Democrats' Dilemma - Trader Joe's vs. Tractor Supply Voters

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As Democrats flail about trying to find their footing before the 2022 midterm election cycle kicks off in earnest, one of the bigger topics of discussion among strategists and activists is how to make the party more appealing to rural voters. The Virginia elections earlier this month were a wake up call to at least some on the Left, who were shocked to see Republican Glenn Youngkin win convincingly in a state that Joe Biden carried by 10 points just a year earlier. Youngkin made gains across the state, but one of his biggest keys to victory were rural residents who turned out in record numbers; motivated in large part by the Democrats’ rush to impose new gun control laws on Virginians when the party gained complete control of the legislative and executive branches in 2019.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer at the Illinois Times, has an interesting column focusing on the intra-party debate currently taking place in the state. While Chicago and its suburbs provide Democrats with a healthy number of seats in Congress and almost guarantee a legislative majority in the state capitol of Springfield, Reeder says the party’s ignoring the rest of the state at its own peril. Even worse, he writes, when Democrats do pay a visit to rural Illinois, the contempt they have for residents is palpable.

Years ago, I watched some volunteers from East Coast and West Coast universities working on an Illinois congressional campaign ridicule working-class Democrats as they left a rally at the Illinois State Fair. Their work boots, trucker caps and overalls didn’t fit with the volunteers’ image of the party.

When I covered the Illinois General Assembly full time, Chicago Democrats would derisively refer to the late state Rep. Joel Brunsvold, a Democrat from the Quad cities, as “Guns-vold” because he supported gun-owner rights. The idea of a fellow Democrat having a differing view of gun control was an anathema to them.

Or there was former Sen. Gary Forby, a Democrat from deep southern Illinois. He dug septic tanks for a living. His voice was pure working-class and his commitment to the party was every bit as real as that of his Chicago counterparts – who ridiculed his accent every time he rose to speak on a bill.

It’s hard to get someone to vote for you when you’re laughing at them, but most big-city Democrats have been willing to make that trade-off in recent years, thinking that they didn’t need the votes of those deplorable rubes thanks to their big city political machines. But as Democrat congresswoman Cheri Bustos (who recently announced she’s not running for re-election next year after narrowly winning her 2020 campaign) told Reeder, until Democrats actually start listening to what rural voters have to say, the Democrats are dooming themselves.

I’ve been friends with Bustos for more than 30 years. We spent a decade together as reporters for the Quad-City Times.

When we spoke earlier this month, she added, “Scott, you know Tractor Supply, but you probably don’t know Trader Joe’s very well because (rural areas) don’t have any Trader Joe’s. We need to go into Tractor Supply and listen to folks rather than Democrats just going into Trader Joe’s.”

As someone who visits Tractor Supply on a weekly basis but hasn’t set foot in a Trader Joe’s in several years, I approve this statement. But I’d go even further than that. Democrats don’t just need to listen to folks picking up a flock block or some sow chow. They need to spend some time in small town gun stores, at Ducks Unlimited or NWTF dinners, and local ranges, because until the Democrats reverse course on their gun-banning ways they’re not going to be able to win back any meaningful segment of the rural electorate.

Bustos herself has touted her support for the Second Amendment, even while voting in favor of criminalizing private transfers of firearms without a background check. My advice to Democrats hoping to represent rural districts? Drop your support for any and all attempts to improve public safety by restricting the rights of American citizens. Don’t try to find some mythical middle ground, as Bustos did by not co-sponsoring an “assault weapons” ban but voting in favor of “lesser” gun control legislation. Rural gun owners aren’t looking for some mushy middle-of-the-road position. They want candidates that are actively going to strengthen and secure their right to keep and bear arms, and with the Democratic Party viewed as the party of gun control, any Democrat that’s hoping to woo rural voters is going to have to do more than offer up mealymouthed platitudes in support of the Second Amendment.

I don’t think we’re there yet, honestly. My guess is we’ve got at least one more election cycle before the Democratic Party decides that gun control is a loser for them, and I’m not convinced that it’ll be rural voters alone that lead party leaders to that conclusion. With more Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans embracing their Second Amendment rights, and with the Supreme Court likely to strike down the subjective and arbitrary “may issue” carry laws that prevent many residents of big cities from exercising their right to carry, even the urban vote is becoming more 2A-friendly; a trend that’s likely to accelerate as violent crime rises in Democrat-run cities across the country.