[A rural-urban alliance has been the holy grail for political
strategists, linking the interests of workers in urban areas with
laborers in the countryside in way reminiscent of the New Deal
coalition] [https://portside.org/] 



 Ryan Grim, Briahna Gray 
 October 31, 2018
The Intercept

	* [https://portside.org/node/18539/printable/print]

 _ A rural-urban alliance has been the holy grail for political
strategists, linking the interests of workers in urban areas with
laborers in the countryside in way reminiscent of the New Deal
coalition _ 

 Leslie Cockburn speaks during a forum at the Lynchburg Regional
Business Alliance in Lynchburg, Va., on Oct. 22, 2018, Taylor Irby/The
News & Advance/AP 


BEFORE DECIDING TO run for Congress, Leslie Cockburn grabbed her
notebook and her pen and spent three months touring Virginia’s 5th
District, which stretches from the North Carolina border all the way
to the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C. The reporting trip came
naturally to Cockburn, who’d spent the last three decades as an
acclaimed investigative journalist, including at CBS’s “60

This time, though, she wasn’t looking to uncover any official
malfeasance. Instead, she was trying to find out just how well her own
politics meshed with those of the voters in the district. The
conventional wisdom would predict a poor match — Donald Trump, after
all, carried the district by a comfortable 11 points, and Cockburn had
no interest in cynically shading her progressive politics to get

That wouldn’t be necessary, it turned out. The people she met were
not the conservative caricatures of rural voters drawn by consultants
in Washington. Instead, they held broadly progressive views, even if
they might reject that label. “If you talk to people in these rural
areas, you find out that there are a huge number of very … what I
call just mainstream, old-fashioned Democrats. It’s simple. Basic.
They believe in a living wage. They believe in collective bargaining.
They believe in decent health care for everyone,” Cockburn told The
Intercept at a campaign event outside a Social Security office in
Farmville, Virginia. She was there to accept an
endorsement from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security
and Medicare, which had chosen her over her GOP opponent Denver
Riggleman, a Trump-backed Air Force veteran.

The Democratic Party has told anybody who’ll listen that it sees its
path back to power in the House running through so-called Whole Foods
[https://twitter.com/Redistrict/status/1053322899736674306] populated
by college-educated white voters who are turned off by the GOP’s
more explicit turn toward bigotry in recent years. Those districts
largely went for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and are currently
represented by Republicans in Congress, even after many of them went
for Hillary Clinton in 2016. CNN has predicted a “suburban tsunami
[https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/25/politics/suburban-tsunami-2018/index.html],” as
these Romney-to-Clinton districts reorient themselves toward
Democrats. Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping to win back the more
working-class districts that went for Barack Obama in 2012 and then
flipped to Trump in 2016.


Rural America, this wave of candidates thinks, is ready for a

But Cockburn and a host of progressive populists around the country
are looking to take it a step further, focusing instead on districts
that went for Romney in 2012 and also for Trump in 2016. They’re
running values-driven campaigns that take aim at the establishments of
both parties, and the result shows a surprising number of close races
in districts that national Democrats have long written off. Rural
America, this wave of candidates thinks, is ready for a realignment.

“If You Build It, They Will Come”

On stage last weekend in Ames, Iowa, congressional candidate J.D.
[https://theintercept.com/2018/10/13/jd-scholten-monopolies-not-immigrants-steve-king/] gave
a nod to the Whole Foods meme making the rounds among pundits. “I
saw this tweet
[https://twitter.com/Redistrict/status/1053322899736674306] the other
day. It made me laugh. It said a blue wave means that Democrats are
going to do very well within 20 miles of a Whole Foods,” said
Scholten, drawing chuckles from the audience. “This district
doesn’t have a Whole Foods. And I’m OK with that.”

Scholten, who is challenging white nationalist Steve King in Iowa’s
4th Congressional District, has rejected the Blue Dog approach to
targeting rural districts, which leans hard on business-friendly
centrism, militarism, and social conservatism. He’s instead embraced
the populist approach of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who traveled to
Iowa to campaign on Scholten’s behalf.

In arguing that Democrats can win in the district, which
Republicans have held for more than two decades, Scholten often
recites the famous quote from the movie “Field of Dreams”: “If
you build it, they will come.” He’s not talking about building a
Whole Foods or even a baseball stadium among the corn stalks
— although he was once a minor league pitcher. He’s talking
about offering a political platform that appeals to thousands of
citizens in his district who want jobs, health care, and other signs
of socio-economic comfort associated with the high-end grocery
franchise. He believes that if he runs on these issues, voters will

It was easy to believe him last weekend as he drew big crowds
campaigning alongside Sanders. At one of more than half a dozen stops
in the Hawkeye State, Sanders joined a small parade making its way
through downtown Ames, where autumn had brought a carpet of yellowing
ginkgo leaves to the sidewalk, and the crisp brick storefronts oozed
with small-town appeal. Sanders trailed a small float topped by
a papier-mache clock tower and a cardinal, both Iowa State symbols.
But behind him was a throng of supporters in cornflower-blue
“Scholten for Congress” shirts, followed by the candidate himself,
bringing up the rear in his now-iconic Scholten for Congress camper,
named Sioux City Sue.

Powered by ethanol and emblazoned with his logo, “Standing Tall for
All,” the van has been home to the 6-foot-6 former ballplayer as
he’s visited every county in the district — often, he jokes,
sleeping in Walmart parking lots. “If you want change, you’re
going to have to get uncomfortable,” he said during his stump
speech. “I promise you, for the last 15 months, I’ve been

Before the parade, as participants gathered in a parking lot off the
main procession route, Cynthia Paschen, the wife of Scholten’s
primary opponent, John Paschen, told The Intercept that she didn’t
hesitate to support Scholten after her husband’s loss. Between the
candidate’s character and his platform, she explained, it was a
no-brainer. Her affection for the candidate bordered on maternal —
perhaps looking to play matchmaker, she noted to a reporter that
Scholten was still single.


It was difficult to tell whether the audience was more excited about
getting Steve King out of office or about the heady empowerment of
independent grassroots fundraising.

Later, an Iowa State University crowd applauded as Scholten riffed
about the climate crisis and whooped as he referenced debt-free
college. But the biggest applause line followed his pronouncement that
he’d out-fundraised his opponent, King, 2-to-1 — without taking
corporate PAC money. Opposition to King, who notoriously
[https://www.vox.com/2018/6/28/17506880/steve-king-twitter-racism-congress-republicans] courts
white supremacist news outlets and retweets neo-Nazis, was a popular
theme at campaign stops throughout the weekend. The Sioux City
Journal, which had for years endorsed King, flipped this year to
support Scholten,
[https://siouxcityjournal.com/opinion/editorial/our-opinion-scholten-represents-best-choice-in-th/article_1f6bb4f7-637b-59d0-ab28-95d57eeb0492.html] arguing
that he would “bring no embarrassment to the district.” But on
this occasion, it was difficult to tell whether the audience was more
excited about getting King out of office or about the heady
empowerment of independent grassroots fundraising.

As of October 17, Scholten had raised $1.7 million to King’s
$740,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports; King has
less than $200,000 on hand to spend in the final week, and
Scholten’s television ads are airing unopposed. On Wednesday,
Scholten announced
[https://twitter.com/Scholten4Iowa/status/1057501749181865984] that
he’d raised more than $350,000 in the last 24 hours alone. It
doesn’t appear that the national party will be coming to his rescue:
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, who chairs the National Republican
Congressional Committee, cut ties with him on Tuesday.

During the parade in Ames, 75-year-old Bevin Trembly called out
“politicians for sale” while dressed as the Monopoly man, his
costume complete with a white mustache and top hat. He held a sign
that read, “If you can’t afford one, then vote!” Later, he
reappeared at his alma mater, the University of Iowa, in plainclothes
but on message with an ink stamp that read, “Not to be used for
bribing politicians.” He offered to stamp the legal currency of any
interested passersby.

It’s issues like these — corruption, “Medicare for All,” free
public college — that resonate in both red and blue states and allow
progressive Democrats to defy expectations in places far outside the
influence of the Whole Foods set.

Trump carried the 4th District by nearly 30 points, but a new poll
has King
[https://twitter.com/ChangePolls/status/1057121115879833600] up by
just 1 point, with a mere 38 percent approval rating, a flashing-red
warning sign for an incumbent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee has put two Iowa races on its Red to Blue
list, but Scholten isn’t on it.

Progressives in this red-for-now state seemed particularly eager to
have someone, or a pair of someones, to be excited about. It’s not
every year that a candidate emerges who inspires a trip to the polls,
and it’s not every day that he’s willing to campaign with Bernie
Sanders in rural Iowa. As a woman with a hand-drawn “be a voter”
sign passed by on the parade route in Ames, one little boy asked,
“Can I be a voter?”

“You can eventually!” chimed his caretaker.

At Iowa State, Scholten explained to the crowd why generating
enthusiasm for progressive ideas really matters. He told a packed
audience of several hundred people, mostly students, that he
couldn’t afford health insurance as a baseball player. “My health
insurance was praying at night,” he said. And, he noted, the
district’s vitality is declining as a whole: Only 18 percent of tech
grads from Iowa State stayed in Iowa after graduating. He wants to
make the district a place where people want to stay.

Rural Virginia’s Leftward Turn

On a Monday evening in October, Lynchburg’s local Chamber of
Commerce hosted four congressional candidates: Cockburn and Riggleman
were joined by 6th District candidates Ben Cline, a GOP state
delegate, and Jennifer Lewis, a mental health worker and anti-pipeline

Lewis’s hill is much steeper than Cockburn’s. Cook Political
Report lists Cockburn’s district as R+6, meaning Republicans have a
6-point registration advantage and could generally be expected to win
a neutral race there by 12 points. But in a wave year with the right
candidate, it’s doable, and University of Virginia political
scientist Larry Sabato 
named the race a toss-up.

Lewis’s district, meanwhile, is listed as R+13 and rated as solid
the board. The 6th District also lacks some of the variables that help
make a rural district competitive, such as a decent-sized city or a
large university. In an era when partisanship drives a substantial
portion of voters, too many Republicans who see the election as a team
sport — or, perhaps, a blood sport — can put a district out of

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who won the 6th District by more than
30 points in 2016, is retiring, and Goodlatte’s son, who now lives
in San Francisco, surprised everyone back home by endorsing Lewis. But
it’s difficult to find people who believe she has a path to victory.

Another advantage that Cockburn has in the 5th District — which, in
fact, does have a Whole Foods — is that it includes Charlottesville,
the home of the University of Virginia. Major universities can pump
the type of culture into a district that can create an opening for a
progressive message to be heard.

That Cockburn’s district is more favorable terrain affirms that not
all rural districts, and not all rural voters, are the same. Lynchburg
has a well-known college, too, but it’s the ultra-Christian Liberty
University, which has the effect of producing a conservative
infrastructure, rather than a liberal toehold. “White, working-class
voters” is now shorthand for Trump and the GOP’s base, but that
simplification erases key distinctions within the white community,
most significantly religious affiliation. Pew Research Center found
that white evangelicals — three-quarters of whom lack a college
degree, a status often used as a proxy for working class — made up a
fifth of the electorate in 2016 and went overwhelmingly for Trump, 77
percent to 16 percent. That means that Clinton actually won the
remainder of white voters without a college degree by roughly 57
percent to 34 percent. In a district not dominated by evangelicals,
that gives Democrats a shot.

At the forum, the two parties offered genuinely different visions for
the future of the district. Both Riggleman and Cline, for instance,
said that they opposed a federal minimum wage. Riggleman deployed what
is often the most effective counter to hiking it to $15: the argument
that Lynchburg, Virginia, is not Manhattan, and that different levels
of income are appropriate in different areas.


The novelty of Cockburn’s argument demonstrates the upside of
running candidates who are creative and independent.

But Cockburn responded with an innovative twist, arguing that a
minimum wage of $15 an hour is important for workers so that they
don’t put in a full week’s worth of work and still remain in
poverty. Farmers, she noted, get subsidies from the government because
we as a society have decided that farms are important as an end in
themselves — both for what they produce but also for their value to
local culture. Why can’t small businesses be treated as equally
important? If a mom-and-pop shop is demonstrably contributing to the
life, economy, and vitality of a small town, the government, she
argued, should subsidize its wage costs. The novelty of her argument
demonstrates the upside of running candidates who are creative and
independent, rather than those who read from scripts written by
consultants in Washington.

When it came to health care, Riggleman, who hopes to join the
right-wing Freedom Caucus, nevertheless defended major elements of the
Affordable Care Act, a sign of how far left the conversation has

Cockburn, for her part, spoke of single-payer health care. As a first
step, she said, Medicare, with its low overhead, ought to be offered
on the ACA exchanges to drive down costs, and in the meantime, the
country should be moving toward making it universally available. The
audience, which appeared to be dominated by Cockburn supporters,

While Republicans around the country have gone to absurd lengths to
link their opponents to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — Dave
Brat, in the neighboring district, cited her 21 times in
[https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/republican-dave-brat-takes-pelosi-bashing-to-insane-level.html] a
debate against Abigail Spanberger, prompting a response
[https://twitter.com/nowthisnews/status/1053101677702602754]that went
viral — Cockburn never misses a chance to lump Riggleman in with
the Freedom Caucus

That linkage — along with Riggleman’s party identity — allowed
Cockburn to tie her opponent to the caucus’s attempts to slash
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, potent issues in rural
districts that tend to include older voters. Max Richtman, president
and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and
Medicare, joined Cockburn at the Farmville Social Security Office.
Later that day, the duo led a discussion with voters at a campaign
office on the same theme.

Cockburn thinks that her position on environmental issues — even if
they’re not framed as green — also works in her favor. “We have
wells, we care about water,” she said, noting that in the south side
of the district, people are worried that the federal government may
lift a ban on uranium mining. “The Trump administration has weighed
in on that,” she said. “That is a bipartisan issue down there
because everybody knows what happens when you have uranium

A Nationwide Push

The dynamics of each congressional race vary from state to state and
from district to district, but this cycle’s progressive populist
push shows that Democrats can galvanize voters pretty much anywhere in
the country — so long as their policy priorities reflect the reality
on the ground.

James Thompson effectively kicked off the populist push in April 2017
with a surprisingly close special election run against Republican Ron
Estes in Wichita, Kansas. The seat was previously held by Mike Pompeo,
who resigned to become Trump’s CIA director and is now secretary of
state. After losing by 7 points while running on an unapologetically
progressive platform in Kansas’s 4th District, Thompson launched
back into a challenge against Estes in 2018. Thompson out-raised the
incumbent by some $50,000 last quarter.

The progressive messaging is also resonating in Pennsylvania’s 11th
District, effectively channeling Amish country. Lancaster City, with
its population of roughly 60,000 (including one Whole Foods that
opened in June), provides something of a progressive base from which
organizers can work outward into the countryside.
[https://theintercept.com/2018/09/15/jess-king-pennsylvania-lancaster-stands-up/] Colleges
dot the region, too. Trump carried the district by 26 points in 2016,
but Democrat Jess King
[https://theintercept.com/2018/09/15/jess-king-pennsylvania-lancaster-stands-up/] has
made it a single-digit race and has several times more cash on hand in
the homestretch than incumbent Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker. Five
Pennsylvania races have made it on to the DCCC’s Red to Blue list,
but not this one. The most recent poll has King within 4 points.

In West Virginia’s 3rd District, where Trump beat Clinton by an
astounding 49 points, state Sen. Richard Ojeda is polling even with
his Republican opponent, Carol Miller. The district is home to
Huntington, West Virginia, with a declining population of 47,000, as
well as Marshall University and its 12,000 students. Ojeda’s force
of personality — and his bold populist positions — has willed the
district into play. The military veteran is now included on the
DCCC’s Red to Blue list.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Matt Morgan was booted by the state
election board from the primary ballot in the 1st Congressional
District. But a boost
[https://theintercept.com/2018/08/09/matt-morgan-jack-bergman-michigan-1st-congressional-district/] from
high-profile Midwestern leftist Michael Moore helped him pull more
than 30,000 write-in votes to make it on to the general election
ballot. Morgan is an underdog in a district that Democrats haven’t
held since Bart Stupak retired in 2010. But there’s been little
polling in the district, and he could wind up a surprise winner
Tuesday night. The DCCC has four races in Michigan on its Red to Blue
list, but Morgan’s is not one of them.

Changing the Map

None of these candidates are favored by the prognosticators at
FiveThirtyEight to win their races, but they all have a shot — some,
admittedly, more than others. And simply by competing, they’re
helping to change the map for Democrats. By cutting down margins in
rural districts, these candidates could make the route to a Senate
seat or the governor’s mansion easier for other Democrats in their
states. Ojeda could help lift Sen. Joe Manchin over the finish line in
West Virginia, and organizing by King, Morgan, and Scholten, for
instance, could be a benefit to statewide candidates in Pennsylvania,
Michigan, and Iowa, respectively.


Simply by competing, they’re helping to change the map for

In Michigan, for instance, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow has run an
underwhelming re-election campaign and is facing a surging GOP
opponent. Every Democrat that Morgan brings to the polls gives
Stabenow a boost. Michigan and Pennsylvania both have important
gubernatorial and legislative contests, whose outcomes will not only
help shape policy, but also determine who has control of the
redistricting process.

A full-court rural press also forces Republicans to expend resources
on so-called safe states and districts — such as Texas, to beat back
Beto O’Rourke in his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz — meaning that
they have less to spend elsewhere to go on the offensive.

Aggressive competition in the rural districts of Iowa, Pennsylvania,
or Michigan can only help Democrats’ chances of retaking those state
legislatures. And in Kansas, there are a number of state Senate and
House races within Thompson’s congressional district that are
competitive in ways they might not have been without his organizing.
Monica Marks, for instance, is running to flip a state House seat in
northeast Wichita. She was a volunteer for Thompson’s special
election campaign and his team recruited her to run, a prime example
of how organizing begets opportunities in unexpected ways. With a
slight shift in the legislature, the state could be able to expand
Medicaid even if Democrats don’t take over, as a number of moderate
Republicans now support it.

Because these candidates break the DCCC mold, which tends to prefer
centrists who are business owners, prosecutors, or veterans — or
all three,
[https://theintercept.com/2018/04/28/juanita-perez-williams-emilys-list-dccc-new-york-abortion-juanita-perez-williams/] if
they get lucky — it’s been hard for Washington to recognize
what’s happening in some of the races. The Washington Post recently
[https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/suburban-women-trump-fatigue-and-the-house-races-that-could-make-the-difference/2018/10/21/7ce7975a-c5bd-11e8-9b1c-a90f1daae309_story.html?utm_term=.dd7d0df7dd3a] four
districts in Virginia that could potentially flip on Election Day, but
it designated three of those as the “most competitive” — with
Cockburn’s considered the longest shot. Yet, at the same moment, the
New York Times was finalizing live polls that found Cockburn up a
her opponent, while one of the other three candidates, Democrat Elaine
Luria in Virginia Beach, was down against hers by 8.

What makes Luria appear more competitive? Perhaps it’s her
establishment bona fides. Luria had the backing of the DCCC in her
contested primary against a progressive challenger. She’s a business
owner and a former naval commander: She feels like a Democratic
frontrunner. Cockburn faced two similar opponents in her own primary:
R.D. Huffstetler, a Marine veteran with heavy financial backing, and
Andrew Sneathern, a prosecutor who grew up on a farm.

The candidate presumed to be the frontrunner, Huffstetler, did not
have the DCCC’s official backing but was endorsed by the New
Democrat Coalition, a pro-business group of House Democrats who gave
his campaign $8,000. He also had the support of Rep. Seth Moulton,
D-Mass., who has been amassing clout within the Democratic caucus by
recruiting and fundraising for military veterans — especially those
of the moderate-to-conservative variety. His organization helped raise
$100,000 for Huffstetler, and in a joint fundraising agreement with
the state party, the candidate raised another roughly $40,000. He
raised a total of $1.1 million, largely from big donors, before
withdrawing from the race prior to the party’s nominating

Join The Intercept Newsletter
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Democrats in Cockburn’s district used a county-by-county caucus to
nominate their candidate, which played to both her politics and her
strategic decision to focus heavily on her field program. Even in
rural areas — in fact, particularly there — many of the most
active Democrats are strong progressives. This reality has long
frightened national Democrats, who worry that the activists will
nominate somebody too far to the left to win in the general election
— a fear used to justify intervening in favor of centrist candidates
in primary elections.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has noticed that the Democratic
emphasis on suburban areas, many of whose residents voted for Romney
in 2012 but Clinton in 2016, is not justified in the polling data.
“The Romney-Clinton districts have been the subject of an awful lot
of attention and even talk of a ‘suburban tsunami’; the
Obama-Trump districts, less so. The thing is, though, if you actually
look at the polls,” he wrote,
[https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/election-update-romney-clinton-districts-are-overrated-obama-trump-districts-are-underrated/] “Democrats
are doing just as well in the Obama-Trump districts. Probably a little
better, in fact.”


If Cockburn and some of the other populists win, it could change the
way the party approaches rural America.

If Cockburn falls short, the loss will no doubt be chalked up to her
progressive politics and unique profile. The same criticism will be
saddled on any other progressive that doesn’t get across the finish
line. But if Cockburn and some of the other populists win, it could
change the way the party approaches rural America.

A rural-urban alliance has been the holy grail for political
strategists since the first city was built. Linking the interests of
workers in urban areas with laborers in the countryside is reminiscent
of the New Deal coalition
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Deal_coalition], with its populist
economic program that reined in big banks and monopolies, lifted
wages, and strengthened financial security, while investing heavily in
development projects in the countryside. Aside from momentary
alliances, however, such a coalition has largely remained elusive on
a long-term basis, amid cultural divisions between town and country.
But as the United States becomes more connected and homogeneous —
the same chain restaurants, retail stores, and fashion styles are now
found from coast to coast and in between — those cultural
differences may be fading enough to create something closer to a level
playing field for progressives.

_Ryan Grim is The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief. He was previously
the Washington bureau chief for HuffPost, where he led a team that was
twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winning once. Grim edited and
contributed reporting to groundbreaking investigative project
[http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/dying-to-be-free-heroin-treatment] on
heroin treatment that not only changed federal and state laws, but
shifted the culture of the recovery
industry. ryan.grim@​theintercept.com @ryangrim

_Briahna Gray is the Senior Politics Editor at The Intercept. She is
also an opinion columnist with a focus on progressive political
messaging, as well as issues relating to identity and culture. Her
work has appeared in The Guardian, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone,
Current Affairs, and The Week, among
others. briahna.gray@​theintercept.com @briebriejoy

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