive of former President Donald Trump.
Though the party has often tread carefully on their messaging to more conservative communities, some political candidates popping up in unexpected places are embracing a liberal agenda that they argue will lift up the working class.
For example, Jessica Piper, a Democrat running for a state House seat in rural northwestern Missouri, doesn’t hide her support for “big government” proposals touted by the left wing members of her party.
Ms. Piper has been publicly espousing her views on social media, particularly TikTok, where she’s accumulated more than 100,000 followers for her content explaining the phenomenon of being a liberal Democrat in rural America.
“I’m really progressive. I believe in health care for all. I believe in Medicare-for-All. I believe that everyone should have a living wage. These things, to me, resonate in rural communities,” Ms. Piper told The Washington Times.
Ms. Piper is among a growing number of progressive Democrats who are embracing policies that historically tend to turn off rural communities.
Exit polling data by NPR found that rural voter turnout helped boost Mr. Trump to victory in 2016, with the former president getting 62% of support in rural areas.
In 2020, the percentage declined some, but Mr. Trump still managed to keep much of his inroads.
Messaging on bold liberal ideas is a shift from traditional Democratic strategy to distance rural candidates from the wing of the party who hold strong in urban areas.
Several House Democrats who narrowly won their seats in 2020 blamed their close races, as well as the loss of several moderate seats, on that messaging, as well as rhetoric coming from urban, far-left members of the caucus.
Swing district Democrats, the biggest GOP targets in campaign cycles, have sought to differentiate themselves from opposition messaging that’s painted the party broadly as a liberal bastion.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner ran as a liberal Democrat for eastern Oregon’s 2nd congressional district in 2018 seeking to bridge the urban-rural gap, though the seat went to then-incumbent GOP Rep. Greg Walden. She received just 39% of the vote.
Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer, is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, arguably the most conservative Democrat in Congress, in the Democratic primary for Texas’s 28th District, in hopes of proving the left wing trend of the party is the key to its future.
Ms. Cisneros, who is backed by the liberal PAC Justice Democrats that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, has praised rural towns in Texas that held Black Lives Matter rallies, which often have been more visible in urban centers.
The candidate, who has been compared to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, has expressed confidence in her second challenge against Mr. Cuellar, whose district holds large swaths of rural communities.
“We saw that it was working. If it wasn’t working, we wouldn’t have held Henry Cuellar to 51.8% of the vote,” Ms. Cisneros told Politico in August.
Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, gives credit to Democratic candidates who are embracing a far-left agenda in red and rural districts for not trying to deceive voters about their agenda.
“Democrats should run more candidates who are honest about their liberal views. At least the self-avowed socialists don’t lie to voters and pretend to be moderate,” Mr. Berg said in a statement.
But political veterans in both parties are skeptical that the development will produce victories for Democrats.
Patsy Dillingham, president of the Rural Women’s Republican Club in Montgomery County, Maryland, argues that many voters in rural communities are generally more self-sufficient and in favor of limited government, which fits the principles of her party.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party who has focused on rural outreach, agreed, in part, with Ms. Dillingham that touting certain platforms won’t do much for the party.
“Messages like the Green New Deal or Defund the Police are going nowhere in rural communities, and quite frankly, they’re going nowhere in suburban communities too because they aren’t based in people’s day-to-day realities,” Ms. Kleeb said.
Ms. Kleeb said Democrats instead should focus on localized issues and target their message to subjects such as access to health care, or breaking up monopolies that could pique the interest of family farmers who have to compete with corporate farms.
The chairwoman said it’s a matter of investment and time that could make a difference on whether the party can gain traction in rural areas in the future, in addition to finding the right message.
“There are plenty of issues where Democrats clearly are on the side of rural voters, Republicans, Democrats and independents,” Ms. Kleeb said. “But, we haven’t shown them that we care enough to even show up in their communities. So, we have not earned their trust to earn their votes.”
“When you use taxpayers’ money, it’s somebody else’s money that they think they can do anything with. It’s wrong. I don’t think [far-left proposals] would be very well accepted out in rural areas,” Ms. Dillingham said.
Though pushing rural communities to champion broader economic and social plans seems like a long shot, local Democratic leaders are seeking ways to personally connect with voters on the ground.
Anderson Clayton, the 23-year-old chairwoman of the rural Person County Democratic Party in North Carolina, argues the party needs to do more to vocalize that they’re trying to lift up working-class communities, many of whom reside in rural areas.
“I do believe the Democratic Party is the party of the working class and we have a working-class message,” Ms. Clayton said in an interview. “But, somehow that message is not filtered down in the way that it needs to be. And I think that we’re really trying to come to terms with that as a party.”
Ms. Clayton, who calls herself an “Elizabeth Warren Democrat,” said it helps that she grew up in the county that she now chairs, which makes her familiar with its people and customs.
The chairwoman also noted that she has a policy of talking to people with all kinds of political backgrounds, instead of limiting her outreach to independents and more moderate Republicans who could be easier to swing.
“I have a very open policy of accepting anyone and everyone that’s willing to meet with me and who will hear out my message,” Ms. Clayton said. “We want to see new jobs, economic opportunity, new job training programs, things like that, and when I have someone that’s willing to hear that regardless of their party, I go after [them.]”
Zoe Nemerever, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University who specializes in rural politics, said the issue with promoting large economic or social programs in rural areas is partly a perception problem.
“Rural Americans perceive that the benefits of these big government programs are targeting urban populations,” Ms. Nemerever said.