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Democrats made midterm gains in rural areas. Can they keep them?

A voter cast her vote at the Lake County Fairgrounds on Nov. 8 in Crown Point, Ind.
Darron Cummings
A voter cast her vote at the Lake County Fairgrounds on Nov. 8 in Crown Point, Ind.

Democrats have failed in modern times to motivate the rural voting base. But some Democratic candidates in key toss-up and open races in the midterms may have fared better among the rural population than previously believed.

Strong performances in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington showed Democrats can sustain and win over rural areas, where Republicans have generally done well. Even in places like North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, Democrats proved to be competitive, running up margins of past elections and flipping some districts, even if they did not always win.

"I think there's like a coming to Jesus moment, for lack of a better analogy, around if Democrats are going to like make a more full-throated decision and investment to contest for the rural vote," said George Goehl, a community organizer with a focus on rural areas. "And I think this election shows what's possible, even in many cases without resources, and that the rural vote is not static."

Goehl said that it's not likely that Democrats will win the majority of rural votes anytime soon, but "lot of blue dots in red places is a key part of how they win."

Sometimes the Democrats won

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman takes the stage at an election night party in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
Pennsylvania Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman takes the stage at an election night party in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9.

Pennsylvania's Democratic Sen.-elect John Fetterman was successful in flipping a seat previously held by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey who announced his retirement. Fetterman's election night victory was attributable to not only strong performance in suburban areas but also by increasing the margins of success in rural districts.

Fetterman spent a portion of his campaign specifically focusing on rural communities and ultimately won a greater share of the votes in nearly every county compared to Joe Biden's 2020 performance.

"If you look at John Fetterman, [he] very much ran a 'both/and approach'," said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, a progressive rural organizing firm. "John Fetterman was able to mobilize the base and also engage voters outside of the traditional Democratic base, specifically voters in small towns and rural communities."

The same was true for the state's Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. Both Fetterman and Shapiro won their races by more points than Biden did when he turned the state blue during the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016.

Democrats were also able to clinch a House win in Washington's 3rd District. Home to 781,000 people, voters elected Marie Gluesenkamp Perez over Trump-backed Joe Kent, flipping the seat to the Democrats. That seat, which has been held by a Republican since 2011, had previously toggled between Democratic and Republican members — though it has mostly voted for the GOP presidential candidate.

"I do think Democrats ran some more candidates that are seen as working class that knew how to speak kind of common sense," said Goehl. "I think a lot of progressives and Democrats speak a language that sounds more like the ivory tower than the street or the road."

In Illinois' 17th District, Eric Sorensen succeeded in retaining the seat made vacant by the retirement of Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, who held the seat through four election cycles, each time winning by higher margins — even though the district voted for Trump in the last two elections. Sorensen's 3-point win also secures a Democratic seat outside of the Chicago metropolitan area.

Sometimes the Democrats lost ... or are waiting for results

Republican U.S. Sen.-elect J.D. Vance speaks during an election night watch party Nov. 8 in Columbus, Ohio.
Jay LaPrete / AP
Republican U.S. Sen.-elect J.D. Vance speaks during an election night watch party Nov. 8 in Columbus, Ohio.

In Ohio, Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan ran a competitive race against Trump-endorsed Republican J.D. Vance but ultimately lost. Ryan trailed Vance by 264,000 votes (or 6.6 points) compared to the last Senate race for this seat in 2016 when the Democratic candidate lost by over 1 million votes (or 21 points).

But closing the gap was not enough.

"Tim Ryan really focused on persuading voters outside of the Democratic base and oftentimes found himself at odds with the Democratic base," Hildreth explained. "What we found is that really turned off base voters in Ohio and any of the gains that he was able to make up through those efforts were undercut by low turnout amongst the base."

Voter turnout in Ohio was about 5% lower than in 2018.

"I think it was just a failure to excite the base," he said.

In Georgia, a Senate Agriculture Committee member, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, spent time campaigning in some of the rural farmlands of the state. However, he did not get the 50% total vote count needed to avoid a runoff. That race is still ongoing and the next election will take place on Dec. 6. Warnock is already planning new campaign events in rural areas.

Rural America might make the difference in 2024

Both parties are already setting the stage for the 2024 election, which includes a presidential ticket and likely higher turnout. The Biden administration will be faced with the challenge of how to communicate its policy platforms in rural areas — many items, like health care, student debt relief and abortion protection, are popular among some rural demographics.

But rural advocates say that the party often fails to communicate its policies to rural voters.

"The one disconnect that we see is that Democrats tend to contact rural voters at much lower rates," Hildreth of Rural Organizing said.

"I have a lot of questions about what the White House is going to do, frankly. Like, what is the lesson that the White House will take from this election? And will they listen to these Democrats who showed up and listened, have an agenda and are delivering results? Or will they take the advice that those Democrats are giving them and invest more at a national level?" Hildreth asked.

"I hope they do that. I don't know that they will," he said.

Both parties are also facing evolving rural demographics. Recent 2020 Census data found rural areas are diversifying even as their populations are declining. Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest growing populations in rural, nonmetropolitan areas, and minorities make up nearly a quarter of all residents in these parts of the country.

"And so when we write these communities off, we're not only writing off the rural white vote, but we're also writing off rural voters of color," said Goehl, the rural community organizer. "And I think writing off either is a big mistake."

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Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.