"The brand is so toxic": Dems fear extinction.
SMETHPORT (PA) -- Rural Democrats are scared to admit they are Democrats.
Some liberals have taken down bumper stickers and yard signs to discredit the party's image in small towns located 100 miles northeast from Pittsburgh. These Democrats are used being outnumbered in the local Republican majority. However, as their numbers decrease, those remaining feel increasingly isolated and unwelcomed in their communities.
Tim Holohan, an accountant from rural McKean County, said that "the hatred for Democrats" is simply unbelievable. He recently encouraged his daughter not to have a pro-Joe Biden bumper stickers. "I feel like we are on the run."
The political climate in rural Pennsylvania is indicative of a bigger problem facing the Democratic Party as it heads into the November elections. Democrats have lost votes in almost every election since 2008. Democrats have also been effectively excluded from rural America's overwhelmingly white areas. This has left party leaders with little choice but to limit Democratic inroads in 2020. The shifting climate helped Republicans win House seats despite Donald Trump losing the presidency. Surging rural support allowed Republicans to win the Virginia governorship a year later. A small, but vocal, group of Democratic officials fears that the same trends could undermine their candidates in Ohio and Pennsylvania. These states will decide the Senate majority in the November election and the White House in the two years following.
The Democratic Party continues to focus its vast majority of energy, messaging, and resources on voters in densely populated areas.
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is a leading candidate for the Senate election. He insists that his party cannot afford to ignore rural voters. To face rural voters, the former mayor of small towns drove his Dodge Ram pickup truck through five rural counties to meet them.
Fetterman, who was wearing his trademark sweatshirt and shorts in the frigid temperatures, said that he is a champion for the "forgotten, the marginalized, and the left-behind places". He addressed approximately 100 people in a McKean County bingo hall, where Trump won 72% of the vote in 2020.
Fetterman declared, "These are the kinds of places that matter just like any other place," as the crowd cheered.
For years, the Democratic Party's struggles in rural America have been growing. It's only getting worse. Barack Obama won 875 states in 2008, a stunning victory. Twelve years later, Biden only won 527. According to data compiled and published by The Associated Press, the vast majority of these losses -- 260 out of 348 -- occurred in rural counties.
The Midwest saw the most severe losses. 21 rural counties in Michigan were flipped from Obama to Trump in 2008. Democrats lost 28 rural areas in Minnesota, 32 in Wisconsin, and 45 in Iowa. Rural voters were also a significant part of recent Republican voter registration gains, such as in Florida and North Carolina.
Because of gains in the more populous Democratic states, Biden was able to overcome rural losses and beat Trump in 2020. Some Democratic officials fear that party leaders may not be aware of the seriousness of the threat, perhaps because Biden's victory.
Republican Jim Cooper, a Democratic Representative from Tennessee, recently declared that he will not seek reelection this fall to Congress. He warns that the party faces extinction in small-town America.
It's difficult to sink lower than where we are now. Cooper said that rural areas are almost automatically pariahs if there is a D after your name.
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota worries that even if Democrats win more urban and suburban votes, her party could have "unstable majority" if it fails to stop rural bleeding.
"Democrats hold the House, Senate, and the presidency. But it's a fragile majority. Heitkamp now heads the One Country Project which focuses on rural voters.
She criticised her party's strategy to reach rural voters, which was to focus on farmers and promise high-speed internet. She also said that Democrats were hurting themselves by not being more vocal against far-left positions which alienate rural voters like the push to "defund police".
Although only a few Democrats in Congress support the removal of such money from police department, conservative media, particularly Fox News, is able to amplify such positions.
Heitkamp stated that Republicans are using the language of far-left to define the Democratic Party. "The trends in rural America are very, extremely bad. ... The brand is so toxic that even Democrats who have remained aren't supporting the party.
The Democratic National Committee appointed Kylie Oversen (a former North Dakota legislator) to chair the rural council. This is in order to help rural voters. DNC says that it is sharing resources with rural people to improve organizing, training, and recruiting.
These resources have not made life easier for Democrats in Northwestern Pennsylvania so far.
One group of voters who attended one of Fetterman’s weekend stops in rural Clarion said that they have been effectively excluded by their community and sometimes even family members for being Democrats. One woman brought her political signs inside to ensure they weren't stolen or vandalized at night.
Barbara Speer (68), a former sixth-grade teacher, said, "You need to be careful around here."
Michelle's Cafe, located on Clarion's main road, is one of the few places where local Democrats can gather. The sign at the door proclaims support of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, as well as other progressive priorities.
Kaitlyn Nevel (33-year-old cafe owner) isn't comfortable talking about her political affiliation when she is asked.
She said, "I would prefer not to say, just because this is a small community."
Eugenia Barboza (22-year-old college student) said that the cafe is the only place she feels safe as a Latina immigrant. She said that a caravan made up of Trump supporters gathered just down the road to drive to Washington's deadly protests on January 6, 2021.
Barboza stated that she was grateful for Fetterman and other Democrats coming to rural areas. However, she doesn't believe that this will change.
She said, "It would require a lot more than just he." It would take years, years, and years.