Welcome to the big Sunday edition of Progressives Everywhere!
There’s a lot happening this weekend, largely because there’s not a lot going on in the halls of Congress.
As the House begins its six-week vacation and the Senate prepares for its own leisurely summer sojourn, millions of Americans now face eviction and the fate of voting rights legislation needed to save democracy seems doomed to fail. Activists across the country, at rallies at the Capitol in Texas all the way to the steps of the Capitol in DC, are demanding that lawmakers change course. But these are deliberate policy choices being made by Democratic leaders who seem determined to renege on many of the promises they made to the people who put them in power.
I wrote an analysis of this frustrating political moment and what it means for the future in Thursday’s premium edition of the newsletter, so instead of rewriting a version of it here, I’m opening up Thursday’s newsletter to everyone. Enjoy! Consider subscribing!
As for today, we’ve got a deep dive into another very pressing issue that could help shape the course of American democracy for the next half-century.
Later this month, Republican legislatures across the country will begin the process of rigging a decade’s worth of upcoming elections. With control of a majority of statehouses and a permission slip signed by the right-wing Supreme Court, GOP lawmakers will use advanced software to create ultra-precise legislative maps designed to keep them in power regardless of the country’s political mood or how a majority of voters cast their ballots. Gerrymandering will be particularly effective in Southern and Midwestern states, even in the ones that have been trending left, thanks to the GOP’s stranglehold on rural voters.
While suburban voters have flocked to Democrats, those living in exurbs and rural parts of the country have left the party en masse to become the core of the Republican base. The combination of the Democratic Party’s drift away from its prairie populist progressive tradition and the rise of the evangelical movement played a significant role in sparking this shift, which has hit overdrive over the last decade. And even without gerrymandering, the realignment threatens to subvert democracy in extreme ways.
A few years ago, demographers at the University of Virginia estimated that by 2040, roughly half of the United States’ population will be clustered in just eight states. Worse, 70% of the nation will live in just 16 states. Democrats in a split Senate already represent 41 million more people than their Republican colleagues, a difference that will look quaint should UVA’s predicted demographic shift come to pass.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Democrats were competitive in and even won rural states. President Barack Obama won Iowa twice, for example, before Trump trounced his Democratic opponents by nearly double-digit margins in both 2016 and 2020. But while the trend is not irreversible, it’s going to require a major shift in approach to turn the tide. That work is already underway, spearheaded as always by grassroots groups led by locals more in need of money and support than advice from DC consultants.
J.D. Scholten is the executive director of RuralVote.org, one of the groups trying to make headway with people in MAGA country. He’s got the bona fides: Before taking the job this spring, Scholten ran two underdog campaigns for Congress in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. A ruby-red rural district represented for years by avowed neo-Nazi Steve King, it was unfriendly territory for a Democrat, to say the least, but Scholten toured relentlessly in a converted RV to meet voters and get the word out. In 2018, he came within a few points of unseating King, a shocking near-upset that terrified Republicans into supporting a primary challenge against King in 2020. That race resulted in a generic GOP candidate named Randy Feenstra, who ultimately beat Scholten in a district made untouchable by the current political realities.
Instead of running for a statewide office as had been rumored, Scholten wants to shift the entire political landscape. As the executive director of RuralVote.org, he is determined to take the lessons he learned from those two prior campaigns to create a two-way street: “We want to bring the Democratic Party to rural, but we're also trying to bring rural to the Democratic Party.”
Note: As I mentioned above, Democratic Party leaders have proven to be severely disappointing at the federal level this year. The fight to strengthen the Democratic brand in rural America is to me a fight to elect better lawmakers and enact progressive legislation. By focusing on grassroots organizations, we are building up activism, not cautious party leaders.
Progressives Everywhere: It was happening before the Trump era, but the rural shift away from Democrats really accelerated when Trump ran for president and then during his presidency. How much of the shift can be attributed to the cult of personality around him and his grievance politics?
JD Scholten: It’s not only Trumpism. I think social media is a huge part of what the Democratic Party is missing. Close to where I live, there's a county named Carroll County. In 2008, Carroll County voted for Obama, and then in 2020, it voted 70% for Trump. It’s not a county that a lot of people move in and out of. So what happened over those 12 years?
What has happened is that there's no Democratic message there. The state representative, the state senator, the governor, the member of Congress, and both US senators are Republicans. And then the other difference between 2008 and 2020 is the rise of misinformation and disinformation on social media. My district was the number one district in America where Democratic and Republican voters are on Facebook. Even in rural places where you have horrible broadband issues, people are on their phones, on Facebook.
The party is just not there. I look at 2020 and the amount of money that was raised by the Senate campaigns all across the nation, just this ungodly number, but then you look at do we have better infrastructure? Do we have better data on voters?
Ultimately, that money is spent on consultants and television ads. And what do we have to show for in these states?
How much of the problem do you think is Democrats, and Obama in particular, not being good on rural economic issues and how much of it is a mix of cultural issues and disinformation?
I don't think there's one easy thing that will fix this. I'm not blaming everything on misinformation and disinformation. But that is huge and we cannot break through without addressing that. There’s an account that shows the top 10 things on Facebook every day and we're not even close to being on there. People are not getting their news from the Nightly News anymore. It's not a one-stop shop where you can put an ad on one TV station that everyone watches like they used to.
We did a poll of eight rural battleground states. It found 55% of rural battleground voters won't give Democrats a chance at all, they’re OAN or Breitbart or Fox News [viewers]. We’re really only getting about 30 to 35%. But that final 10 to 15% that we're not getting right now, that’s gettable.
Our poll also showed that about 17% of people felt really strongly for both Republicans and Democrats in these places. So it's not like Republicans are loved by voters. They don’t like Republicans, they just hate Democrats. And that's the thing that's really showing up at the polls right now.
All these right-wing lawmakers and “news” sources focus on culture war stuff, not actual economic policy. So if Dems were to adopt different policies, how much would that help? Or is that irrelevant?
A major issue with the administration right now is they don't have the megaphones that are reaching these people. Our poll showed that only 50% of these battleground voters thought that the $1400 stimulus check came from Biden, while 39% thought it came from Trump. So even if you pass great things, there's a whole other communication channel going on.
We can't just talk about economics, even if our policies are extremely popular right now. Our poll showed that if you put a D next to a set of popular policies, support for them drops 10 to 15%. That’s why Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, workers’ rights, and marijuana legalization pass [via ballot initiatives] in red states, with no party ID next to them.
We also wanted to test out a generic candidate that we think would do really well in rural America. We polled that generic candidate against someone who's from the coast, an elite who wants to cut taxes for his rich friends. That generic rural candidate won by 35%. But when we identified that rural candidate as a Democrat, they lost by 1%.
The lesson here is that the Democratic brand is the biggest issue.
So how do you change the brand? What’s the message that works for that?
The message is important, but it's not as important as messengers. Our long-term game is building rural brand ambassadors. In our research and polls, we looked for who people trust the most, and it's doctors and nurses, farmers and ranchers and teachers. So our goal is to find those folks who are trusted in their community, to help put the national message out locally.
Let's take $15 an hour minimum wage: How does that affect Carroll County? We definitely hear the other side complain about it, saying that it will ruin the farms or ruin the economy or ruin everything. You have the Farm Bureau saying it, you have chambers of commerce saying it, you have the Republican elected officials saying it. That side is being well represented. On our side, there’s nothing at all, so we want to find and build, I guess for lack of a better term, influencers to try to build or bridge the gap.
And then what about the culture war issues?
During my campaign, we polled and found that about 60% of the district considered themselves pro-life, but 60% also felt that abortion should be legal. And so I think there's a way to talk about it and I think we're really missing out on that conversation.
We can talk about how the Obama administration missed opportunities with rural policy, but the Obama campaign did a really good job of talking about a populist and inclusive economy. When we talk about wedge issues, we focus on economics, but when Republicans do wedge issues, it’s culture wars. I think we need to call out the culture wars and say, “This is why they're saying these things, they want to make you fearful, they want to make you upset. We want to make your life better.”
We’ve got to call out the game and then talk about what we want to talk about.
In terms of issues that we want to talk about, what works best? I think the thing that connects people is the belief that powerful forces are screwing them over and the thing that divides people is who they think is doing the screwing.
Yep, the number one issue by far is corporate power and special interest power in DC. You can include campaign finance reform and corruption, it's just kind of a big catch-all. The number two thing, interesting enough, is equal pay for women.
Whoa, did not expect that.
Yep. We run away from these things. My partner, Matt Hildreth, he has polling that shows that these voters, especially Republican voters, when you talk about some of the economic issues, they vote aspirationally. They think that the Democratic Party talks to people “below” them, economically, because they think they can move up.
As I’ve worked in politics, I’ve noticed that everything that comes out of nearly every Democrat sounds bland and flat, like they’re speaking in press releases. Republicans will say literally anything, no matter how crazy, and while you don’t want to spew lies, Democrats often sound lifeless in comparison. As a New Yorker, I like blunt shit-talkers and encourage Democrats to borrow some of that, but I’m curious if you think that would backfire in the midwest and rural places? Or is there something to that?
I don't think there's one approach. I think it's authenticity more than anything else. The worst thing you can do is have a consultant-driven campaign that tests what you should and shouldn't say. People just want to be talked to in a normal way. I think that's the thing — we use language that you would never use when speaking with your neighbor. So much time in running a campaign is spent on the phone talking to people who have money, then you talk about what am I going to say on my TV commercial? You have poll-testing on messages, all that stuff. So by the time the majority of people hear you speak, you haven't really talked to anybody.
That to me is so wrong and it gets into a larger picture of how we run campaigns. The way they are run just does not allow us to have success. Republicans are literally like “insert candidate here.” Randy Feenstra, the guy I ran against last year, he did nothing. We outworked and we outraised him and we did everything, but the Republican infrastructure is so strong, that with just an “R” by his name, he said he supported Trump, and boom, he won easily.
Democrats rely so much on campaigns, but campaigns come and go; we should have year-round organizing. It's mind-blowing that state parties don't do that better. You look at the Iowa Democratic Party, the amount of money that goes through them with the caucuses is ungodly, but what have we spent the money on? Nobody audits it. Nobody audits all the money we spent on those Senate races. And what is it? Completely uninspiring ads.
That’s where authenticity comes in. People should be running as who they are. People always ask me, can a progressive win here? Or do they need to be more centrist? And honestly, policies are not often the big issue. Most campaigns don't even have any policy on their websites these days. You might lose if you have some far-out crazy ideas. But at the end of the day, it's who you are and people feel like you have their back?
So you have a pretty decent vision of what you want to do. How do you make it happen? You mentioned the influencers aspect. What are the larger goals?
So, my district, Iowa’s fourth district, has 39 counties. If you combine both 2018 and 2020, we outperformed the top of the [Democratic] ticket by around 20%. We’re not going to promise that we can move the needle nationwide by 20% or anything like that, but what we can do is find 39 non-metro counties nationwide, and we can improve them. Our goal is to improve them by 5% in 2022.
We’ll do that by working with local groups. We’ll find these messengers. We’ll do a tour this fall, hopefully [depending on Covid], and then do another one next year. We’ll bring comedians or a band and show that Democrats are showing up everywhere. We're trying to move the needle five points in 39 counties nationwide to definitely influence the Senate races. That's the main focus, along with a gubernatorial race or two, and then hopefully down-ticket with congressional and state elections as well.
There are definitely local groups out there, and they’ve been begging for help, but little has come.
The immediate thing is going on a listening tour in the states because there's a lot of rural activists who have been around for a long time that know their areas. We want to listen to those people as much as we're listening to anybody else. When it comes to each state, it's different. I've talked with Ben Winkler in Wisconsin and it sounds like Wisconsin's infrastructure is strong, so what they need is content. In other states, we hear that there's no party in this or that county, so we’ll see what we can do to help this while not burning anybody out. And we’re a Super PAC, so we have to be careful about what we can and can’t do in terms of coordination.
What kind of content?
One of the best things we can do is get local folks to talk about national issues at the local level and let's help shape the message. This is big for 2022 but will be especially so for 2024. I'm thinking about a nationwide network of hundreds, hopefully, thousands of these brand ambassadors working on their local network. And if late in the campaign, whether it's Biden or somebody else for Democrats, if there’s a negative disinformation or misinformation ad against them, then we can have a rapid response nationally.
There's a radio ad right now by one of the right-wing super PACs saying that Biden's infrastructure bill will hurt family farms and ruin the family farm. There's no proof of that. So what we want to do is call out and address it and get folks around where that is being broadcasted saying “no, this is not right, they're saying this because…”
How do you gently tell people they’re being fooled? Because I imagine that’s something they might not want to hear…
Nobody wants to be told anything like that. But what we're saying is, “Hey, listen, we're going to be straight up with you, that is a flat-out lie.” We’re just going to call it out and come back for more if we're going to have these conversations and try to build this network organically. We’ve got to find ways to just get our foot in the door, and then when we get that foot in the door, then that's where the real magic happens.
Georgia: As I noted Tuesday, Republican legislators are making moves to take over the Fulton County electoral board, which governs elections in the state’s most populous and most Democratic county. Here’s how that process would work — and why it may not be so easy to pull off.
Voter Suppression: It’s not just in Georgia — measures to strip local and county election officials of prerogative and power have been included in new voter suppression laws enacted across the country.
Michigan: In 2018, voters approved the creation of a non-partisan redistricting commission via ballot initiative, kicking off a statewide search for apolitical members that could together undo the extreme GOP gerrymander and draw fair new districts. The commission now has its 13 members, who represent a cross-section of the state:
The commission is made up of six men and seven women. Two are Black, one is Middle Eastern and the rest are white. Their ages range between 28 and 74 — only one is under 30. A majority of the commission — seven members — live in Southeast Michigan. Two live in the northern Lower Peninsula, two live in or near Lansing, one lives in Battle Creek and one lives in Saginaw. One member, independent Rebecca Szetela, was put on the commission last fall to replace another commissioner who resigned.
They are students, retirees, attorneys, entrepreneurs. One is a former banker. One is a former GM worker, a self-described “shop rat.” One is a real estate agent. Another has extensive experience in housing cooperatives.
I haven’t met any of them, obviously, but it sounds way better than a bunch of right-wing Republicans in a room. More states should be doing this.
Texas: It took an order from a federal judge to force Texas to finally create an online voter registration system (the state really doesn’t like when people vote!). Since the system launched via the DMV last September, more than a million Texans have either registered to vote or updated their registration, which is exactly what Republicans did not want to set up online voter registration.
Mississippi: It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that Mississippi is one of the few states that uniformly disenfranchises formerly incarcerated citizens. Two ongoing lawsuits seek to change that, and last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center added its considerable heft to the effort.
Florida: Gov. Ron DeSantis is a sociopath who is sending tens of thousands of residents to the hospital with his pig-headed executive orders and insane anti-science rhetoric. Yesterday, more than 21,000 Floridians were hospitalized with Covid, an all-time high anywhere. Last week’s total number of Floridians with Covid admitted to the hospital topped 100,000. Worse, over 400 people died of the virus, which is a lagging indicator of how bad it is.
Texas: Here’s a headline from the Houston Chronicle:
Does anyone want to venture a guess as to how it happened?
Medicaid: Another no-brainer confirmed by an official new study. American medical debt has soared past $140 billion, with exponential growth occurring in the dozen states that still refuse to expand Medicaid.
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