THE OLDEST working cinema in America is in neither Hollywood nor New York. It holds pride of place in Ottawa, Kansas, a vibrant small town that sits square in the middle of acres of farmland. Though the Plaza Cinema shows mainstream films most days, a recent Tuesday evening drew throngs for a rare revival: a viable Democratic congressional candidate.
Paul Davis is an amiable lawyer and former state representative running even with his Republican opponent, Steve Watkins, in a heavily rural, overwhelmingly white district that President Donald Trump carried by 18 points. He has managed this, he says, by running a campaign focused on “kitchen-table issues: health care, tariffs, jobs and the economy.” This is a common refrain (only furniture salesmen use the phrase “kitchen table” more often than Democrats running outside urban centres) that hints at an opportunity and a challenge for rural Democrats.
The opportunity is the vast centre ground left open by Republicans’ Trumpian turn. Occupying it requires a change of attitude more than new policies. The challenge is overcoming decades of toxic decline—an exceedingly tall order.
Conventional wisdom says that rural voters began deserting the Democratic Party in 2008, when they were turned off by Barack Obama, a black man from a big city. This is untrue: Mr Obama won 43% of the rural vote, three points more than John Kerry had four years earlier. Over the next eight years, however, support for the party cratered outside big cities: Hillary Clinton won just 30% of rural voters. Republicans won statehouses that Democrats had held for decades; in several competitive states they cemented their hold on power through gerrymandering.
But Democrats also pulled back from rural America. Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort”, a 2008 book about how Americans increasingly live in like-minded communities, notes that Mr Obama visited rural locations infrequently while in office. As Deb Kozikowski, a 2016 Democratic superdelegate who heads an advocacy group called Rural Votes, bluntly puts it: “Democrats need to show up…We don’t have an engagement problem; we just don’t engage.”
Democrats won in 2008 and 2012 with a coalition of educated progressives, young people and non-white voters; rural regions tend to be older and whiter with fewer college graduates. The party focused its energy where its voters were—a natural enough strategy, but one that resulted in a vast sea of red between the coasts. And as Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder, an invaluable rural-focused blog, notes, “the way you talk to rural voters resonates far beyond just those areas.” Plenty of rural areas are now solidly suburban, as American cities have grown; and rural people who moved to metro areas to work still identify with where they were raised.
Similarly, Mr Bishop argues that the fundamental division in American political geography is less between strictly urban and rural regions than between the central cores of cities of more than 1m people and everywhere else. Between 2012 and 2016, Democratic vote share in central counties of major metro areas rose. Over the same period the party’s vote fell most steeply in rural areas and cities of less than 250,000.
South-west of Ottawa, Wichita, a modestly-sized city, anchors a congressional district that extends into rural southern Kansas and last elected a Democrat in 1992. But James Thompson, a civil-rights lawyer, nearly flipped the seat in a special election last year, and is challenging the incumbent, Ron Estes, again in this cycle. Unlike many Democrats who have sought seats in moderate or Republican-leaning areas, Mr Thompson is an unabashed progressive. And, says Jan Nichols, a progressive activist from a small town near the Oklahoma border, “Jim supports everybody. He goes to every rally. He’s right there with us.”
Democrats in West Virginia’s third district or Maine’s second—rural, white areas that Mr Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016—could say the same thing about Richard Ojeda or Jared Golden, both progressive first-time candidates with the sorts of backgrounds and positions that would get them hooted out of Seattle or Boston.
Mr Ojeda is a pro-gun (regretful) Trump voter; Mr Golden says he has “no intention” of voting for Nancy Pelosi, for House speaker should Democrats retake the House. Both candidates talk about schools and hospitals a lot. In fact, in conversations with progressive activists and Democrats from rural Kansas, Virginia and Massachusetts, as well as elected Democratic state officials from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana, Mr Trump rarely came up. The travails of Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, Jared Kushner, Saudi Arabia, and Brett Kavanaugh never did.
The Democratic brand remains toxic in rural America. This year, the Democrats’ road to retaking the House runs through the suburbs, not the countryside. But the Democrats did not lose rural America in one cycle; it will take more than one for them to rebuild.