Former U.S. senators Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly, both Democrats washed away last fall by the red tide that has engulfed North Dakota and Indiana, have started a brave new venture called the One Country Project. Its aim is basically two-fold and noble: To push Democrats to stop ignoring rural America and to remind rural Americans that it might benefit them to have some Democrats on their side.
Heitkamp and other red-state Democrats like Donnelly saw what happened in 2016 and 2018 — that election maps are overwhelmingly glowing red in rural areas and deep blue in metropolitan areas — and figured it was time to start talking to people outside Minneapolis-St. Paul and Indianapolis about issues that matter in Mantador, N.D., or Henning, Minn.
The idea is to remind national and swing-state Democratic officials that there's a whole swath of the country that'd been ignored by left-leaning politicians for years and, if the party hopes to someday win back the White House or a U.S. Senate majority, it's going to need some votes from those ignored areas.
It's also about reminding voters that bipartisanship isn't a bad thing, if Democrats happen to be on the correct side of issues that face rural America.
Heitkamp, not surprisingly, happens to believe Democratic policies are better for rural America on issues like trade, agriculture, health care and jobs. She made that case strongly in her 2018 campaign to keep her job in the U.S. Senate, yet was defeated comfortably by Republican challenger Kevin Cramer, who campaigned by showing his man-crush for President Donald Trump.
The results were inarguable. Cramer won by nearly 11 percentage points. Even when Heitkamp effectively laid out the case Trump's policies could be damaging to rural North Dakota, she was trounced.
This raises an important question: What if people in rural Americans don't care about tanking commodity prices, lack of access to health care and evaporating job opportunities?
Heitkamp is convinced they do. She believes that despite the cacophony about hot-button issues, many rural Americans in the end will vote their pocketbooks if given a palatable option from Democrats.
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The evidence suggests otherwise. Even as Republicans rage, for example, about repealing the Affordable Care Act and dangle the possibility of severe cuts to Medicare and Medicaid — all of which could have devastating effects on rural America from West Virginia to Wyoming — they continue to win big in rural areas.
Republicans do this by campaigning largely on immigration (Build That Wall!), guns (Democrats will take them away!) and abortion (Brett Kavanaugh!), three winning issues for them that have nothing to do with the pocketbook. Why people living in Kidder County, N.D., are so worried about brown people coming across the southern border 1,500 miles away remains a mystery. But they are, way more than the issues Heitkamp wants to talk about.
Until that changes, Heitkamp and other red-state Democrats might as well be shouting into a hurricane. Their goals are virtuous, but an unwilling audience worried more about imaginary migrant invasions than rural hospitals closing makes the task unimaginably difficult.