Aside from the presidency, the 2020 election results were deeply disappointing for Democrats. While the blows were geographically dispersed from Maine to Montana, many shared a common feature: underperforming in rural areas. This failure obviously limits Democrats’ ability to pursue their agenda, but more importantly, it’s also a problem for the health of the American political system because the increasing urban-rural divide is a prime source of polarization.

Many Democrats would prefer to ignore their rural problem because making a play for rural voters might require compromises in the pursuit of their progressive agenda. Others, under the sway of The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis that their inevitable, demographics-driven political dominance is just around the corner, think that chasing rural voters is both a fool’s errand and unnecessary.  As the Washington Post’s Holly Bailey has reported, a large faction of the party thinks it’s “crazy” to woo rural voters. According to this line of thinking, “rather than tying themselves in knots chasing a deeply conservative electorate that loves guns, opposes abortion and is firmly in the GOP camp, Democrats need to focus on driving up enthusiasm among people who share their values.” As one party activist explained: “Instead of chasing and obsessing over voters who are not obsessing over us … what if we invested in voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats? Women of color vote 3-to-1 for Democrats, compared to white guys. It doesn’t make sense to use a strategy we know loses elections.” Many progressive Democrats are also ill at ease with expending additional energy and resources courting a demographic that is already overrepresented in the halls of power. From this perspective, the focus should be on reducing the influence of this voting bloc, not reinforcing it. 

If it weren’t for the U.S. Senate, which provides equal representation for every state regardless of population, Democrats could arguably indulge such preferences. But given that they only won control of the chamber this year by relying on Vice President Harris’ ability to break ties, the filibuster-proof majority necessary to pass the party’s more ambitious goals is out of reach for the foreseeable future.

So it’s not only dubious as a matter of civics to write off the nation’s rural voters — it’s a serious strategic error that imperils Democrats’ ability to hold the Senate, let alone dominate it. Democrats should also keep in mind that states are not uniformly “rural” or “urban”: Competitiveness in rural areas would enhance the party’s prospects in more populous states, too. If Democrats could avoid handing over so much of the rural vote to Republicans in key battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, they would have a near-lock on the Electoral College.

Democrats’ ambivalence about rural America has often led them to look for easy fixes for attracting greater support in the country’s heart- and-hinter-lands. Outfitting candidates in cowboy hats or staging hunting photo-ops often seem like crafty ways of signaling cultural proximity to voters. But too-clever-by-half image makeovers only go so far and, at worst, can come off as transparently condescending. Another popular approach in Democratic circles is to simply dream of long-shot structural changes — like eliminating the filibuster or adding states — designed to blunt Republicans’ countermajoritarian advantage. But given the closely divided Congress, these proposals don’t appear to be plausible in the near future. Democrats — not to mention rural America and the country as a whole — would be better served by the party considering what it would take to be competitive in states that actually exist. 

We focus here on five Western states that highlight the Democrats’ problem. While Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas account for less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population, their senators wield the same collective power in the upper chamber as those hailing from the five most populous states of California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. And if one party were able to corral those five big-box states in flyover country, it would already be one-fifth of the way to a Senate majority before it even looks to the other 98 percent of the country’s population. As it stands, the Republican Party has nearly accomplished the task. As recently as 2008, the parties split those 10 seats, but today, Montana’s Jon Tester is the lone Democrat. 

That relatively recent past, however, reveals how Democrats could regain a foothold in those states, as well as other rural parts of the country. Despite a disastrous showing in 2020, it has been Montana Democrats who have most effectively competed against Republicans in this region over the last few decades. There are clear lessons from those successes that Democrats should try to recapture in Montana and export to other rural areas.

Our nationalized political environment is a central problem that Democrats will have to confront head-on to be competitive in rural areas. There are two core approaches that they must take simultaneously, one defensive and one offensive. First, Democrats running in these areas need to play a little defense in obvious ways, like actively rebranding themselves on mainstay political issues like the Second Amendment and abortion. This isn’t a new or particularly difficult plan to implement, but it’s one that Democrats seem to have abandoned in recent cycles because efforts to neutralize these hot-button issues requires taking policy positions that are out of step with Democrats elsewhere, particularly those in the party’s activist base. Such defensive tactics will also only go so far. The second and more important key is to go on the offensive to creatively localize their races by adopting popular positions on issues that don’t cleanly map onto national partisan cleavages. This positive strategy allows candidates to offer tangible help to rural communities while also carrying the pleasant upside of facing far less intraparty pushback because focusing on these issues would not conflict with national Democratic priorities.

Read the full paper here.