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Senate Democrats try to spark rural comeback in 2018

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) has declared war on almond milk as she prepares to run for reelection in 2018.

Though not a cause célèbre driving political talk on cable news, plant-based beverages called milk are a major sore spot for dairy farmers in Wisconsin, where President Donald Trump swept up to 71 percent of the vote in rural counties last November. Baldwin has introduced a bill banning the nontraditional drinks from being labeled “milk” — one of several rural issues Baldwin and fellow Democratic senators have championed early and often this year.

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While many voters in rural areas complained that Democrats forgot them in 2016, and party strategists rush this year to find a new message to bring them back in the fold, Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 have little time to spare to fix their party’s issues. These battleground-state Democrats are quick to note that they got elected in the first place by tending to voters outside their states’ biggest population centers. And they are focused this year on winning back voters their party has failed to connect with since the last time they appeared on the ballot.

As Sen. Debbie Stabenow visited a dam in Michigan’s far-northern Upper Peninsula — one-time Democratic turf that has grown reliably Republican — during a recent congressional recess, Sen. Sherrod Brown held two separate events on fighting the opioid crisis that disproportionately affects rural Ohio. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill has this year been holding town halls in places Trump carried by double-digits last fall.

“It’s a matter of earning those [rural supporters’] votes again in 2018. We are definitely mindful of the fact that the Democrats, in general, underperformed with those voters in 2016,” said Scott Spector, Baldwin’s campaign manager in Wisconsin. “It’s not changing who Tammy is or repositioning Tammy, but reminding them why they voted for her in 2012.”

The Wisconsin Democratic Party has already hired five outreach coordinators specifically focused on rural counties, ahead of Baldwin’s first reelection run and the 2018 gubernatorial race in the state. In addition to her milk bill, Baldwin — who represented her state’s most liberal city, Madison, in the House but still carried 36 counties when she won her Senate seat in 2012 — has been advocating for rural health care and rural broadband. Baldwin also joined Trump in tweeting her dismay in April when Canada made it harder to import milk.

Majority Forward, a nonprofit affiliated with Democrats’ biggest Senate super PAC, has amplified Senate Democrats’ push on rural and singularly local issues in some states. The group’s first ad of the 2018 election cycle was a radio spot praising McCaskill for protecting rural hospitals. Subsequent TV ads have touted North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s work with state military bases.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been trying to paint Baldwin and others in a more national light. The NRSC has taken to calling Baldwin “Wisconsin’s Elizabeth Warren,” as well as an “extreme partisan from Madison,” in its press releases.

While Republicans concede that Democrats’ emphasis on local issues is smart politics, it hints at an unpleasant truth, said Scott Jennings, a GOP consultant and former deputy political director in the George W. Bush White House. Jennings said the early moves are also a sign that the national Democratic Party could be a liability in the next election.

“The reason they’re having to localize these things is because they have so badly failed at making their national message anything recognizable to people who used to be Democrats in rural America,” Jennings said. “They don’t have a handle on the hysterics that are still going on in their party, and until they get a handle on that they’re going to have a problem reconnecting with Trump voters.”

But both Democrats and Republicans in Midwestern states say they’re not yet sure whether the rural surge that powered Trump to the presidency will carry over to Republicans in 2018.

“Are the Trump people going to leave or are they going to stay? The ground is very unsettled and I don’t think it’s easily readable,” said Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican political consultant. “The Democrats who voted for Trump could come home to her, the independents who voted for Trump could go either way.”

In the meantime, Baldwin and other Democratic senators from states Trump won are trying to cleave swing voters from the president they just elected.

There are 10 Democratic senators from Trump states up for reelection in 2018; all of them signed a letter sent last week decrying proposed cuts to rural development funds in the president’s budget proposal.

Copies of the President's budget are displayed at a photo op in the Senate Budget Committee room on May 23, 2017. John Shinkle/POLITICO

McCaskill was a Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate in 2016, but in the wake of Trump’s 19-point victory in Missouri, she has been making a point to hold constituent events in places where the president won big. And McCaskill has peppered her early messages with reminders of her work to help Missouri’s rural post offices, boost rural health care and protect rural schools.

Major cities make up strong bases of support for Democrats in states like Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, but they will not be enough to reelect the senators running there. McCaskill lost a 2004 run for governor because she didn’t garner enough votes outside Missouri’s urban centers. In 2016, Clinton overwhelmingly won Ohio’s three biggest cities and still went on to lose the state by 8 points — more than any major-party presidential candidate in three decades.

GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s successful 2016 reelection campaign in Ohio leaned hard on local issues. This year, Brown, Ohio’s Democratic senator, got an early start on his Agriculture Committee work on the 2018 farm bill, hosting monthly calls and preparing listening tours with Ohio leaders. He’s authored bills focused on protecting coal miners’ pensions and targeting the opioid crisis, which was a central issue in Portman’s campaign.

Brown’s campaign has also reached out to every county Democratic Party organization in Ohio in recent months. “The first step to improving Democratic performance in rural communities is actually listening to the Democrats that exist there and letting them know that we care about what they have to say,” said Justin Barasky, Brown’s campaign manager.

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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