A former Iowa Democratic lawmaker's message to candidates in rural areas

Former State Representative John Whitaker is the executive director of Rural Forward, an organization formed last month to promote progressive solutions for communities of all sizes, as well as to help Democrats organize in rural areas and demonstrate that rural areas matter. -promoted by desmoinesdem

In 2002, I won my legislative district (Iowa House district 90) by only 55 votes. I had a difficult time raising the funds I needed, even though I was serving my third term as a Van Buren County supervisor, and district 90 was then held by a Democrat who was retiring.

Sometime during that first legislative session, a lobbyist who had served in the legislature (as a Democrat) told me the reason that out of district funders were not interested in my race was because a Democrat should not win that seat. The district had 16 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats. It didn’t matter that the district had one of the widest swing factors in the state or that the Democrats had held it for three terms.

When I left the legislature in 2009 to become state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, Curt Hanson held House district 90 in a hard-fought special election. Hanson was re-elected four times in a district that since the last census has been House district 82, covering slightly different territory. After Hanson passed away this summer, Democrat Phil Miller won a special election here, even though President Donald Trump had carried the district in 2016.

That is a lot of history, but it is important because it proves a point: Democrats can win in rural areas!

The Democrats have held that particular Iowa House seat since the 1996 election, and the main reason is the candidates have all been willing to go out and communicate with rural voters.

Retail politics has worked well in many urban communities. Door to door communication is how Democrats were able to win in Des Moines and many other large communities during the 1950’s and 60’s, but is a little more difficult to do in rural areas. The communities are smaller and more spread out, sometimes only one house in each block, with a lot of voters on farms or acreages that you have to drive door to door. But this type of direct voter communication is vital in rural areas.

In the last 20 years or so, something has changed in the way campaigns operate and I believe that is TMI, too much information. We believe we know a lot about how voters will respond to a particular message, so we target those voters who we believe will respond to the message of the candidate or party. While I know this approach has been successful in many cases, I believe it is not the best way to communicate with rural voters.

Rural voters tend to be a little more conservative than urban voters, but they are not closed-minded.

They will listen to you and your ideas if you are willing to communicate with them!

Rural Iowans, and rural Americans for that matter, are interested in civil discourse. We do not march in the streets but we do talk to each other and can agree to disagree without becoming enemies. Yes, there are examples of racism and other social ills in rural America, just like there are in urban America, and we have recently seen examples of this in Iowa, but they are rare. Rural voters accept people for who they are.

One point to remember about rural voters is that they tend not to like too much change, particularly when they believe it is forced upon them. They would rather not talk about social issues, whereas urban voters are okay talking about these issues. Their personal view of the world is strong families, strong communities and good jobs which support both of those. They want to hear from candidates directly about economic issues. How will you help their local school survive and give their children the best education possible? How will you keep health care accessible in their local area? They don’t like it that their family members have moved away to find better opportunity.

I recently heard a 70-year-old rural resident say that his son earned six figures where he works, how could he afford to take over the family business? What happens, another rural small business gone? Rural voters want to hear your ideas for good jobs that will let them stay in the place the love.

My message to any Democrat who wants to win outside of an urban area is to get out there and communicate directly with voters! In seven election cycles of door knocking, I only once had a door slammed in my face! I had far more times when people would open their homes and offer a cool drink of water on a hot day. Talk one on one with voters and let them know where you stand. They may not agree with you, but they will respect you for being willing to show up.

There is a commercial that says “Just do it!” My message for candidates in rural areas is, “Just show up!”

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