Democrats hope rural voters will come back

Walz took questions from an overflow crowd.
First District Congressman Tim Walz took questions from an overflow crowd of constituents Thursday evening in Rochester.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Consider this: Only 12 Democrats won seats in the U.S. House in districts that went for Republican Donald Trump for president last year.

Three of those Democrats are from Minnesota -- Tim Walz in the 1st, Collin Peterson in the 7th and Rick Nolan in the 8th.

So as the party plots its route back, is it tapping them for advice on how they did it?

"Not so much yet," said Walz, who barely hung on to win his sixth term in a southern Minnesota district.

In an interview in Minnesota this week Walz said voters in rural towns felt ignored by his party.

"I had someone tell me the last time, what happens in this, is they simply didn't believe Democrats were on their side," he said. "That breaks my heart because these voters in rural areas, those are my family in many cases -- my sister living back in Nebraska in a district where President Trump got 93 percent."

Think of how Belinda Biafore feels. She's the chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison spoke to protesters.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison spoke to protesters, including students who walked out of South High School, outside Minneapolis City Hall on Oct. 28, 2016.
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2016

Just a few years ago, the party was in the midst of an 80-year run of controlling the state legislature and held most statewide and federal offices. Now Republicans control the legislature and four of five congressional seats. And Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is a top GOP target in 2018 in a state Trump won by 40 percentage points.

"We've got a message problem apparently, because our Democratic voters don't think Democrats stand for working-class families anymore."

Biafore said in an industrial state like hers, it all comes down to jobs. If Republicans don't respond sufficiently to the economic distress as they promised, she believes the tide will swing back.

"It's like instant gratification with a lot of these folks. They want to see now. They want to see something happen now. When it doesn't, they're off to somebody else."

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is credited with helping Democrats gain ground in the heartland when he was Democratic National Committee chairman about a decade ago. He put a 50-state strategy in action despite being mocked by some people for it.

Now, the main contenders for the DNC chairman post to be decided this weekend are all reprising the 50-state call. That includes Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, former Obama cabinet secretary Tom Perez and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Sound Bend Indiana mayor Peter Buttigieg
Sound Bend Indiana mayor Peter Buttigieg at a Hillary Clinton debate watching party in Chicago, Ill., on September 26, 2016.
Derek Henkle | AFP | Getty Images 2016

Dean said he's behind Buttigieg largely because he's a candidate who made his mark outside Washington.

"I do not think we can prosper with a chairman from inside the beltway because they think differently than the rest of Americans think, and that has to be changed."

Ellison doesn't buy the idea it's about geography.

"If we engage people and give them something that they can support, which is a Democratic Party fighting for working-class values for people of all colors and all backgrounds, I'm sure we will be successful in 2018, 2020 and beyond."

 Congressman Tim Walz rallies DFL volunteers.
First Congressional District Congressman Tim Walz rallies DFL volunteers in Rochester on Nov. 7, 2016. "Let's not rest, let's get out," Walz told the crowd. "
Catharine Richert | MPR News 2016

In the view of Walz, the way to regain the trust of smaller-town voters is to prove that his side has better policies and to keep the partisan politics out of it.

"There's an over-reliance to believe that people filter everything through that political lens. They filter it through the lens of their own personal experience, and we need to talk to that."

Catharine Richert contributed to this report.

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