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The gap between the Democrats' rural problem and the party's solution

The problem is not that Democrats are unaware of their rural challenge, it's that they have limited options to solve the problem.

The New York Times reported over the weekend on a familiar political dynamic: The Democratic Party has a serious problem in rural areas.

In the jigsaw puzzle that is electoral politics, Democrats have often focused their energy on swingy suburbs and voter-rich cities, content to mostly ignore many white, rural communities that lean conservative. The belief was, in part, that the party had already bottomed out there, especially during the Trump era, when Republicans had run up the numbers of white voters in rural areas to dizzying new heights. Virginia, however, is proof: It can get worse.

The Washington Post ran a similar report on the same day.

The urban-rural divide is real and has gotten wider. Democrats have seen their future as one that runs through urban and suburban America, with a coalition that is increasingly diverse, younger and more liberal. What appeals to that rising Democratic Party, however, doesn't necessarily resonate with rural voters and sometimes drives them away. That's the conundrum for the party as it considers how to mend its rural deficiencies.

Politico had a report of its own on the issue, which was also published on Saturday, which highlighted Democrats reaching "record-low shares of the vote" in "small county after small county" last week.

Throughout the Trump era, I kept an eye on the politics of farming financial strains, and the frustrations in agricultural areas in response to the Republican administration's trade policies. The more farm closures increased, the more ire was directed at the GOP president — especially as he told farmers to effectively take one for the team and accept financial hardship as a price worth paying for his trade agenda.

It was only natural to wonder whether Trump might face some kind of electoral backlash. The Republican White House assumed that wouldn't happen, and the officials who made that bet were correct: The Washington Post reported two years ago on "farm-state fury" over Trump's agenda and its effects on the agricultural industry, but the article added, "Many of those grumbling about Trump today concede they are unlikely to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate next year."

In other words, farmers may have been suffering as a direct result of Trump's policies, but those farmers had every intention of voting for him again anyway.

For Democrats, that's a tough hurdle to overcome. As the party's share of the rural vote keeps sinking, the problem is not that Democrats are unaware of the challenge, it's that they have limited options to solve the problem.

Because Democrats are a governing party that prioritizes real-world solutions, Democratic leaders tend to believe they can make gains in rural areas by focusing on policymaking. Indeed, the party included all kinds of priorities in President Joe Biden's infrastructure package that were designed specifically to benefit rural areas, including provisions related to broadband access. The party is similarly focused on expanding health care access in rural states where Republicans have refused to accept Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act.

In fact, much of the Democrats' agenda on the national level — child tax credits, a proposed minimum-wage increase, "right to repair" measures — would make a meaningful and positive difference among rural voters.

But there's a problem. As the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter noted over the weekend, Democrats want to appeal to rural voters through governing, while rural voters shun Democrats over differences surrounding culture and values. Even if Democrats tried to overhaul the party's values on issues such as civil and reproductive rights to appeal to rural conservatives — which, of course, the party has no interest in doing — that would only put at risk other key parts of the Democratic coalition. It'd be electoral suicide.

I'll gladly leave it to party strategists to explore possible solutions, though I'm curious what would happen if there were a concerted Democratic effort to tell rural voters that Republicans take their votes for granted, without ever really delivering for them.