Can Democrats win in rural America?
One of President Trump's favorite maps, of America color-coded by the counties he won in 2016, is extremely misleading. It does correctly show the overwhelming majority of the country's land mass to be Republican. But it does not account for population distribution. Since Democrats do better in cities, and because the U.S. population is heavily urbanized, one can lose most of the physical area while winning most of the actual people.
Nevertheless, it is true that Democrats have struggled badly outside urban areas of late. Democrats have a roughly 30-point advantage in urban counties, but a 16-point disadvantage in rural ones. And given how Republicans have rigged themselves a roughly five- to six-point handicap in the House of Representatives, mostly by structurally over-weighting non-urban votes, whether Democrats can take back the House will depend in large part on whether they can win back some of those rural and suburban voters.
The bulk of the closer House races are in classic Hillary Clinton territory — upper-middle-class suburbs that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but for her in 2016, as Ed Kilgore points out. These are places like California's 39th and 48th Districts, Virginia's 7th, Florida's 15th, and Utah's 4th, where Democratic candidates are running fairly ordinary liberal (or occasionally somewhat conservative) campaigns. Democrat Ben McAdams in UT-4, for instance, favors a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
However, those are far from all of the close races — particularly if you start including reach districts that are typically GOP strongholds, but that, if they turned blue, could give the Dems a solid working majority in the House.
In such deep-rural areas like Colorado's 3rd, Nebraska's 2nd, West Virginia's 3rd, and Pennsylvania's 11th, Democrats are mounting more varied strategies. For instance, in CO-3 (rated by the Cook Political Report at R+6 in general, and likely Republican for 2018), Democrat Diane Mitch Bush is running a little-noticed campaign against incumbent Republican Scott Tipton. Her campaign platform is quite progressive, especially given the district, but she has a more traditional Democratic affect, emphasizing the importance of policy expertise and bipartisan compromise. In WV-3 (rated at an eye-watering R+23, but merely lean Republican in 2018), by contrast, Democrat Richard Ojeda has a more moderate campaign platform but a ferociously populist style, promising to fight corporate interests like a mother badger defending her cubs. (It will not surprise you which candidate has gotten more national media coverage.)
What candidates don't mention is also interesting. In Iowa's 4th District (R+11, lean Republican), Democrat J.D. Scholten is attacking incumbent Republican Steve King not over his flagrant bigotry, but as an absentee politician who doesn't care about his constituents. Of course, Scholten has to be hoping King's outrageous racism will harm the incumbent politically. He's just trusting that outside PACs and reporting will handle it. Remarkably, King is barely even running a campaign, so far spending his campaign money on salaries for his own family instead of ads.
So if Democrats are to find political success outside of urban America on Nov. 6, what will the key be?
Well, look: There are 435 races, and each of them is different. But overall, Democratic congressional and Senate candidates are running considerably to the left of where they were in 2016, if for no other reason that Hillary Clinton ran a centrist campaign and it flopped disastrously. Whether that will work electorally remains to be seen.
In some sense, though, ideology might be beside the point. Candidate quality, fundraising, and organization may well matter more than explicit politics at this stage. To my eye, the candidates who are doing the best relative to their district profile are those who are charismatic and inspiring, have a good bit of cash on hand, and can mobilize a network of enthusiastic volunteers. That's only somewhat related to one's explicit politics — populist rhetoric pretty clearly fires people up more than bland technocracy, but Ojeda is also something of a deficit-phobe.
In other words, the results of Election Day are going to be more about effort than ideology. But the day after, should they win a House majority, Democrats are going to have to use that political power effectively, and that does require ideology. Investigating President Trump, checking war spending, and building up some credible plans for health care, climate change, and political reform could lay solid groundwork for 2020 — while searching relentlessly for bipartisanship, as Barack Obama did in 2009, certainly will not.
Trump's incompetence, corruption, and bigotry might hand Democrats power, as George W. Bush's failures did in 2006. But after that, they must govern wisely.