AP ignores key reason for Democratic decline in rural America

(Brian Gehring /The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)

The AP is out with a lengthy look at the declining fortunes of the Democratic party in rural America, but for all the digging done by reporter Steve Peoples, the piece completely misses one of the biggest reasons why Democrats are floundering: gun control.

Amazingly, Peoples and the people he spoke with hit on any number of issues, but manage to entirely avoid discussing the Democratic party’s gun prohibitionist agenda and how it’s playing out in rural counties. Even Democrats like former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who was “A-rated” by the National Rifle Association opposed most gun control bills while in office (she was defeated by Republican Kevin Cramer in 2018), were apparently uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about the role that gun control plays in the Democrats’ feeble support among rural voters.

Even if Democrats continue to eke out victories by piling up urban and suburban votes, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota fears her party will have “unstable majorities” if they cannot stop the bleeding in rural areas.

“Democrats have the House, they have the Senate, the presidency, but it’s an unstable majority. By that, I mean, the narrowest kind, making it difficult to advance ideas and build coalitions,” said Heitkamp, who now heads the One Country Project, which is focused on engaging rural voters.

She criticized her party’s go-to strategy for reaching rural voters: focusing on farmers and vowing to improve high-speed internet. At the same time, she said Democrats are hurting themselves by not speaking out more forcefully against far-left positions that alienate rural voters, such as the push to “defund the police.”

Contrary to Heitkamp’s claim, the vast majority of Democrats actually have recently started running away from the “defund the police” rhetoric, at least publicly. And while I agree that defunding police isn’t a winning message for rural voters, being the party of gun bans, waiting periods, restrictions the right to carry, and other infringements on our right to keep and bear arms is an existential problem for Democrats looking to make inroads in rural America.

The Democratic Party’s struggle in rural America has been building for years. And it’s getting worse.

Barack Obama won 875 counties nationwide in his overwhelming 2008 victory. Twelve years later, Biden won only 527. The vast majority of those losses — 260 of the 348 counties — took place in rural counties, according to data compiled by The Associated Press.

The worst losses were concentrated in the Midwest: 21 rural counties in Michigan flipped from Obama in 2008 to Trump in 2020; Democrats lost 28 rural counties in Minnesota, 32 in Wisconsin and a whopping 45 in Iowa. At the same time, recent Republican voter registration gains in swing states like Florida and North Carolina were fueled disproportionately by rural voters.

Biden overcame rural losses to beat Trump in 2020 because of gains in more populous Democratic counties. Perhaps because of his victory, some Democratic officials worry that party leaders do not appreciate the severity of the threat.

Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who recently announced he would not seek reelection to Congress this fall, warns that the party is facing extinction in small-town America.

“It’s hard to sink lower than we are right now. You’re almost automatically a pariah in rural areas if you have a D after your name,” Cooper told The Associated Press.

Just look at the election results in Virginia last November to get an idea of how badly Democrats are faring in rural counties.

In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam won Prince Edward County (home of beautiful and bucolic Farmville) over Republican Ed Gillespie 51-48, getting 2,881 votes to Gillespie’s 2,708. In 2021, on the other hand, Republican Glenn Youngkin won Prince Edward County 54-45, capturing 3,876 votes to Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s 3,210.

The numbers were even more grim for Democrats in the southwestern part of the state. Wise County has always been pretty conservative, but Ralph Northam at least managed to get 20% of the vote in 2017. By 2021 Terry McAuliffe could only muster 15% of the vote.

I know firsthand the importance of the Second Amendment in these rural counties, because I’ve spoken with hundreds of Virginia voters and gun owners over the past couple of years, and watched firsthand as the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement swept across the state after Democrats took control of the state legislature in 2019 and immediately launched into an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to ban and confiscate semi-automatic rifles.

Yes, mask mandates, Critical Race Theory, and other education-based issues helped Republicans in Virginia last year, but the Democrats’ outright hostility towards the Second Amendment was a huge factor in the lopsided losses the party received across the state.

It’s mind-boggling to me that both the Associated Press and the Democratic officials they spoke with are so unwilling to recognize that until the party reverses course on its gun prohibitionist ideology it will continue to be viewed with skepticism and downright hostility by many rural residents. Democrats might want and even need the rural vote, but as long as they’re attacking our right to keep and bear arms, they’re going to keep getting rejected by rural voters themselves.