Democrats Must Show Up to Win Back Heartland Voters

Democrats Must Show Up to Win Back Heartland Voters
AP Photo/James Nord, File
Democrats Must Show Up to Win Back Heartland Voters
AP Photo/James Nord, File
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Nearly one-third of the Democrats now serving in the U.S. House of Representatives come from just two states, California and New York. Startling, isn’t it? Good for California and New York. But that statistic also describes how the Democratic Party has become a largely a bicoastal entity and has consciously abandoned much of the heartland.  

While the “blue” coastal states have been very successful electing Democrats, much of the heartland of America has been dismissed as “fly-over country,” which has helped turn them into Republican “red” states. As a consequence, they have been largely ignored by our national party and Democrat presidential contenders. 

In politics, as in life, you can’t win if you don’t compete. For decades we have watched our national political party endorse national candidates who have given up on a majority of the states long before the real campaign starts. You rarely find a Democratic candidate for president campaigning in those red states. They consider it a waste of time and effort.                                             

But there are real consequences of that failure to show up. Ignoring states these candidates don’t expect to carry in a general election has been devastating for other candidates running for office on the Democrat tickets in them. 

The collapse of support in local legislative races and races for the governorships in America’s heartland should sound the alarm. In the past decade my party lost over 1,000 state legislative seats, nine U.S. Senate seats, 62 House seats and 12 governorships. Is that enough of a wake-up call? I sure hope so. 

The absence of a national campaign reaching every state with a message that matters puts every other Democrat running for office at risk. A wise old campaign sage once observed, “You pick cherries where cherries is!” I understand that. 

It has been pretty good picking in New York and California and other liberal coastal strongholds and urban areas. But at some point, you also have to plant more cherry trees. The simple point is, all of that cherry-picking in just a few states by Democratic presidential candidates has been a disaster for the party in the states that have been snubbed.  

I accept the logic of campaigning in areas of greatest opportunity. But the key to successful politics is to keep expanding your base even while you consolidate support within your base. The plain fact is, our national political party has been AWOL in much of the country for a long, long time, and it shows.   

When I was elected to the House in 1980, I joined other congressional Democrats from states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Wyoming, Texas and many more. That has changed. Now most of those states are considered solid Republican. The heartland of America has turned a bright red on the election night maps. 

It doesn’t have to stay that way. We just need to stop giving up on large portions of the country and instead, start running aggressive campaigns on the issues that matter most. Yes, even in the bright red states. As a Democrat, I was successful in 11 elections first for the statehouse, then for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate in a red state that hasn’t given a Democrat our Electoral College votes since 1964. So I know it can be done! 

In recent years I realize that other factors have impacted political outcomes. The Supreme Court’s ill-considered Citizens United decision unleashed a tidal wave of unlimited money from undisclosed sources to subvert our political system.  The political muscle of indefensible gerrymandering has also been destructive.  

But the bottom line in politics is you have to compete if you expect to win. And I’m convinced that the voters and their values in the Heartland still place a premium on clean air, safe drinking water, good jobs that pay well, schools that teach well, available health care for all Americans, affordable college and much more. They support efforts to combat climate change. They want to get the avalanche of money out of politics. They support global trade, but want fair trade laws. And, yes, they do want reasonable gun safety measures. If we campaign hard on those issues we can alter the look of those Election Day maps showing a mass of red across the Heartland. 

Ninety percent of life is showing up, the old adage goes. It’s a nice reminder. We need good candidates with strong, confident messages about strengthening America’s future. And we need Democrat candidates for president who won’t give up anywhere -- and who show up everywhere.

Byron Dorgan is a former U.S. senator and congressman from North Dakota.

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