Democrats can reclaim rural America — and Jane Kleeb wants to show them how: Part 2

Nebraska Democrat Jane Kleeb on how Democrats can still win rural votes — and how to address guns and abortion

Published February 17, 2020 12:00PM (EST)

People enter the town hall just after sunrise to cast their ballot in the US presidential election on November 4, 2008 in the rural township of San Francisco, Minnesota. The town hall, which is a converted one room school house, serves as the polling location for the township.  (Cory Ryan/Getty Images)
People enter the town hall just after sunrise to cast their ballot in the US presidential election on November 4, 2008 in the rural township of San Francisco, Minnesota. The town hall, which is a converted one room school house, serves as the polling location for the township. (Cory Ryan/Getty Images)

One of the most dominant facets of conventional wisdom in American politics is that rural America is solidly and self-evidently conservative and Republican, so it's a waste of time, energy and resources for Democrats to try to compete away from the coasts and the big cities. The fiasco of this year's Iowa caucuses — which may never have a clear winner, or a result everyone trusts — only seems to further the argument that Democrats should focus elsewhere. 

That surely makes some sense, in terms of adjusting the presidential primary campaign for a more diverse electorate. But presidential campaigns aren't the only game in town — as the 2018 midterms forcefully reminded us, especially when it comes to state legislatures, which in turn help shape redistricting. That belief that rural America is off limits for Democrats is relatively recent, by the way — it flies directly in the face of former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, and erases the recent history of Democratic senators from what are now considered red states: Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, among many others. 

What's more, it ignores fresh evidence as well, like the 2018 wave of teachers strikes that started in West Virginia and was heavily concentrated in red states, or the fact that "Red states have passed progressive ballot campaigns from medical marijuana to marriage equality to Medicaid expansion," as noted by Jane Kleeb in her new book, "Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America." 

Kleeb is chair of the Democratic Party in Nebraska, where, she notes, "we had 850 Democrats run" in 2018, "and 73 percent of them won their elections." So she just might know a thing or two that Beltway pundits don't. 

Before that, Kleeb was founder of Bold Nebraska, the grassroots organization that played a key role in nurturing grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline, which in turn helped revitalize the climate change movement. All the elements are there for Democrats to win again in rural America, Kleeb argues persuasively. And it doesn't require sacrificing progressive values to do so — just an investment of resources that would repay itself many times over. As the Democratic primary season kicks off, I sat down to interview her about her book and her vision for a party that leaves no part of America behind. The first part of our conversation was published earlier this weekend. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

Beyond the battle vs. the Keystone XL pipeline, what else are rural communities, ranchers and farmers doing to combat climate change that others ought to know about?

Every single day farmers and ranchers are combating climate change and doing it in a couple of ways. They're planting things called cover crops, which in between the crop cycles are making sure that they have constant cover on the ground, so there's less soil erosion. A lot of them have moved away from chemical fertilizers and are using more organic fertilizers. That's much better for the soil and for the water. When it comes to water, if you talk to farmers, they'll tell you that their grandfathers overwatered the land. So now they're installing water sensors to make sure that they're not using too much water. You have farmers and ranchers who are putting up microgrids of small-scale wind and solar on the farm and ranch operations so they can be self-sufficient and independent, or some can actually put energy back onto the grid with small co-ops. In Nebraska we're 100% public power, and there's a great kind of relationship there. 

And then I think the biggest thing is — I get so frustrated when I hear progressives say, "Well, the one way we can stop climate change is just to stop eating meat." And there's like no question that big corporate agriculture — the Tysons, the Purdues, Costco — that they are producing massive amounts of meat and doing it unsustainable ways. But small family farmers and ranchers, the way that they're raising livestock is actually good for the soil and providing a source of protein that our families need. So making sure that as Democrats were not lumping into the same category corporate ag and family farmers is critical as we're moving forward in talking about climate change.

Any further thoughts on broader lessons from the climate change battles? 

One thing I'd like to mention, when we are talking about big policy changes — like the Green New Deal or talking about transitioning to 100% clean energy — we have to remember that rural people and union workers need to be at the table as were discussing how we are going to actually do that. Because we often talk about climate change and clean energy on the coasts as a normalized kind of behavior. But in order to build out all this massive clean energy, we need a lot of land and that's going to be in middle America. Most conversations about climate change and building out massive new clean energy infrastructure has not been happening enough at the local level, and we see some small communities zoning out solar, zoning out wind. They feel like people are coming in from outside their community and telling them that they don't have a choice, that are going to build this new transmission lines, they're going to build this new wind project. 

So I think we have to turn this around before it becomes a major problem, that we're going to go into these small communities and were going to make partnerships with them and we're going to make sure that the clean energy that we're developing that some of that actually stays behind where it was created and powers that small community, and the farmers and ranchers and landowners that live in the small towns get to have a portion of the profits of the clean energy that's being developed. When we're building out clean energy, we need to do it right, and make sure that the profits are not in the hands of the few, which is obviously how the oil and gas industry did it.

Health care is a prime example of an issue that affects all Americans, but has some distinctive and different characteristics for rural America. What's most important for rural American communities? 

A couple of things. Certainly keeping our rural hospitals open. A lot of rural towns you're having to drive 45 minutes, an hour, sometimes two hours, to get to the nearest hospital, and that is a problem on many levels, particularly if you're a young family and looking to raise a family. Not being able to give birth in a hospital that's only 15 or 20 minutes away is a big problem. You really start to lose young families, because they don't have care that they need for their family in town. 

Mental health is a big barrier in our small towns. Mental health is a big problem all across our country's urban communities as well, but we don't have enough access to affordable care for people who have mental health issues but are in rural communities. It took our family eight months to get an appointment with the therapist for our middle child who has autism. And there's just not enough therapists, even if you have insurance. There's never enough therapists in town to really serve the needs of our community. Then if you have a child or a loved one who needs inpatient treatment for drug addiction or an eating disorder or other mental health issues, you often have to put them on a plane and send them to a different state because a lot of the small states and rural states just don't have inpatient mental health treatment as well. We have to get serious about investing real resources and creating more inpatient facilities and providing new grant programs so we can get therapists who live in rural communities.

How has Democrats' neglect of rural America hurt them in the fight to pass Obamacare and other health care battles?

Conventional wisdom would tell us that if you have rural people at the table that that means your policy will have to become "moderate." My perspective is that if you have rural people at the table, you will have a whole new perspective on the fact that it does take an hour for some  patients to drive [to get care], and you'll have different innovations to combine some kind of dental health and mental health into their health centers in small rural towns. So rural people at the table will actually make our bills stronger, not only in the policy ideas that can be put into the bill, but that you have different advocates and messengers in order to tell the story of why we need this particular bill to be passed. So we're not concentrating our votes in only blue and even purple states. 

I always remind people that by 2040, 70% of our population is going to be concentrated in 15 to 17 states, which means a very small number of states will control the U.S. Senate and something like 50% of Americans will control 84% of the U.S. Senate seats. So if we are serious about big changes, it's not only about getting a president elected. We need the House and the Senate as well, which means we have to start playing in rural towns and rural states, or we will never have enough votes. 

You cite Medicaid expansion as one of several progressive ballot issues that have passed in red states — along with medical marijuana and marriage equality. But you add that it's too rare for Democrats at the federal and statewide level to win in rural states.  What's needed to begin changing that, both in terms of providing resources and changing how the party operates?

It's crazy when you talk to people about how,  wait a second, in Utah, Idaho and Nebraska we passed Medicaid expansion, but at the same time we couldn't win a federal seat or win a statewide office. And so the obvious question is, why? 

When you work on the state level in these red states, you know why. A lot of these ballot campaigns are won by 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) advocacy groups that get a lot of money from outside national organizations and national unions. So they have the resources and staff to run quality good campaigns. They have on-air messaging, they have on-the-ground canvassing, they have every component that you need in order to have a successful campaign, to get over the finish line. When we have candidates who are also strong and have good ideas and good policies, but they don't have the money from the national party backing them, they fail. And it's not because they're a bad candidate. It's not because they don't have a message that resonates with voters. It's because voters didn't even know that they existed, or that there was an actual competitor to the Republicans that were on the ballot. 

As a national party, we have to almost reverse the pyramid where the vast majority of resources are going to blue states and purple states, and a few crumbs for swing states thrown in for good measure, like Wisconsin. Instead, we should be putting double, triple the amount of money into West Virginia, Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho — states where you can argue that we have won on other progressive issues, but we haven't been able to win with candidates because the party infrastructure has been so weakened and stretched so thin because they didn't have the money to run the infrastructure that we need to push a candidate over the finish line. 

When Howard Dean was chair, state parties were given $25,000 a month to run their party operations, and on top of that they were able to apply for grants from the DNC to have a mayor's race or governor's race. With President Obama, that went down to $2,500 per month. He did not have a good relationship with the DNC when he won the White House in 2008, and the model back then was to create these new independent outside groups, like the Center for American Progress. He had all these new independent groups that sprung up around that time. But we have to get back to basics, because the state parties are the institutions and infrastructure that is there and will always be there, and actually has the expertise and the knowledge to win races if they actually have the financial resources.

You argue that Democrats have neglected rural voters, but not that Republicans have been particularly helpful to them. Instead, they lean heavily on hot-button issues to divide people. You talk about dealing with several of the most prominent ones, the most rural-specific one being guns. Rural people see guns very differently, both for practical and cultural reasons. Yet they're often very critical of the NRA. What do Democrats need to understand about the rural view of guns? 

Folks have to remember that rural people hate big — that's big corporations and also big lobbying groups. And the NRA is one they see as a big lobbying group that is only looking out for gun manufacturers. As Democrats, we should be saying that more and more at the national, state and local level. At the same time, we also need to communicate that we respect gun owners and that we know that it's a beautiful tradition in our small towns for dads and moms and grandparents to pass down the guns to future generations, when they go hunting and celebrate the outdoors with their families. That is how it is seen, that they are taking care of the environment, that they're celebrating outdoors, that they're getting back to connecting with the land and the water and nature. 

I understand why urban people and folks who live in cities see guns in a very different perspective, regarding the gun violence that is happening all across the country. So this is a hotly charged, emotional issue for our party to tackle. And we can do that by having more rural leaders talking about what guns mean in those rural communities and targeting the common enemy — which is the bridge for rural and urban voters on guns — which really is the NRA. We go after the NRA, we do not allow the NRA to manipulate our politics anymore around this issue.  Even Joe Manchin [of West Virginia], probably the most conservative Democrat we have in the Senate or at the national level, was advocating for some gun safety reforms. So we can follow the lead of the [Jon] Testers and Manchins when we're talking about gun reform.

In your book, one of the things you talk about is how you respond when challenged on hot-button issues. I'd like you to talk about that a little bit.

I was working with some farmers who were battling Costco, which was coming into the small town of Nickerson to build a factory that would process 2 million chickens a week. Going to the zoning board meeting, one of the farmers asked me to follow him in his pickup truck, and he had a Tea Party sticker and then a bumper sticker that said, "If you think guns kill people, then pencils misspell words." So I didn't think he would ask me about the bumper stickers, but sure enough, he parked, I parked, he comes over and says, "So what do you think about my bumper stickers?" 

I could have said, "I think your bumper stickers are awful." Instead, I didn't think about it that way. It's the instinct that I have because I work so much with rural people. I just said, "Look, we are going to disagree on guns. There's no question about it. But I don't see any Republicans standing here with you. I'm here standing with you to protect the land and water."  We had that common ground, and as Democrats we need to do that more. We need to say when we do disagree with rural voters, or any voters for that matter: "Look, it is OK for us to disagree on guns and abortion, and we do agree on keeping our rural hospitals open, on passing country-of-origin labeling, on ending eminent domain for private gain. These are all issues that are going to impact our daily lives and our rural economy. Let's focus on that common ground." 

If you are authentic and if you are honest with voters, they will reward you with their vote. If you try to create a poll-tested message, you'll sound like a robot, and they won't trust you on anything. That's the key. That's the main point on guns and abortion.

What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

One of the things that I'm trying to get across with this book is that I wanted rural people to feel noticed and heard and seen in these pages, and not stereotyped, which is often what happens, whether it's "Hillbilly Elegy" or some of the other books are out where rural people are viewed as poor, desolate, uneducated, racist, drug-addicted. We have all those problems everywhere, in small towns and in big cities. And we also have in small towns and big cities a lot of hope and innovative, creative solutions for attacking some of the big problems that we face. 

I just know when I walk into a room with farmers and ranchers, when I walk into a small-town grocery store, there's so much desire to connect with one another, and to have people actually have their back, and as Democrats, that's all we do. We have the backs of the little guys in these states, and I think that for too long we've just forgotten, and given up, or thought that winning back rural was going to be way too difficult. 

I'm saying from the rooftops, "It's time!" Right? The Republicans aren't coming into these small towns. We should be the ones showing up. We should be the ones having their backs. So I just want people to know that rural people are a lot more open and willing to hear our message and to vote for Democrats. As long as we're willing to hear their message and to stand with them when they need us the most.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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