Ever since he narrowly won his race for the Wisconsin State Senate in 2018, Democrat Jeff Smith has never stopped campaigning—though he does so in unusual ways. For instance, he regularly parks his trademark “big, red truck”—a 1999 Dodge Ram pickup—on the side of a road, plants a six-foot handmade sign that reads “Stop and Talk With Senator Jeff Smith,” and engages with his constituents on whatever topics are on their minds. These “Stop and Talks” help him in his role not only as a candidate but also as a policy maker. “Every conversation sparks a new idea,” he told me.
Smith represents Wisconsin’s 31st State Senate District in the western part of the state, which Donald Trump won twice. Half of the district’s voters live in heavily Democratic Eau Claire, the rest mostly in six rural, and overwhelmingly Republican, counties. It is emblematic of the kind of geography Democrats have been losing in recent cycles and need to get better at to avoid being wiped out electorally in 2022 and 2024.
To win reelection in 2022, Smith needs to do what he did in 2018: maximize turnout in Eau Claire, his hometown, while keeping his losses down everywhere else. It’s tough, though, because the Democratic brand has become so toxic in the rural and small-town parts of the district. Voters there, he says, identify the party with unpopular policies, like “defund the police,” that he and most other Democrats never supported. They also increasingly bring up their belief that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.
His best hope, he told me, is to build enough trust with enough individual voters in rural counties that they will overcome their partisan leanings. That’s why he lets those who stop to chat lead the discussion. “If you listen to voters long enough, you can find something we agree on,” he observed, pointing to negotiating down prescription drug prices as an example. “That starts the process of building trust.” If he can engage with voters before the party label comes up, their response is often “You know, you are the only Democrat I can vote for.”
This slow listening strategy is how he ran his canvassing operation in the run-up to 2018. The campaign consultants the state party sent to help him counseled a traditional method based on efficiency: Use out-of-district volunteers to provide voters a scripted message and move on as quickly as practical to reach as many voters as possible. Instead, Smith and his campaign manager (whom he hired and paid for out of his own campaign funds, the better to maintain control of his message and strategy) personally knocked on 20,000 doors, representing 75 percent of possible doors. They also took their time, letting voters lead the conversation. They used the information gained from this in-depth canvassing to refine their message and language as the campaign progressed instead of exclusively relying on polling.
Their door knocking paid off: The campaign overperformed in places where Smith and his manager knocked on the most doors compared to areas where volunteers knocked. His campaign also purchased radio ads and produced large hand-painted signs, which the consultants argued was a waste of money. Overall, Smith outperformed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Tony Evers, who also won that year, by 3 percent in Eau Claire and 1 percent in the surrounding rural counties.
I asked Smith how he thinks he was able to surpass the top of the ticket. “Energy, visibility, out-of-the-box thinking, and control of my own messaging,” he replied. I also asked him how the party or outside funders could help him, and other Democrats like him, in 2022 and beyond. He recommended training for local volunteers in outreach at doors and over the phone, plus funding for year-round radio programming that counters GOP disinformation and builds the brands of individual candidates.
Over the past four years, I’ve spoken to scores of Democratic state legislative incumbents like Smith in 10 midwestern states as part of a research project with Illinois Representative Cheri Bustos, former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. While Democrats representing heavily rural, small-town, and suburban white working-class districts have been getting wiped out in recent cycles, a number have survived and even thrived. These officials are mostly overlooked when party leaders search for ways to win elections. But their collective wisdom holds the key to how Democrats can gain durable majorities in Washington and statehouses around the nation.
What Smith and Democratic politicians like him are practicing in the Midwest, on a localized basis, is a version of the “deep canvassing” approach that Stacey Abrams made famous when she ran, and came close to winning, the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, paving the way for two U.S. Senate victories for Democrats two years later. The method relies on building lasting personal relationships with voters not just at campaign time, but in the off years as well, with old-fashioned, but effective methods—at their doors and through local media.
If these methods are practiced more widely, Democrats can improve in rural areas and win back some of the white working-class voters who have been deserting them. The improved results—even if it’s just a few percentage points—can help swing close battleground states in presidential campaigns, U.S. Senate races, and congressional contests. As a first step, the national and state parties should start listening to politicians like Smith. Then, they and their funders need to start building institutions—including PACs and nonprofits—that devote resources to rural Democrats and the strategies, both time-tested and novel, they can use to woo skeptical blue-collar voters.
Paul Marquart has represented his rural, northwestern Minnesota state house district for 20 years. He credits his constant door-to-door campaigning for his longevity in a district Trump won by 12 points in 2020. He knocks in the odd-numbered years, too. When the pandemic hit and traditional canvassing was limited, it was the personal relationships he had built with voters over time, in the months and years before he needed their votes, that made the difference. “That election wasn’t won for me in 2020, but from the previous 20 years,” Marquart says.
State Representative Kevin Hertel from Macomb County, Michigan, has similar advice. He reports positive experiences with more extensive conversations at the doors, where he tries to “drill down” with voters. “If they trust you enough, you can push back,” he told me.
In working-class Council Bluffs, Iowa, state Representative Charlie McConkey knocks on doors three times each campaign cycle. He won his district in 2020 by seven points, while Trump won it by five. State Representative Dave Considine, from rural Wisconsin, knocks on 15,000 doors himself each cycle.
State Representative Darrin Camilleri, from a mostly white working-class district in suburban Detroit, says it was “consistently meeting voters over four years that helped create a shield—they know me.” And once voters know a candidate, they are less likely to believe the worst of them. As state Representative Tip McGuire from Kenosha, Wisconsin, says, “I can beat a Facebook ad if I’m at your door.”
A number of the lawmakers I interviewed don’t bring up the fact that they’re Democrats with constituents. “If voters don’t know your party first, you can get through to them,” says Lance Yednock, the only Democrat left representing a rural district in the Illinois House of Representatives. State Representative Julie Rogers from Kalamazoo, Michigan, agrees: “You have to brand yourself. It’s more important than party ID.”
But these highly localized door-knocking campaigns are difficult when control is turned over to managers and staff sent by caucus campaign organizations, who are often more schooled in urban political methods. And they are parachuted in during election season, when voters’ opinions of Democrats—cemented by a Republican news and talk radio machine that works constantly—may have already hardened past the point of resuscitation.
That’s where local media come in. Many of the successful candidates I spoke with devote significant time, and what limited funding they have, to getting their messages out through local newspapers and radio stations. These efforts, they say, help them build their individual brands separate from the toxic reputation the Democratic Party has with many of the voters they need to win.
Jeff Smith, for instance, publishes a column on his website that is regularly reprinted in weekly newspapers that cover the rural and small-town parts of his Wisconsin district. Other lawmakers I spoke with do the same.
When they can afford it, they also place ads in these publications. Representative Hertel buys space in two Macomb County newspapers for his op-eds. State Senator Amanda Ragan from northern Iowa places ads in 10 local newspapers, believing that they have staying power—“Many people will set it down to read later.”
Newspaper ads have fallen out of favor with some party professionals over the years, following conventional wisdom about newspapers’ decline. But, in rural areas, weekly town or countywide papers serve as the journal of the community and a significant source of news. Several lawmakers told me that ads in such papers take on added value in places that lack adequate broadband.
The same goes for local radio stations. The content on the stations is often arch-conservative, and state party officials often advise candidates to avoid spending money on them. Still, state Senator Judy Schwank, from Berks County, Pennsylvania, frequently goes on a talk radio AM station and advertises there as well.
Yard signs and billboards are also critical in rural areas. Schwank, in a common refrain I heard, said, “Consultants tell me, ‘Yard signs don’t vote,’ but they are very important in rural areas and send a strong, symbolic message of support to neighbors that it’s okay to support a Democrat.” Minnesota state Representative Julie Sandstede, who was reelected to her Iron Range district also won by Trump, emailed me, “In rural communities, where internet service is spotty and even the mail (postal service) is limited, billboards are the one sure way candidates can ensure visibility and messaging.”
Admirable as these efforts are, Democratic lawmakers are swimming against swift political currents. To help them and other candidates like them, Democrats will need a wholesale revamping of their strategy and an investment in resources to carry it out.
First and foremost, the party and its funders need to assist Democratic officeholders and candidates in conducting the deep canvassing techniques that can mobilize regular supporters and help find new ones. As Sasha Issenberg pointed out in his book The Victory Lab, George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 conducted “search and rescue” operations to find Republican voters in strong Democratic communities like Duluth, Minnesota. Democrats should do the same, and start by investing in training local volunteers in canvassing and phone techniques. Research has shown that local volunteers are more effective than people brought in from the outside, but they need to be properly trained. And as this magazine has documented, even in the reddest districts there are cadres of loyal Democrats eager to help, if only someone would ask.
Second, Democrats running in rural and white working-class districts need funding to purchase ads and secure other exposure in local media, especially in off years. This is vital to helping them establish or maintain their personal brands.
Local newspapers are one key outlet. While such papers have certainly been suffering economically because of collapsing ad revenue, their readership is still reasonably high. And the advertising slump means that their ad rates are more affordable than ever. It also means, frankly, that they’re motivated to give friendlier coverage to candidates who buy ads.
Radio advertising is also an important part of the messaging mix in rural areas. Country music stations and those broadcasting weather and farm programming are popular, not very political, and natural places for rural individual Democrats to buy ads with messages tailored to their audiences. On other stations, regional or national talk show hosts, almost all of them conservative or far right, dominate. Democrats lack anything that comes remotely close to competing.
Judy Schwank told me the party needs its own, rival syndicated radio program that talks values and communities. Jeff Smith suggested something similar, perhaps including a recurring, folksy segment like the old Paul Harvey “The Rest of the Story” that adds context to negative Republican ads. A model for this type of programming already exists—George Rattay, chair of the Fayette County, Pennsylvania, Democrats, hosts The Democratic Radio Hour on an AM station that’s partially funded by a local union and focuses on economic “bread-and-butter issues.”
Outdoor advertising is another investment opportunity for a rural PAC. Billboards can be expensive, and space often needs to be reserved early. A third-party group can fund billboards with economic messaging featured in nonelection years to continually build the brand—with wording chosen by the candidates themselves.
Tabloid-style newsletters, mailed directly to voters’ homes, can be an effective way to advertise the Democratic legacy directly to voters in rural areas as a form of brand rehabilitation. After all, the Democratic Party does have deep working-class and rural bona fides, and much of the economic security that people rely on, from Social Security to Medicare, was created by Democrats. Democrats recently passed programs that built on this legacy, such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill and tax credits for families with children. Research shows that voters aren’t crediting Democrats with policy achievements. A series of newsletters that highlight these policies, stretching back to the FDR era and drawing a sharp contrast with the corporate policies pursued by Republicans, can help with political literacy and education. I’ve found in previous campaigns that voters, especially seniors, keep this style of advertising on their coffee tables longer than traditional mailers, which have a more generic feel.
Without a strong Democratic media presence, Republicans get to dictate the narrative. But we know from the past that when Democrats do succeed in rural areas, it’s based on people forming personal connections to the party. I was reminded in several conversations that stories about Democratic successes aren’t passed down the way they used to be. Former Pennsylvania state Senator Rich Kasunic said his family would gather for dinner and his dad would share whether the union had been able to secure work for him in the coal mines in the upcoming week. The decline of unions reduced the intermediary role they played in disseminating information about policy and politics. Today, those dinner table conversations need to be kickstarted by Democrats themselves, promoting their own history of advocating for working people.
One emerging issue ripe for this type of grassroots education and mobilization is the monopolization of key areas of the economy, including agriculture. Democrats are going after big monopolies, and demonstrating their negative impacts on jobs, wages, and Main Street can make inroads in rural communities.
There are plenty of PACs, nonprofits, and third-party organizations devoted to aspects of improved performance in rural areas. But these existing organizations mostly focus on polls or messaging. That can help, but they don’t invest in ways that can help candidates address voters in the media they engage with, like small local newspapers, and where Republicans have established complete control, like radio.
Such strategies are neither inconceivable nor prohibitively expensive. In most cases, they require consistent investment and a willingness to listen to the locals and trust the candidates. There is no question in my mind that Democrats can improve their performance in rural and working-class areas. The Republicans didn’t so much win these voters in the past 10 years as Democrats lost them. An organization dedicated to investing in the right strategic areas and listening to winning officials on the ground can start the challenging road ahead, one house and one town at a time.