Rural Democrats
Katherine Morrison, Luther Santiful, and Derek Goebel (left to right) stand outside the Shenandoah County Democratic Headquarters. They hope to make inroads in a longstanding conservative stronghold. Credit: Philip Queen

I met Frank Nolen at Armstrong’s Restaurant, an unassuming grill in Verona, Virginia, located in the Shenandoah Valley near the state’s western border. It was early September. Nolen, a seventy-eight-year-old man who spoke in a slow, baritone southern accent, had agreed to see me that day after he finished picking up a shipment of hogs for his nearby farm. “I don’t make appointments,” he had told me the week before, when I had tried to schedule a meeting in advance. The whims of farming prevented it.

When I arrived, Nolen was sitting in a booth in the back of the restaurant. The waitress, who addressed him as “Mr. Nolen,” came over to tell us about the day’s special: country-fried steak served with macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, and peas and carrots. We both ordered it.

Nolen is the platonic ideal of the person American journalists look to interview during their dispatches from “Trump country.” He is a white Christian man with a memory stretching back decades. He owns a hog and cattle farm. He lives in an aging, not-so-affluent county in Appalachia—the “heartiest” of the heartland.

Except Nolen isn’t a Republican.

“I did vote for Clinton,” he said with astonishment when I asked, just to be sure, that I was getting his politics correct. To emphasize the point, he told me what would happen if he voted for Trump. “I’d have to go to the courthouse,” he said. “I’d go to them and ask somebody to give me fifteen lashes.”

To be clear, Nolen—the chairman of the county Democratic committee—is an exception. In Augusta County, where Nolen has lived since 1960, more than 70 percent of voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, making it one of the most pro-Trump parts of the state. In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary, 58 percent of Augusta GOP primary participants voted for far-right ideologue Corey Stewart over the more mainstream eventual nominee, Ed Gillespie. Most of the neighboring counties also voted for both Trump and Stewart, if not by quite such dramatic margins.

Reporters have descended on conservative bastions like Augusta, as well as counties that recently flipped from blue to red, in a bid to understand how a reality television star became president. They have spoken to longtime, working-class conservatives and ex-Democrats who, through Trump, finally found a vehicle through which to express their political frustrations. In doing so, they’ve routinely painted a picture of Trump-voting America so predictable that it has become a trope. Yet very few journalists have chosen to focus on the Democrats in Trump country who stayed Democrats.

Why should they? It was, after all, white working-class Obama-Trump voters who helped sway the 2016 election. Depending on whom you ask, it’s the ballots of these onetime Democrats that will determine who wins the next set of elections. Other commentators emphasize the possible influence of minorities who traditionally do not vote in high numbers, or suburban and exurban women. Each of these groups seems more coverage worthy than the residents of a region where the electoral outcome is all but guaranteed.

But even in places like Augusta County, thousands of people voted for Hillary Clinton. No depiction of Trump country is complete without them. Most of their neighbors may be standing by the president, but if Augusta is any indication, Democrats in rural red counties are just as fired up and enthused as their counterparts in liberal cities. In Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes Augusta, no Democrat has mounted a midterm congressional campaign in twenty years. This year, four people ran.

If Augusta County, Virginia, is any indication, Democrats in rural red counties are just as fired up and enthused as their counterparts in liberal cities. In Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District, no Democrat has mounted a midterm congressional campaign in twenty years. This year, four people ran.

“I was working the farmers’ market yesterday, and I got an email from a lady,” Nolen told me at Armstrong’s. “She wanted to know how she could volunteer to help the Democrats this year. Just out of the blue. It’s encouraging.”

Increasing Democratic activism is essential in districts like the Sixth, where many of the liberals I spoke with shared stories of being pressured to stay out of politics. Nolen is public and indomitable, but he said that many of his anti-Trump friends would disclose their political leanings only in confidence. “They would tell me and wouldn’t tell their preacher,” he said, citing the stigma of supporting pro-choice candidates in a heavily religious area. “Some of them think that their preacher can sentence them to hell. But I can’t.” As more activists come out of the woodwork, the Democratic Party gains more people like Frank Nolen: human faces who can make the party more accessible to residents with hidden liberal inclinations. This is critical for the party’s fortunes. Building a viable electoral infrastructure depends on making it socially acceptable to be a Democrat.

None of this is to say that Democrats will win Augusta County—or similar counties—anytime soon. Overwhelmingly white and dominated by evangelicals, Virginia’s rural conservatives are fiercely committed to Trump and the GOP. But Trump country Democrats don’t need to win. They didn’t win in 2008, when Barack Obama flipped Virginia blue for the first time in forty-four years, outperforming Clinton’s 2016 Augusta County vote share by nine points in the process. Better turnout by Democrats in unexpected places can add up and contribute to statewide, and national, victories.

But to do better, Democrats need to establish a larger presence in places where liberals seem few and far between. If Virginia’s Sixth District is any indication, that appears to be happening.

I traveled to western Virginia in an effort to understand the situation of Democrats in the reddest parts of America. This meant avoiding the roughly fifty House seats that political forecasting sites suggest are competitive in 2018, which have been thrust into the limelight by prognosticating journalists. Instead, I needed to go somewhere where the November outcome was effectively a foregone conclusion—somewhere that would test the resolve of even the steeliest Democrat.

Virginia’s Sixth District fits this mold. Although the seat is open—incumbent Bob Goodlatte is retiring after thirteen terms—FiveThirtyEight gives Ben Cline, the Republican nominee, a greater than 99 percent chance of victory. The Cook Political Report rates it as “Solid Republican,” and Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball describes the GOP-held seat as “Safe.” The contest has received scant attention from pollsters or national media outlets. The Washington Post article announcing the results of the district’s Democratic primary was eight sentences long and written by automated software.

I met Jennifer Lewis, the winner of that primary, after a fundraiser in the town of Staunton. I mentioned that FiveThirtyEight had pegged her odds of winning the race at below 1 percent. Lewis smiled. “So we have a chance,” she replied.

Lewis, a thirty-seven-year-old mental health worker from Waynesboro, Virginia, began excitedly talking about her commitment to a host of economic and environmental issues, highlighting that her campaign was accepting no corporate PAC donations (a decision that helped explain why her competitor had dramatically outraised her). She repeatedly emphasized her opposition to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a controversial energy project that would funnel natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina. The project has generated strong opposition in the Sixth District from across the political spectrum, ranging from conservatives angry about the use of eminent domain to liberals concerned about greenhouse gases.

Signs of growing enthusiasm extend beyond just Lewis. Almost every Democrat I spoke to had evidence that the current political climate is bringing new voters and activists into the fold. In Shenandoah County, where a Democrat has not won a presidential campaign since 1932, Katherine Morrison told me that only five or six people used to show up to the county’s Democratic committee meetings. “Now, it’s fifty,” she said, adding that more than 700 people typically both receive and open the group’s emails. Democrats in nearby counties also told me that their committees were growing in size.

Who are these newly activated Democrats? For starters, they are not people who voted for Trump in 2016. None of the Democrats I met during my time in the Sixth District were able to relay anything more than whispers about Trump voters who had regrets. The Republicans who they did introduce me to—the region’s relative moderates—stood by the president.

“I’ve never had an experience where there was a strong Trump supporter who said, ‘I’ve seen the error of my ways,’ ” said Thea Litchfield Campbell, the co-chair of the Rockingham County Democratic Committee. “There was no confessional moment.”

Studies suggest that there may be few confessions anywhere. In March, a FiveThirtyEight-commissioned survey found that even 58 percent of “reluctant” Trump voters, a fifth of his 2016 coalition, have no regrets, and that this group’s impression of the president had gradually improved over the past ten months. An August 2018 study by Pew indicates that Trump voters feel almost exactly the same way about the president as they did in November 2016—that is, generally positive. This is especially true in areas such as Virginia’s Sixth. Unlike the many Rust Belt converts who opted for Trump out of a sense of economic malaise, Shenandoah Valley’s evangelicals appear to have voted for the president in hopes of advancing a socially conservative agenda—particularly with regards to abortion. By appointing conservative judges, Trump has delivered.

Indeed, it was telling that most of the rural Democrats I interviewed seemed just as baffled by Trump supporters as urban progressives are. “I don’t understand them, and I’m mad at them,” said Derek Goebel, a fifty-three-year-old native of Page County, where more than 70 percent of people voted for Trump. “They’re not pro-life, because people are dying every day. We’re destroying people’s lives, ripping children from their parents’ arms, and we’re destroying the environment.”

So then who are these newly active liberals? Some, including Goebel, are people who typically vote Democratic but were motivated by Trump to become more outwardly involved. Samuel Halpern, 68, of Page County Indivisible, is a good example. Halpern first heard about Indivisible—a national progressive network set up in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election to “defeat the Trump agenda”—in January 2017 while attending an open-door session held by the staff of Goodlatte, the retiring incumbent. Halpern was expecting a handful of other attendees. Instead, there were thirty-five. Virtually all of them, Halpern said, were “irate and concerned” about the direction of the country. Many of the other attendees were talking about Indivisible, still a relatively new organization. Halpern started helping Page Indivisible, a local group inspired by the national entity, organize. The Page group now has roughly 100 members, a surprisingly large number in a deeply conservative county with 24,000 residents.

Other Democrats were new to politics altogether. Campbell, for example, grew up in a very conservative Mennonite community where voting was taboo. “The idea was that you prayed for your leaders, and whoever God wanted got put in place,” she explained. “It wasn’t your position to make that decision.” But for Campbell, that changed in 2016. “After Donald Trump’s election, it was really clear to me that this was going to be a time that my grandchildren read about in history books. What am I going to say that I did? And for me, it was just clearly becoming politically involved. Simply praying didn’t yield results that I could abide by.”

I met Jennifer Lewis, the Democratic congressional candidate, after a fundraiser in the town of Staunton. I mentioned that FiveThirtyEight had pegged her odds of winning the race at below 1 percent. Lewis smiled. “So we have a chance,” she replied.

Campbell said that she hopes to mobilize other people like her: Democratic by ideology, but historically unlikely to vote. “What we’ve found is that there are lots of people who are supportive of the Democratic platform, or would lean Democrat, but just don’t vote,” she said. “I feel like rather than changing a lot of votes, what we’re doing is energizing people who haven’t been involved before.”

There are reasons to believe that changing the behavior of some of the roughly 26,000 Rockingham County adults who stayed home in 2016—compared to the approximately 36,000 who cast ballots—could pay dividends for Democrats. A bevy of research suggests that Democrats generally do better in high-turnout environments, in large part because nonvoters are on average younger, poorer, and more likely to be nonwhite than people who regularly cast ballots. But mobilizing nonvoters is easier said than done. “They’re not likely to vote because they’re not particularly interested in politics,” said Robert Roberts, a professor of political science at James Madison University, located in the middle of the Sixth District. In other words, it’s unclear if there are enough voters like Campbell to really make a difference.

Still, I had trouble thinking that Sixth District Democrats couldn’t perform better. Barack Obama won 41.2 percent of the district’s vote in 2008 and 39.5 percent in 2012, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 34.9. Meanwhile, the nation’s economic boom has not really touched this part of Virginia, and Democrats told me that they often had the most success connecting with residents when it came to discussing social welfare. “You start talking about wanting to expand Medicare, and they relate to that,” Campbell said.

But it wasn’t enough. “At the end of the conversation, they still won’t agree to vote for the candidate who wants to expand that,” she said. “There’s still an extra hump.”

The “hump” is partially the product of conservative Christianity and Fox News. But in Virginia’s Sixth Congressional District, there’s another element that I hadn’t considered until I visited: intense social pressure. In places where Trumpism is so widespread, identifying as a liberal carries risks—social, financial, and perhaps even physical. For Democrats, this means that half the battle is simply normalizing their party.

“I wear these shirts to the gym that say ‘Pro-America, Anti-Trump,’ ” said Morrison. “Women, particularly, would come up to me and whisper, ‘I’m a Democrat.’ But they really were embarrassed to say it. That’s how strong it is.”

Morrison is the chair of her county’s Democratic committee. She told me that in her experience, most liberal residents keep quiet about their political affiliations. The pressure to stay silent and vote Republican is especially strong for people who work for conservative employers, are part of Shenandoah’s prominent, multigeneration (and generally conservative) families, or run small businesses that depend on a local clientele.

Morrison mentioned her hairdresser as an example. When Morrison gets her hair cut, the two will often quietly discuss politics and their shared outrage at Trump. “But she won’t do anything public, because her business depends on Republicans,” Morrison said. I asked Morrison if she could introduce me to her hairdresser or other closeted Democrats. She said she would check, but cautioned that interviews were unlikely. I never heard back about it.

[media-credit name=”Daniel Block/Washington Monthly” link=”” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]

This prompted me to reflect on the economic background of my own sources. Many commute to jobs in Harrisonburg, home to James Madison University, and one of the Sixth District’s few left-leaning spaces. A few are transplant retirees. Nolen is semiretired and operates his own farm. Goebel owns a vacation business located in Page County, but it relies mostly on tourists. Indeed, out of all the “open” Democrats I interviewed on record, not one person’s income is largely dependent on other locals. The single, elusive swing voter I found spoke on the condition that I wouldn’t list his workplace. 

Donna Bible, an eleventh-generation Rockingham County resident, said that conservative pressure was particularly intense for women. “I know that a lot of women, if they didn’t feel oppressed by their husbands, if they didn’t feel like they needed to tow the family line, they would speak out,” she said. The product of a Republican family, she speaks from experience. “I think I became a Democrat because of that issue more than any other. It is infuriating to be a woman in a patriarchal society.”

Initially, the idea that people might be browbeaten into suppressing their progressive beliefs struck me as overwrought. But the more people I spoke with, the clearer it became that intimidation—while usually muted—was real. “The back of my truck has two Obama stickers, an ‘I vote Democrat’ sticker, a Hillary Clinton sticker, and now a Jennifer Lewis sticker,” Goebel told me. “I had a note left that said, ‘You’re a traitor.’ ” Other anecdotes seemed more serious. Morrison said that during a small anti-Trump rally she helped organize, her group encountered a number of counterprotestors, one of whom was brandishing a large rifle.

The climate of hostility in Shenandoah was also evident in a photo Morrison showed me from the Shenandoah County Fair. The Republican Party’s booth, located directly across from the Democratic Party’s booth, featured a sign telling voters to “#WalkAway from Hate, Socialism and Violence, especially from Killing Babies and Raping Children.” (The county sheriff and a member of the county board of supervisors, who showed up to add their own posters to the GOP station, had the sign taken down after the Democrats complained.)

Almost everywhere I went, I heard similar stories. Donna Bible told me about a “belligerent, angry man” who yelled at her for knocking on his door while canvassing. “He was a little intoxicated at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, and he’s pounding on the ground, and saying, ‘This here’s hallowed ground, and I’m telling you that you’re walking on my hallowed ground,’” she told me. Bible said that she eventually got the man to calm down and listen to her, something in which she took pride. “But I’m still shy knocking on doors,” she added.

Her husband, Colum Leckey, has run into even more trouble. “I do a lot of canvassing. I get yelled at a lot. I had a guy flash a gun at me once,” he said. I met Leckey alongside Bible, Campbell, and two other Democrats. A gregarious man in his mid-fifties, Leckey seemed almost indifferent to the hostility. He told me that the only time he felt intimidated was when a group of people chased after him. “I got rattled,” he said. “They wanted to beat me up.”

Then he chuckled. “There are a lot of rough people around here who want to kick my ass.”

Campbell quickly cautioned that Leckey’s nonchalance was not representative of their group, which generally preferred postcard writing to knocking on doors. “We are not all Colums,” she said. “He is fearless.”

The tension has not impacted Luther Santiful, a Democrat in Shenandoah County. “I know most of the Republicans, and they know me,” he said. “I talk to a lot of people, and we don’t hate each other, we talk.”

Santiful, the former director of equal opportunity and civil rights for the U.S. Army and the onetime chairman of his county’s Democratic committee, was probably the most easygoing Democrat I spoke with during my tour. He was also the only black person I met, and quite possibly the only one I saw. Other Democrats had relayed racist comments disclosed to them by conservative friends or in-laws. I asked Santiful if he felt discrimination was a prevalent feature of his region’s politics. “I think there’s a little bit of racism here, but I don’t think I run into it on a regular basis,” he said. Santiful hypothesized that there simply weren’t enough people of color in Shenandoah to threaten the overwhelming white majority, or to make any kind of separate political impact. “I can count them on one hand,” he said with a laugh.

As one of his county’s few publicly outspoken Democrats, Santiful has become a de facto local representative for the party. It’s a role he seems to embrace. “They’re coming to us, asking about our candidate, and so it’s up to us to give them the information they need,” he said. Santiful said he had become especially involved in Virginia’s upcoming Senate election between Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine and Republican nominee Corey Stewart—the same far-right candidate who lost the GOP gubernatorial primary to Ed Gillespie. “It’s up to me to talk about Kaine,” he said. “People tell me, ‘I’m a solid Republican, but I can’t vote for Corey Stewart.’”

Santiful’s story gets at a larger point: restoring the Democratic brand in rural America isn’t only, or even primarily, about defeating Donald Trump. The president attained an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote because of razor-thin margins in traditionally Democratic parts of the Midwest. But Democrats’ struggles in rural America predate the president and will persist after he is gone. Given the Senate’s disproportionate representation of increasingly conservative rural states, making inroads in these regions is critical for the Democratic Party’s long-term success.

The unique loyalty Trump has inspired among Republican voters does not always extend to other candidates—especially when they carry their own controversial baggage, as Alabama Republicans discovered when Doug Jones defeated alleged sex offender Roy Moore. Jones lost in the heavily conservative parts of the state that Trump most thoroughly dominated. But outperforming Clinton’s vote share in these rural counties helped him became the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate since 1997. Stewart—now the GOP’s Virginia Senate nominee—is not quite as notorious as Moore. But the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, who routinely uses the white nationalist term “cuckservative” to refer to more moderate Republicans, comes close.

The Democrats’ struggles in rural America predate President Trump and will persist after he is gone. Given the Senate’s disproportionate representation of increasingly conservative rural states, making inroads in these regions is critical for the Democratic Party’s long-term success.

In an era in which the Trump base dominates many Republican primaries, candidates like Moore and Stewart are not that uncommon. In deep-red Kansas, hard-right, anti-immigrant Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach is running essentially even against his Democratic opponent. For Democrats in these situations, simply performing less poorly in rural, conservative areas can make all the difference.

Santiful introduced me to Roy Nilsen, a former Lutheran pastor who resides in Shenandoah County. Nilsen supports Trump, but he finds Stewart’s “bluster” repulsive. After Stewart was nominated, he approached Santiful to ask about Kaine. “I trust his advice, he’s honest,” Nilsen said of Santiful. “He said [Kaine’s] a fine man and a fine person.” Nilsen is planning to vote for Kaine on November 6.

I encountered other Trump voters who local Democrats thought might be in play during the 2018 election. Derek Goebel introduced me to Lois Shaffer, the director of Page County’s food pantry, where Goebel volunteers. Shaffer told me that she was a proud Trump supporter, but, with thirty-two years of experience in regional charitable work, she was deeply concerned about her community’s needs. When I asked her what issue she felt was most important for the government to address, she responded that she wanted to see a system of universal health care.

Goebel, who was previously unaware of Shaffer’s politics, told me that he was surprised to learn she had voted for Trump. But after thinking for a while, he told me he believed that Jennifer Lewis might be able to sell Shaffer on her progressive economic agenda. And Goebel hypothesized that—given his long relationship with the food pantry’s leader—Shaffer would give Lewis a fair hearing so long as he put the two in contact.

“Lois would listen,” he said.

This does not mean that Jennifer Lewis will win. Bolstered by the Democrats’ midterm advantage and the mobilizing power of outrage at Trump, she will likely do better than Kai Degner, the last Democrat to make a run in the Sixth District. But barring a massive scandal, a non-incumbent Democrat has effectively no shot at winning a congressional race in a place where Trump outperformed Clinton by twenty-five points.

When Frank Nolen lost his seat to a Republican in 1995, there were virtually no more active Democrats in Augusta. “I couldn’t get anybody to be chairman, so I took up chairmanship by default,” he said. “I think after this year, I’m going to have plenty of people willing to do it.”

“It’s a long-haul effort,” acknowledged Rick Yoder, another Democrat in Rockingham County, when I asked him whether activists could ever turn the county blue. For now, the county Democratic vice chairman said the goal was simply turning the party into a real presence. Doing so has practical benefits beyond just moving closer to winning an election. Multiple Democrats mentioned that one of the Sixth District’s state delegates, Todd Gilbert, usually ran uncontested, allowing him to raise thousands of dollars and distribute it to more embattled Virginia Republicans. Recruiting a challenger for him was an immediate aim, one they said could force Gilbert—the house of delegates majority leader—to spend more of his own funds and thus help Democrats win statewide.

While conservatism may seem unstoppable in most of rural America, that can waver or change. During the height of the Great Recession in 2008, Obama performed well enough in rural areas that he won North Carolina and came close to winning Montana. Similarly, Democratic House candidates defeated incumbent Republicans in deeply conservative places, including western Idaho. Exogenous shocks are a regular, if unpredictable, feature of politics, and it’s up to opposition parties to provide a viable alternative when there is discontent. To succeed, they must knock on doors and establish a visible presence—even in places like Rockingham where it seems most everyone disagrees with them. Their community representatives have to be respected and networked within the region, like Santiful and Goebel. Doing so is the only way for Democrats to make it seem acceptable, and normal, to be a part of their party.

No one better embodies the long fight to normalize being a Democrat than Frank Nolen, whose commitment to the Democratic Party predates its rural problems. When Nolen first moved to Virginia in 1960, he said, Republicans were so scarce that they “could fit in a phone booth.” Nolen joined the county Democrats and rose through the party’s ranks, becoming a member of the county board of supervisors before being elected to the state senate.

Nolen served there for two decades, during which time Republicans made enormous gains. Many of his colleagues switched sides. But Nolen, whose father had blamed the Great Depression on Herbert Hoover and the GOP, stayed behind. “In my third or fourth term, the Republicans were going strong,” he said. “They tried to get me to switch, made me all kinds of offers. But I turned them down.”

I asked him why he was still involved in local party politics. He said he didn’t have much of a choice. When Nolen lost his seat to a Republican in 1995, there were virtually no more active Democrats in Augusta. “I couldn’t get anybody to be chairman, so I took up chairmanship by default,” a position he has held, more or less, ever since. But that’s changing. “I think after this year, I’m going to have plenty of people willing to do it,” he said.

As if to illustrate the point, Nolen’s phone rang. He apologized for the interruption and answered. “Hey, Al,” he said, then listened for a moment. “Okay, I’m meeting with the landlord.”

Nolen hung up, looked back at me, and said he would have to leave soon. “Democratic committee’s going to a larger headquarters, and one’s become available,” he said. “Gotta take care of that.”

Daniel Block

Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94