HOT SPRINGS, Va. — The increasingly liberal politics of Virginia had been a sore spot for residents of this conservative town of 499 people nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. But this past week, as Republicans stormed to marquee victories powered in part by turnout in rural areas like Bath County, local voters cheered.
“We got our Virginia back,” said Elaine Neff, a 61-year-old resident. “And we haven’t had a win in a long time.”
Neff said she cried from a mix of happiness and relief after the election. She does not want to take the coronavirus vaccine and believes Glenn Youngkin, the winning Republican candidate for governor, will relax state mandates. Outside a nearby grocery store, Charles Hamilton taunted the Democrats.
“We’re a county of old country folk who want to do what they want,” said Hamilton, 74. “They found out the hard way.”
In the jigsaw puzzle that is electoral politics, Democrats have often focused their energy on swingy suburbs and voter-rich cities, content to mostly ignore many white, rural communities that lean conservative. The belief was, in part, that the party had already bottomed out there, especially during the Trump era, when Republicans had run up the numbers of white voters in rural areas to dizzying new heights.
Virginia, however, is proof: It can get worse.
In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70% or more of the vote in that year’s presidential race. Nowhere was the party above 75%. This year, Youngkin was above 70% in 45 counties — and he surpassed 80% in 15 of them.
“Look at some of those rural counties in Virginia as a wake-up call,” said Steve Bullock, a Democratic former governor of Montana who made a long-shot 2020 presidential run, partly on a message that his party needed to compete in more conservative parts of the country. “Folks don’t feel like we’re offering them anything or hearing or listening to them.”
Youngkin not only won less populated areas by record margins — he was outpacing former President Donald Trump’s 2020 showing in even the reddest counties, including by 6 percentage points in Bath County — but he also successfully rolled back Democratic gains in bedroom communities outside Washington and Richmond, where many college-educated white voters had rejected Republicanism under Trump.
The twin results raise a foreboding possibility for Democrats: that the party had simply leased the suburbs in the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even more of rural America.
Republicans have never had a demographic stronghold as reliable as Black voters have been for Democrats, a group that delivers as many as 9 out of 10 votes for the party. But some Democratic leaders are now sounding the alarm: What if rural, white voters — of which there are many — start voting that reliably Republican?
“It’s not sustainable for our party to continue to tank in small-town America,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who led the House Democratic campaign arm in 2020.
“We’ve got a branding problem as Democrats in way too many parts of our country,” said Bustos, who is retiring from a downstate and heavily rural Illinois seat that Trump carried twice. She called it “political malpractice” and “disrespectful to think it’s OK to run up the score in big cities and just neglect the smaller towns.”
There is no easy solution.
Many of the ideas and issues that animate the Democratic base can be off-putting in small towns or untethered to rural life. Voters in Bath County, many of whom are avid hunters and conservative evangelicals, have long opposed liberal stances on gun rights and abortions. Some Democrats urge the party to just show up more. Some believe liberal ideas such as universal health care and free community college can gain traction. Others urge a refocus on kitchen-table economics such as jobs programs and rural broadband to improve connectivity. But it is not clear how open voters are to even listening.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat who flipped a Republican-held seat outside Minneapolis in 2018, said that when it comes to issues that concern rural America, his party is afflicted with a “disease of disinterest.”
He especially lamented how his party’s strategists routinely tell candidates “to fish where the Democratic fish are instead of taking that canoe out a little further out on the lake.”
“For a party that predicates itself on inclusivity,” he added, “I’m afraid we’re acting awfully exclusive.”
Phillips called for Democrats to include “geographic equity” in their agenda along with racial and economic equity, noting that he is a proud member of the state’s Democratic Party, which is formally known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “I’m a DFL-er and yet the F’s and the L’ers aren’t voting for us,” he said.
The rural share of the vote in America has been steadily shrinking but remains sizable enough to be politically potent. National exit polling in 2020 estimated that 1 in 5 voters lived in rural or small-town America. Categorizing voters based on population density, the Democratic data firm TargetSmart labeled 30% of the electorate as rural.
But while some Democratic politicians now recognize the scope of their rural problem, the words of voters in Bath County expose the difficulty in finding solutions. In interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics. And the voters, fueled by a conservative media bubble that speaks in apocalyptic terms, were convinced that America had been brought to the brink by a litany of social movements that had gone too far.
A monument to Confederate soldiers stands next to the sheriff’s office in Hot Springs, a visual representation of the cultural gap between its residents and the Democratic base. The town is accessible only by a two-lane highway that winds through mountains near the West Virginia border. It’s best known for The Homestead, a luxury resort founded in the late 1800s that has hosted golf tournaments, conferences for the United Nations and presidents, including William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.
Neff, who owns a hardware store adorned with images of Trump as Rambo and the Terminator, was in Washington on Jan. 6 to support the former president — but refused to go into further detail. Citing false evidence, she called the coronavirus vaccine a “poison” and said she worried that Democrats were planning extermination camps of Trump’s supporters.
Karen Williams, a Bath County resident who manages vacation rentals, said she resented the current Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for keeping schools shut down during the pandemic, embracing progressive policies focused on race and removing Confederate statues and monuments. She called this an example of critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that has become shorthand for a contentious debate on how to teach race and racism in schools.
White children “are no longer allowed to be kids, we’re treating them like little monsters,” Williams said.
Hamilton, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said his vote for Youngkin was really a proxy vote for Trump. Of President Joe Biden, he said, “the best thing that can happen is to get him and that woman out of there.”
John Wright, a 68-year-old retiree, said he listened only to pro-Trump programming.
“I don’t care if the media said the moon was full of cheese, and there was an astronaut who brought back some cheese,” Wright said. “If the media said it, I won’t believe it.”
Some of these voters are simply out of reach for Democrats, incompatible with the party’s embrace of Black Lives Matter, transgender rights and #MeToo.
But the politically urgent problem for Democrats is that rural America has moved faster and further from them in the last 20 years than urban America has moved away from Republicans. From 1999 to 2019, cities swung 14 percentage points toward the Democrats, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. At the same time, rural areas shifted by 19 percentage points toward the Republicans. The suburbs remained essentially tied.
Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, which looks for Democrats to run for local offices nationwide, said it could be challenging to recruit candidates in deep red small towns — and to lure money into what are most likely losing causes.
“We just have to try and lose by less,” she said. “And ‘investing to lose by less’ is not a fun sell to Democratic donors. But it is what it is.”
Democrats who do run in conservative territory often distance themselves from the national party brand. When Monica Tranel, a Democrat, kicked off her bid for Montana’s new congressional seat over the summer, she lamented how few of the people she grew up with still vote Democratic. “They feel like Democrats look down on rural America,” she said in her campaign launch video.
Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist in Virginia, has watched his party’s vote share in rural areas wither for three decades.
“I don’t know what our message is there,” Tribbett said. “Which is a problem, because I’m supposed to be creating content for political campaigns.”
Just how much further can the party fall?
“In rural America, the bottom for the Democratic Party is zero,” said Ethan Winter, a senior analyst at the group Data for Progress, who studies voter behavior. “I am serious about this.”
In the past, rural, white voters in the North had historic ties to the labor movement and an affinity for the Democratic Party. Increasingly, Winter said, those voters are more akin culturally to their neighbors to the South than to their local cities and suburbs.
Tom Bonier, one of the Democratic Party’s leading experts on voter data and CEO of TargetSmart, agreed. “You look at places in the Deep South where the white, rural vote is approaching 90% Republican,” he said. “That’s absolutely the concern.”
Youngkin carried Virginia’s mountains with 70% of the vote, up from Trump’s 63% last year, according to exit polling. And among white voters without college degrees, Youngkin won 76% — a stark improvement from Trump’s 62% in 2020 and higher than in 2016, as well.
In Bath County, a smaller group of voters cited economic concerns for why the area has become more conservative. They spoke in almost mythical terms of a time when both parties had a foothold in the region — before rising gas prices, inflation and stagnant wages.
Sharon Lindsay, a 69-year-old librarian, said people were offended that today’s liberals assume their area is inherently racist or bigoted. “We know they wrote us off,” Lindsay said. “They never talk to us. We never see them. And we see Republicans all the time.”
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