In rural Pennsylvania, some Democrats are reluctant to say they’re Democrats.
In the little communities 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the party’s image is so tainted that several liberals have removed bumper stickers and yard signs and refuse to openly declare their party identification. These Democrats are accustomed to being outnumbered by the local Republican majority, but as their numbers drop, the few who remain feel increasingly alienated and unwelcome in their own neighborhoods.
“The animosity for Democrats is incredible,” said Tim Holohan, a rural McKean County accountant who recently advised his daughter to throw away a pro-Joe Biden bumper sticker. “It feels like we’re fleeing.”
The political atmosphere in rural Pennsylvania is symbolic of a wider problem that threatens the Democratic Party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Democrats have been effectively alienated from many regions of rural America since 2008, leaving party leaders with little choices to reverse a cultural trend that is altering the country’s electoral landscape.
The changing atmosphere helped Republicans limit Democratic gains in 2020 — despite former President Donald Trump’s loss, the GOP gained House seats — and a year later, growing Republican rural support helped Republicans win the governorship of Virginia. A tiny but loud group of Democratic Party executives now believes that the same patterns may derail Democratic candidates in Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, states that will play a key role in determining the Senate majority in November and the White House two years later.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues to focus its attention, rhetoric, and resources on voters in more densely populated urban and suburban regions.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, a strong candidate in the state’s high-stakes Senate race, says that his party can no longer afford to neglect rural voters. Last weekend, the former small-town mayor traveled across five rural counties in his black Dodge Ram pickup truck to meet with people who seldom see statewide Democratic candidates.
Despite the cold, Fetterman presented himself as a fighter for “the forgotten, the disadvantaged, and the left-behind regions” as he spoke to around 100 people inside a bingo hall in McKean County, a county Trump won with 72 percent of the vote in 2020.
As the crowd applauded, Fetterman continued, “These are the kinds of locations that matter just as much as any other place.”
For years, the Democratic Party has been struggling in rural America. And things are just getting worse.
Barack Obama won 875 counties throughout the country in his landslide win in 2008. Biden only received 527 votes twelve years later. According to figures collated by The Associated Press, the vast majority of those losses — 260 of the 348 counties — occurred in rural areas.
The largest losses were concentrated in the Midwest: Obama won 21 rural counties in Michigan in 2008, but Trump won them all in 2020; Democrats lost 28 rural counties in Minnesota, 32 in Wisconsin, and 45 in Iowa. Rural voters, on the other hand, have propelled recent Republican voter registration surges in battleground states like Florida and North Carolina.
Because of advances in more populated Democratic counties, Biden was able to defeat Trump in 2020 despite rural losses. Some Democratic officials are concerned that, as a result of his triumph, party leaders are underestimating the threat.
Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, who just announced that he would not seek reelection to Congress this year, believes that the Democratic Party is on the verge of extinction in small-town America.
“It’s difficult to go any lower than we are today. “If you have a D after your name, you’re virtually instantly a pariah in rural regions,” Cooper told The Associated Press.
Even if Democrats continue to win by racking up votes in cities and suburbs, former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp worries that her party will have “unstable majorities” if they can’t stem the hemorrhage in rural regions.
“Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the White House, but it’s a shaky majority.” “By that, I mean the most limited sort, which makes it impossible to promote ideas and form alliances,” Heitkamp, who now heads the One Country Project, which focuses on engaging rural people, explained.
She slammed her party’s go-to technique for winning votes in rural areas: concentrating on farmers and promising to boost high-speed internet. Simultaneously, she claims that Democrats are harming themselves by failing to speak out more firmly against far-left ideas that alienate rural people, such as the campaign to “defund the cops.”
While just a few Democrats in Congress advocate withdrawing such funds from police agencies, conservative media, notably Fox News, which is popular in rural areas, promotes such views.
“We’re allowing Republicans to use far-left vocabulary to characterize the Democratic Party, and that’s something we can’t do,” Heitkamp added. “In rural America, the trend lines are very, very terrible…. People who are Democrats, the ones on the left, aren’t fighting for the party anymore because the brand is so poisonous.”
Kylie Oversen, a former North Dakota state senator, has been named head of the Democratic National Committee’s rural council to work with rural organizers and state party rural caucuses to help win back rural votes. The DNC also claims to be sharing resources with grassroots activists in rural regions in order to boost training, recruiting, and organizing.
So far, those resources haven’t made things any easier for Democrats in northwest Pennsylvania.
A group of voters said they’ve been essentially shunned by their community — and even family members in some cases — for being Democrats during one of Fetterman’s weekend rallies in rural Clarion. One woman carries her political placards inside at night to protect them from vandalism and theft.
Barbara Speer, 68, a retired sixth-grade teacher, remarked, “You have to be careful around here.”
Michelle’s Cafe, on Clarion’s main street, is one of the few places where local Democrats congregate. On the entrance is a placard that declares support for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, and other progressive causes.
However, when asked, the cafe’s owner, Kaitlyn Nevel, 33, is hesitant to reveal her political membership.
“I’d prefer not reveal,” she explained, “since it’s a little town.”
One customer, Eugenia Barboza, a 22-year-old college student, said the café is one of the only locations in town where she feels secure as a Latina immigrant. A caravan of Trump supporters gathered just down the road, she added, to travel to the fatal protests in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Barboza said she appreciates Democrats like Fetterman eager to visit rural regions, but she doesn’t expect anything to change.
She stated, “It would take a lot more than just him.” “It would take years and years and years,” says the narrator.