A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Somewhere out there is the next Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia.

Here are two things that candidate ought to be reading.

Of course, somewhere out there is the next Republican candidate for governor, too, but we’re probably better able to guess that person’s identity than we can the Democrat – either Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears or Attorney General Jason Miyares. Whoever that Republican candidate is doesn’t need this advice on how to run in rural Virginia, but any Democrat who hopes to win statewide does.

Jackson Hamilton. Courtesy photo.

The first thing on the reading list is a spreadsheet put together by political analyst Jackson Hamilton, who tweets under the handle Vajrpolanalyst. Hamilton is also a junior at Orange County High School, but don’t let his youth fool you. His numbers are as solid as anyone’s. After the congressional midterms, he put together a map showing partisan shifts in Virginia locality by locality between the 2020 presidential election and this year’s congressional races:

This map shows how the vote shifted from the 2020 presidential election to the 2022 mid-terms. Courtesy of Jack Hamilton.

The big takeaway is obviously the pro-Republican shift across rural Virginia, particularly on the Northern Neck and in Southside. In 27 localities, that shift was in double-digit percentage points. The highest Republican shift came in Lancaster County on the Northern Neck, a gain of 19.6 percentage points. In Essex County, the Republican shift was 18.8 percentage points; in Halifax County 17.4.

This map shows how the vote shifted from the 2021 governor’s race to the 2022 mid-terms. Courtesy of Jack Hamilton.

To be fair, when measured against the 2021 gubernatorial results, the Republican vote was actually down – the rural vote for Glenn Youngkin represents something of a high-water mark in many localities. One data point, though, does not a Democratic trend make. Over the past two decades, and particularly the last dozen years or so, we’ve seen the Republican vote share in rural areas rise and the Democratic vote share fall. That’s the big picture; think of these elections like the stock market, which wiggles and jiggles up and down day by day but over time has a definite trend line. For more on this, I recommend yet more reading: my column on how this year’s election accelerated the decline of the Democratic Party in much of rural Virginia, with Republican congressman Morgan Griffith, in particular, hitting record marks in many localities in the 9th District. Griffith had never topped 80% in any locality before this year in a contested election; this time he did it in 14 localities. (Nevertheless, Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, insisted voters were apathetic about Griffith and wants him replaced, but that’s another story.)

Here’s why this matters: The collapse of the Democratic vote in rural Virginia makes it harder for the party to win statewide elections, as Terry McAuliffe discovered the hard way last year. This isn’t just a problem for Virginia Democrats, it’s a problem for Democrats across the country. Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency in 2016 if she’d just run a little bit better in rural areas in a handful of swing states. She didn’t, and the rest is history. Some Democrats have written off rural areas as lost causes, and in certain congressional districts and state legislative districts they are. In statewide elections, though, the Republican blowouts in rural areas give the party something of a head start, forcing Democrats to run up the margins in metro areas. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t. Mathematically speaking, Democrats would have more electoral options if they could run better in rural areas. They don’t need to win them, they don’t even need to make them close, but they do need to do better than they have.

Anthony Flaccavento. Courtesy photo.

That brings us to the second recommended reading for prospective statewide candidates: a new report by the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, a left-leaning think tank that aims to promote what it calls “locally-tailored progressive populist programs” in rural communities. One of the group’s cofounders is Anthony Flaccavento, the Washington County farmer and author who twice ran as the Democratic candidate for Congress against Griffith – in 2012 and 2018. The 38.6% of the vote he received in 2012 still stands as the biggest share of the vote any Democratic challenger to Griffith has received; this year’s Democratic candidate took just 26.5%. Flaccavento’s 34.8% in 2018 is the second-biggest share for Democrats there in the post-Rick Boucher era. Put another way, while Flaccavento lost both times, if statewide Democrats could run as well in the 9th District as he did, they wouldn’t be out of power in Richmond now. McAuliffe took just 24.8% in the 9th District; if he could have matched Flaccavento’s vote shares in Southwest Virginia, he’d be enjoying a second term right now. If any prospective Democratic candidate for governor isn’t talking to Flaccavento about how to pitch left-of-center policies in a distinctly right-of-center part of the state, they’re either making a mistake or must be supremely confident that they can run up the score in Northern Virginia more than previous Democrats have.

Or maybe they don’t need to talk to Flaccavento – they can just read the report that he has helped co-author: “Can Democrats succeed in rural America?” The Rural Urban Bridge Initiative has produced the study – compiled before the election but released after it – to look at what types of liberal candidates have done best in rural areas around the country and offer campaign advice on how others can learn from those lessons. Democrats who are serious about winning statewide office obviously need to read this report; Republicans might want to read it, too, because a) it’s always useful to know what the other side is up to, and b) some of the advice is applicable to them, as well.

The report begins from this philosophical place: It’s not healthy for the country to be so geographically polarized, with much of rural America now effectively a one-party state. Keep in mind that this report comes from a left-of-center group so it adds this practical consideration: “Democrats can’t win enough state and federal elections to effectively govern while routinely losing seven out of ten rural voters,”the report says. “Combined with a broader alienation from the party on the part of both rural and urban working-class voters, there simply are not enough college-educated people in cities and suburbs to consistently win even slim majorities in Congress and most state legislatures.”

What follows is partly a critique of current Democratic efforts in rural America, and some advice for future Democratic candidates in rural communities, based on interviews with 50 Democrats who ran in rural districts between 2016 and 2020 and were deemed to have overperformed even if they didn’t actually win. Since this critique comes from a particular place on the political spectrum, not even all Democrats may agree with it, although the math is pretty undeniable: “In 1992, Bill Clinton won 47% of the rural vote across the United States. Since then, votes for Democrats, in both state and national elections, have been in freefall, with Hillary Clinton receiving just 29% of all rural votes in 2016. Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election provided further evidence of Democrats’ rural problems, with 44 counties – all predominantly rural – voting 70% or more for the Republican candidate, an eleven-fold increase from a decade earlier.”

The report is pretty unsparing when it comes to Democratic leadership: “The Democratic Party’s response to this precipitous decline has been, for all intents and purposes, to surrender. Based in large part on a lack of understanding of rural people and priorities, along with a reflexive dismissal of ‘low information’ people ‘voting against their own interests,’ leading Democrats have simply written off the countryside.”

Now comes the advice, and some of it might be controversial, too, although it strikes me – as someone who grew up in a rural area and still lives in one – as pretty practical. For instance: “Our overperforming candidates are less dogmatic and more focused on solving specific problems than less successful candidates. They do not see or speak about conservatives as ‘deplorables.’”

Here’s where Republicans may find this report amusing: It basically counsels Democrats not to sound particularly liberal. However, some Democrats may find that difficult advice to take, as well. The report also advises that “moderately conservative language can be used to sell liberal-left policies.” It also advises against the kind of partisan attacks that might work in other places. Many partisans want candidates who bill themselves as “a fighter” and disdain any mention of compromise (this is as true on the right as it is the left). This report says that’s exactly the wrong kind of language to use. It cites polls showing that most general election voters actually prefer someone who emphasizes a willingness to compromise. The report also expresses a preference “for populist language over progressive activist social justice rhetoric,” which the report says generally plays poorly with rural voters. “Talk like a neighbor, not an activist or a politician. Progressive activist jargon like ‘BIPOC’ and ‘centering’ is alienating outside of progressive circles.”

Those aren’t the only ways that activists on the left use language that is off-putting to rural voters, the report says. “Mainstream environmentalists often directly or impliedly blame people who work in rural industries like farming, mining and forestry and rural lifestyle choices such as driving a pickup. Such blame has been shown to heighten rural skepticism of climate change – not surprising that, when people feel attacked, they get defensive and reject whatever the attacker is saying. Moreover, rural people perceive that they are being asked to make a bigger sacrifice (i.e. their livelihoods) than their urban counterparts who can easily switch to mass transit, bicycling, and telecommuting.” Instead, the report suggests this approach to environmental issues: “We would also like to see the development of messaging that uses the concept of rural places being ‘sacrifice zones’ or ‘resource colonies’ for corporate raiders. Such messages could have a populist flavor, leaning into people’s love of place and anger at how it has been stripped for parts, its wealth extracted while the people have nothing to show for it but pollution and shuttered factories.”

In short, the report says the current Democratic brand in rural areas is so toxic that “Democrats in competitive races must overtly distance themselves from the national Democratic Party by forming a distinct wing called, for example, ‘Traditional Common Sense Democrats’ that speaks to multi-racial working-class values, priorities, and culture.” As someone who works with words for a living, I find this formulation fascinating. I’ve long watched as Republicans have adopted “traditional” and “common sense” as part of their language; here we see Democrats being urged to do the same. The report cites some academic studies to show that even the briefest mention of social justice or economic justice is a turn-off; instead candidates should invoke words and phrases such as “patriotism” and “hard work,” something Republicans have long excelled at. It doesn’t say Democrats should adopt Republican policies, but indirectly says they should adopt some Republican language. The report insists that many Democratic policies – such as those on universal health care and higher taxes for corporations – are potentially quite popular with rural voters; they just have to get framed differently and presented by more trusted candidates. I can imagine that Republicans might dispute large portions of that. Unfortunately for voters, elections are all-or-nothing affairs; since you can’t pick and choose which policies to support, you might well vote for a candidate who supports two things you agree with and opposes a third. 

The report says those Democrats who do best in rural areas are those who are “generally known and well-regarded in their districts,” spend a lot of time campaigning in rural areas and focus on local issues, not national ones. This may seem obvious advice but it’s advice that’s easier to give than practice. The first challenge, of course, is finding candidates who are “generally known and well-regarded in their districts” – and willing to run as a Democrat. Second, candidates in rural areas obviously have to spend time campaigning there; the bigger challenge is for statewide candidates. Just look at how Virginia Democrats have, over the years, abandoned the Labor Day tradition of appearing in Buena Vista and Covington. It’s hard to argue with their math: not many votes there and a lot more to be had elsewhere. Still, that adds up over time to a perception that Democrats simply don’t care about rural areas and only show up when they have to. Third, just because a Democrat may want to talk about local issues doesn’t mean the Republican wants to. The nature of politics is that each side tries to exploit the other side’s vulnerabilities, and if Republicans feel Democrats are trying to get away with not sounding as liberal as they might be, they’ll be more than happy to talk about whatever issues discomfort Democrats most.

Two of those are clearly abortion and guns.. There is some evidence of late that abortion rights is a stronger argument than previously believed – witness how voters in otherwise conservative Kansas and Kentucky have rejected state constitutional amendments that would have made it easier for those states to ban the procedure. However, in most rural counties in those states, the anti-abortion side prevailed by wide margins. (See my previous column on the Kansas vote; I discussed the Kentucky vote here.) “This needle is most difficult to thread on guns,” the report says. It also points out some figures that often flummox Democrats from more metro areas: “72% of rural adults grew up in a household with a gun, and 58% currently live in a household with a gun. For them, guns are a normal part of everyday life. For some, their fear and/or anger that gun rights are under attack is intertwined with fear and anger that their entire way of life is under attack or, at least, held in contempt and their resentment of government meddling in their lives. Guns are part of their rural identity, and the same politicians and activists who have never cared to try to understand their rural way of life are the ones trying to take their guns away. People want to feel in control of their lives, and don’t like it when urban dwellers who don’t use guns try to force rural gun owners to make sacrifices that accommodate urban people’s fears or that make responsible gun owners pay the price for other people’s reckless or criminal use of guns. (Likewise, urban dwellers don’t want to accommodate rural gun owners’ fears of losing their guns. Both sides are by and large unwilling to acknowledge that what they want has a negative impact on others).”

The report offers some advice to candidates on how to talk about guns – being personally knowledgeable about firearms is a good start, narrowly focusing on specific proposals (such as universal background checks) may help mitigate things somewhat: “We’re unaware of any useful message-testing around guns, gun control, or gun safety. However, we’re confident that candidates must reassure gun owners that they’re not coming for their guns, that they don’t see guns – or gun owners – as intrinsically bad.” That may be sage advice but will it work in counties where just a few years ago hundreds of people showed up to encourage their local board of supervisors to pass some meaningless “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolution? I also wonder how much leeway some Democratic partisans are willing to give their own candidates on some of these issues.

The ideal candidate, as described by this report, would be someone well-known locally (in a good way), who focuses on local economic issues, frames them in a conservative-sounding way and doesn’t get hung up on language and issues likely to turn off rural voters. Republicans, I’m sure, would think all this is simply a way to trick voters into electing someone they wouldn’t otherwise elect, but this advice is really no different than what parties give their candidates all the time on the best way to present themselves – the only difference here is this advice is speaking aimed at rural Democrats. Will Democrats take heed? Perhaps that’s why the report’s title is presented as a question.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.