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Rural Democratic Lawmakers Join Endangered List

U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) was defeated in this month's midterm election after 34 years in Congress. Skelton represents an increasingly rare breed of rural Democrats in the House of Representatives.
U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) was defeated in this month's midterm election after 34 years in Congress. Skelton represents an increasingly rare breed of rural Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Republicans took more than 60 House seats away from Democrats this month across the country, and their biggest boost came from voters in small towns.

Two-thirds of the Republican wins came in districts where the percentage of people classified as rural was greater than average. Democrats saw many of their small-town icons retire or go down in defeat, along with younger members who had been renewing the party's appeal in the hinterland. The few rural Democrats who remain will face another tough election in 2012.

Since 1976, Ike Skelton managed to win every two years in his rural corner of Missouri, relying on his deep local roots and his ability to bring home federal dollars. But this year, the Democrat found himself making the speech he had always dreaded.

"I've instructed my staff to cooperate fully to make the transition smooth," he said.

According to attorney Larry McMullen, one of Skelton's big supporters, the district's makeup didn't change, but the mood did.

"Of course, this is a Republican district, and over the years Republicans have crossed over to support Ike," he said. "Now Republicans, smelling blood in the water, are rising up and saying, 'Let's just throw everybody out.' "

That uprising was not limited to the Midwest or the South.

Scott Murphy, a businessman from the Hudson River Valley in New York, won his rural seat in a special election just last year. He thought he could hang on by focusing on local issues: dairy farms and the district's troubled horse-racing industry. But Murphy also voted for the health care law and other parts of the Democratic agenda.

Chris Callahan from Waterford, N.Y., joined an anti-Murphy rally the day before the election.

"Murphy is just aligned with Obama. It's the wrong way to go. It's been tried, it hasn't worked," he said.

Murphy wound up losing by 11 points.

Bill Bishop, a journalist who writes about small-town politics for a blog called the Daily Yonder, says Democrats are now an endangered species in House districts dominated by small towns.

"They just pretty much disappeared from a lot of rural America -- from the Dakotas across Minnesota and Michigan and Wisconsin to the territory of New York and Pennsylvania -- and then all of New Hampshire switched," he said.

Rural America has long been associated with conservatism. Small towns tend to be older and whiter, and they often have more military veterans. Those are all groups that lean Republican.

The surprising thing, according to Bishop's analysis, is that Democrats were still managing to win and hold a lot of rural seats -- often by distancing themselves from the national party and downplaying the Democratic brand.

Bishop says Democrats have to do that because people in small towns see their party being defined by urban politicians.

"When Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are mentioned in these advertisements, they're described as someone other than us -- politics now is about teams and it's about tribes," he said.

Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is seen as one of his party's experts on rural politics. He agrees that beyond the suburbs, the Democratic brand is seen increasingly as something alien and unwelcome.

"You have to understand what’s happened in this country. The election of Barack Obama was an election that was won by people who are under 35 years old, who are multicultural," Dean said. "That doesn't describe rural America."

Dean is convinced that small towns have taken the brunt of the recession. He also says better economic policies will bring some of those voters back. But he says many rural people just won’t feel comfortable supporting the modern Democratic Party.

"They now have a new generation that is taking over this country, a diverse generation that doesn't look like them," he said.

This year, those older rural voters pushed back hard, throwing dozens of Democrats out of office and shifting the balance of power in Washington. They might very well keep right on pushing in 2012.

Copyright 2020 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.