DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats from rural districts have become a rare breed in Congress, but Reps. Cindy Axne and Cheri Bustos think they can reverse the trend.
The two lawmakers, whose districts uncharacteristically include large swaths of crops and livestock, insist that rural issues are Democratic issues.
They are spearheading the Rural Reinvestment Task Force. The New Democrat Coalition in Congress organized the task force to make inroads in flyover country — regions dominated by pickup trucks, work boots and “Make America Great Again” flags.
Despite Joseph R. Biden’s presidential win in November, House Democrats continued to lose rural seats. The party’s more moderate members blamed the trend on the dominance of far-left voices such as that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
On a listening tour last week through rural communities in Mrs. Axne’s Des Moines district, the two lawmakers heard voters’ concerns about labor shortages, broadband access, affordable housing and lack of federal support for biofuels and sustainable agriculture.
They offered Democratic solutions, including $65 billion to expand broadband as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill winding its way through Congress.
More to the point, Mrs. Axne and Mrs. Bustos pledged to put rural issues on the agenda of their Democratic colleagues from urban and suburban districts.
“In rural Iowa, if they don’t know you, they don’t trust you,” Mrs. Axne said in an interview. “A lot of the time, they’re not watching the same TV as you. They’re not reading the same publications, so you’ve got to take your message to them.”
Democrats have struggled to gain traction in rural areas, which have increasingly swung in favor of Republicans in recent decades.
Stacy Schmidt, who grew up in a rural town in eastern Iowa but now lives in Des Moines, said she thinks the task force may help reach rural voters but the idea that Democrats don’t understand rural America will be difficult to overcome.
“I think there is a long-standing perception that Democrats or liberals are out of touch with ‘real Americans,’ so there’s that kind of knee-jerk reaction of ‘I’m just not going to pay attention and vote Republican,’” Ms. Schmidt said.
The Democrats’ outreach to rural voters didn’t impress Ron Forsell, chairman of the Republican Party in Dallas County, Iowa, which is part of Mrs. Axne‘s district.
“I haven’t seen any sort of mobilized efforts to go outside of the bigger suburbs or more suburban parts of the county,” he said.
“In terms of values, I think that the Republican Party represents rural voters more,” Mr. Forsell said. “I just don’t see Cindy Axne or really any Democrats showing any leadership on helping the economy, and I think that’s what’s really important to rural people.”
Mrs. Axne, who has yet to announce a reelection run, is considered a vulnerable Democrat.
One of the Republicans’ main messaging points against Mrs. Axne is the company she keeps. They fault her for going along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, in all 38 votes conducted so far in the 117th Congress.
“It’s hard for Cindy Axne to claim she is standing up for Iowa’s agriculture industry when she votes with San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Mrs. Axne, the sole Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation, said part of the effort to expand the party’s reach will be to show up, listen to people and share new ideas.
Mrs. Bustos, who isn’t running for reelection, said she will ensure that fellow Democrats know what is happening in her district, which includes rural stretches of central and western Illinois.
She lives in Moline, which has a population of just over 40,000.
“We don’t really need a member who maybe represents one city in their congressional district,” Mrs. Bustos said about potential appointees to the task force, which currently has only Mrs. Axne and Mrs. Bustos as members. “We want the kind of people who understand places like ours.”
The number of Democrats representing rural districts is shrinking, especially as remaining advocates, including Mrs. Bustos and longtime Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, announce their intent to retire.
Mrs. Bustos issued a sweeping report last month about how swing district Democrats can win areas carried by Donald Trump.
The report featured 25 Democrats in Congress and state legislatures across the country, including Mrs. Axne, who explained in their own words how they were able to foster successful campaigns in red states.
“I am now one of three Democrats in all of Congress who won in 2016 and 2020 where Trump also won those congressional districts,” Mrs. Bustos said. “If we’ve only got three of us left, then we need to tell our stories.”
Among the advice Mrs. Bustos laid out was showing up more in conservative-leaning areas, focusing on local issues and being more open to working with Republicans.
Mrs. Axne directly responded to Republicans’ portrayal of her party as a bastion of extreme liberalism.
“We paid individual attention to them through targeted mailers that countered Republican socialist and Defund the Police messages,” Mrs. Axne wrote. “Our phone bank volunteers called these folks. We don’t have the luxury of just focusing on Democrats for the vote. Never forget that in tough districts.”
Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer and executive director of the Coyote Run Farm and Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, said he felt hopeful about the task force after attending a roundtable meeting about agriculture.
“What I really like about the task force is that it’s solutions-based,” Mr. Russell said. “I was really hopeful with what I heard today.”