MINOT, N.D. — For some reason Heidi Heitkamp — despite just one, flukey electoral victory to her name in the last two decades — has been anointed an expert in certain Democratic circles on how to appeal to rural voters.
Recently, the erstwhile senator delivered a luncheon speech to a convention of Montana Democrats, and what she had to say can explain not only Heitkamp’s own lack of electoral success but why Democrats probably aren’t going to be making inroads with rural voters any time soon.
“Heitkamp nudged Democrats toward a tough truth,” the Montana Free Press reported. “If they’re to have any hope of defeating Trump next year, they have to change how they speak to rural America — about education, about health care, about jobs, and about Trump himself.”
That is pablum.
The rhetorical equivalent of eating empty calories.
The problem Democrats have with rural isn’t how they talk; it’s how they govern.
See if you can make any sense out of this word soup:
“The discussion you need to have needs to be about agriculture, but it needs to move beyond agriculture and talk about the rural dynamic,” Heitkamp said to the Free Press at the event. “How dependent is rural Montana on tourism? A lot of the places in western Montana are dependent on the (National) Park Service, on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Hunting is a big issue that we don’t talk enough about.”
(I’ll pause here so that those of you who remember Heitkamp’s efforts to dissuade hunters from voting in the last election can stop laughing at that last bit. Good now? On we go.)
What does any of that really mean?
Does Heitkamp really think that rural voters are so stupid they’ll vote for Democrats because they’ve changed the way they talk?
The problem Democrats have is the policy positions they’ve adopted, which are generally hostile to the sort of industry rural Americans rely on. Things like production agriculture and energy development.
The problem Democrats have in rural America isn’t how they talk. It’s not a matter of tone, or which adjectives they’re using in their messaging.
“As long as Heidi and the rest of her kind think it’s how they talk that matters, they will lose,” a long-time Republican told me of Heitkamp’s remarks.
We could talk about the culture wars, and the urban/rural divide, but really rural voters just want to be able to earn their living and take care of themselves and their families.
Democrats, catering to more urban voters, generally support policies which make that harder.
Talking about hunting and tourism, telling the rubes not to worry their farms or their oil wells because their land will serve as a playground for urban folks, is not only a poor political tactic, it’s downright insulting.
Heitkamp’s ponderous ego makes it difficult for her to exit the public stage, but Democrats looking for ways to persuade rural voters ought to tune her out.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.