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The Rural Voter Issue

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I have a lot of respect for Jon Tester. He’s won three tough Senate races in Montana and while he’s not the farthest left member of the caucus, he’s also very much no Joe Manchin and doesn’t seek centrist attention or provide loud votes for Republicans. He’s basically a very solid Democrat for a red state. So I want to take this interview with him over Democrats’ rural voter problem seriously. The problem is that Tester doesn’t really have any answers either.

I think showing up is a fundamental rule of politics, and I don’t know that we showed up. Because of Covid, we didn’t show up on the campaign trail. And in a state like Montana, you have to give people a reason to vote for you or they’ll vote Republican — they’ll default to Republican. And I think that hurt us greatly in 2020. The Republicans, for the most part, didn’t see the pandemic as near as a threat to health as some of the Democrats did.

This is an interesting question that I’ve seen referenced elsewhere. Did the fact that Democrats believe in public health hurt them this year because they didn’t do the traditional door knocking and other public events? It’s entirely possible. But it’s not really a structural problem if so, since such an event is unlikely again in the near future.

Do you think that the images of riots and arson in American cities may have motivated rural folks to vote for Republicans more than the people who actually lived in some of those cities?

Yes.And then what we didn’t do is we didn’t respond to them. We didn’t come out with strong advertisements saying: “Rioting, burglary, is not demonstration and it’s not acceptable. And you’d be punished by the full extent of the court if I’m in a position of leadership.” We didn’t come out with a very strong pushback on that, and certainly wasn’t timely when it was time.

OK, but what do you do about that? What is the pushback? Tester calls for more cops. Well, OK maybe that plays in Montana. But you can’t silence those living with the Chicago Police Department from speaking out. And if Republicans are just going to lie, what do you do?

Can Democrats go on the offensive in rural America?

Democrats can really do some positive things in rural America just by talking about infrastructure and what they’re doing for infrastructure, particularly in the area of broadband. And then I would say one other policy issue is how some Republicans want to basically privatize public education. That is very dangerous, and I think it’s a point that people don’t want to see their public schools close down in Montana.

Does anyone think this is really going to get rural voters to pull the lever for Democrats when the other side is saying Democrats are going to burn down the nation?

Some Democrats believe they are never going to establish a durable Senate majority because of the nature of every state having two senators and the party’s difficulties with rural voters. When you hear that, does that tick you off?

Yeah, it does. Yeah, it does.

Why?

Because the problem isn’t that the country’s skewed against the Democrats; the problem is that the Democrats have not done a very good job talking about what we believe in.

If there’s one mistake that is made way, way, way too often by folks in public service, it’s that you walk into a room and who does most of the talking? The senator.

Now, some forums that’s what the people want. But for the most part if you’re in a town hall, and you let people tell you what they’re thinking, let them tell you what’s going on — and then search into your mental database to find out if there’s anything that we’ve done to help solve that problem — then maybe you can have a conversation. But to walk in and say, “You need to think this, and this is what I believe is the right thing to think,” that switch goes off.

Maybe? Is this really the issue? Did Steve Bullock not listen enough? Earlier, Tester basically says Chuck Schumer should stay out of Montana because he can’t speak to rural voters. This may well be true, but there’s some circles not being squared here.

Now we get to the crux of the problem:

How much of that is just people living on Facebook?

It is a big part of it, right? I’ve got good friends of mine, I might add, really, really good friends of mine, lifelong friends, that quite frankly say stuff that I go: “Really? That’s what you think? That’s crazy.”

When you started in state politics in 1998, I’m guessing that you had many more weekly and daily papers in Montana. And now people are getting their news from Facebook every morning.

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And all from people that have the same view.

All that Tester said earlier? It’s minor compared to this. You have a sophisticated media propaganda effort radicalizing older people who lack any media literacy at all. And Tester has no answers to this. Neither do I.

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