Democrat Jeff Smith (right) outperforms his party in rural Wisconsin by building close personal relationships with voters. (Jim Zons / EZ New Media)

Remember how, after Donald Trump’s 2016 win, news organizations dispatched so many reporters to rural America to determine why voters there had abandoned the Democrats that the interviews-in-small-town-diners genre became a cliché? And remember how progressive pundits advised Democrats to abandon those voters as irredeemable and to focus instead on turning out their base?

The Washington Monthly took a different approach. Recognizing that Democrats simply can’t succeed without doing better in rural-small-town-exurban America, our writers searched for strategies, tactics, and issues, like fighting agribusiness monopolies, that might help them do so. In January 2022, for instance, the political scientist Robin A. Johnson profiled a group of rural Democratic state legislators who had managed to survive recent election cycles and asked, What did they do differently?

The answer, he discovered, is that they never stop campaigning—and they listen. For instance, Wisconsin state Senator Jeff Smith routinely parks his pickup truck by the side of the road in the rural parts of his district with a six-foot handmade sign reading “Stop and Talk With Senator Jeff Smith.” There he engages with his constituents on whatever topics are on their minds. 

“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.”

Instead of relying on out-of-district volunteers to canvas with scripted messages, Smith and other successful rural Democrats deploy locals or knock on doors themselves and let voters lead the conversation. They also buy ads in and give interviews to small-town newspapers and radio stations, even if those outlets are arch-conservative. The overall aim is not to win the majority of rural voters—that’s virtually impossible these days for a Democrat—but to minimize their losses in these areas while getting the maximum number of their core Democratic supporters to vote.

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The good news is that Smith won reelection in November, and the even better news is that other Democratic candidates listened to what Johnson and other party critics had to say about the need to fight for rural votes. The most famous is Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senator-elect John Fetterman, who performed better than Joe Biden in 2020 not only in the suburbs but also in small, rural towns, as well with a strategy he dubbed “Every County, Every Vote.” The state’s newly elected Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro also ran hard in rural counties and did even better there than Fetterman. In Colorado, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet won reelection in a 15-point blowout, thanks partly to the Democrat’s better-than-expected showing in rural areas. And in Michigan, robust results in rural districts plus a new legislative map helped Democrats take control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in 40 years.

Robin Johnson’s story is an excellent example of the ahead-of-the-curve political reporting that the Washington Monthly brought you in 2022. Another is our chief political writer Bill Scher’s skepticism that 2022 would be a “red wave” election. There was also our oft-repeated warning that Republican disparagement of vote by mail would hurt their candidates—a conclusion that even some Republicans now admit.

With the midterms behind us and no major elections next year, my Monthly colleagues and I plan to use 2023 as an occasion to step back and think big about America—about the economic crises that have given rise to our poisonous politics and what can be done to fix both. We’re calling it “The American Vision Project” and it will feature some of the magazine’s most admired writers, like James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, and Phillip Longman. We’ll launch the project in our next print issue, which comes out in a couple of weeks.

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For now, I just want to say that if you enjoy the journalism we provide at the Washington Monthly and think, as I sincerely do, that it is of service to the country, there’s something you can do to help: Make a donation during our year-end fundraising drive. Do it right now. Give whatever you can—$10, $50, $1,000. 

Because we’re a nonprofit, we can’t do our work without your support. It also means that your donation is tax-deductible—and you still have a few hours left in 2022 to make your charitable donations for the year. 

Thanks—and see you in 2023!

All the best,

Paul Glastris
Editor in chief

P.S. As a token of our gratitude, if you give $50 or more, you’ll receive a free one-year subscription to the print edition of the Washington Monthly

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.