Democrats went into the 2020 election cycle determined not to repeat Hillary Clinton’s disastrous showing four years earlier.
They succeeded in one respect: Joe Biden got significantly more rural votes than Clinton. The problem is President Donald Trump increased his rural turnout even more, and that played a role in Democrats’ struggles down ballot in House and Senate races.
The open question for both parties going forward is whether these counties are becoming more Republican or whether Democrats can reverse the gains without Trump on the ticket.
According to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, Biden got 320,186 more votes than Clinton did in rural counties adjacent to metro areas, but Trump received 841,631 votes, more than he did four years earlier in those counties, for a net gain of 521,445.
In other rural counties, Trump got 224,994 more votes than he did in 2016, more than offsetting the 132,159-vote increase in Democratic votes.
Trump also managed to maintain his margins in many rural Midwest counties that had favored Barack Obama in 2012 but shifted to Trump in 2016.
That outcome helped Republicans such as Ashley Hinson to oust first-term Rep. Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st District and left Democrats struggling in rural House districts across several Midwest states as well as New York state, California and elsewhere.
In western Illinois, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Cheri Bustos, easily won re-election in 2018 by 62% to 38%, winning every rural county. This year, however, she won by only four points while losing 10 rural counties.
For example, she won Whiteside County, Ill., by 13,266 votes to 8,160 in 2018, only to lose it this year, 13,698 votes to 13,330. Barack Obama carried Whiteside County easily in 2012 by 57% to 40%. Trump carried this county this year 53% to 45%.
In Minnesota, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, a Democrat first elected in 1990, lost his re-election bid in the heavily rural 7th District by 53% to 40%, while first-term GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn, a top target of Democrats, won re-election in the rural 1st District by 49% to 46%.
“Rural areas of the upper Midwest are getting deeper red in their voting patterns, as was particularly evident in Minnesota and Iowa,” said Steve Schier, a former political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
“One can see that in the Iowa and Minnesota presidential and congressional results," Schier said. "Yet those rural areas are gradually becoming a smaller percentage of each state's overall population, which over time may dilute their influence on statewide results.”
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Jeff Link, a Democratic political strategist in Iowa, said the problem for Democrats in his state is that Biden’s overwhelming margins in the Des Moines region and other urban areas was offset by Trump's large margins in the rest of the state. Trump won some 55 of the state’s 99 counties by at least 2,000 votes.
Trump’s margin in one rural Iowa county alone, Sioux, made up nearly one-third of Biden’s margin in the state’s largest county, Polk. As of the latest count, Trump won about 83% of the fewer than 19,000 votes cast in Sioux.
“If we want to win statewide office in 2022, we’ve got to continue to run up the score in the six big counties (of Iowa), but we have to do better in the rest of the state,” Link said.
Link also has long-term concerns about Democratic prospects in counties along the Mississippi River, a long-time stronghold for Democrats, the same region in which incumbents like Finkenauer and Bustos struggled, and the Democrats' challenge to Minnesota's Hagedorn fizzled.
“All along that Mississippi River, it really feels like Trump has shifted everything there in 2016 and 2020. I’m not sure they (Democrats) will bounce back,” he said.
Several rural House races involving Agriculture Committee members remained undecided as of Tuesday: Democrat TJ Cox is trailing former GOP Rep. David Valadao in California's 21st District, and Democrat Anthony Brindisi is trailing Republican Claudia Tenney in New York's 22nd District.
In Iowa's 2nd District, the race between Democrat Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks has remained a virtual tie as votes continue to be counted, according to The Associated Press. Democrat Dave Loebsack is retiring from that seat.
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