Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Democrats Can Win Back Rural Voters


The urban-rural divide has grown in politics over the past couple of decades, with rural America becoming increasingly and reliably Republican. 

But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, says there are opportunities for Democrats to win back rural voters in local, state and national politics. She writes about how in her book, “Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again In Rural America.”

“There’s lots of lessons for us to be learned on how we can win back those rural voters by standing with them when they’re being threatened by big pipelines or with the flooding and other impacts of climate change,” she says. “But the national Democratic Party has been slow to respond.”

In the 1980s, Democrats such as Jesse Jackson and then-Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin stood with rural voters at the height of the farm crisis, eventually passing a comprehensive farm bill. But since then, Kleeb says Democrats have forgotten about rural voters — and that’s exactly how they feel. 

“If you live in a small rural town, you feel forgotten. You feel isolated,” she says. “And President Trump made it a point to really reach out to rural voters and use language that they thought that he was going to stand up for them.”

Trump and others in the Republican Party have latched onto cultural wedge issues, such as gun rights, abortion and immigration, to attract rural voters, Kleeb says. What Democrats need to do is show them where there is common ground, while also rebuilding support for Democrats at the local level. 

“When rural voters think you’re not being honest with them on the cultural issues, then they will turn away from us on even economic interest issues,” she says. “They need to know that we’re fighting for them. And right now, they don’t believe that.”

Interview Highlights

On why many farmers continue to support Trump despite being hurt by the trade war

“There’s no question that some rural farmers continue to stand with Donald Trump, even though they are economically hurt by President Trump’s trade wars. But if there’s no alternative, if we’re not giving them an alternative, if we’re not talking to them on a regular basis and showing them that we’re different, then they’re going to continue to vote with Republicans.

“The good thing is, and that’s one of the bonuses of Iowa going first, is that all of our Democratic candidates really do have strong rural proposals. As an advocate and as a state party chair, I’m going to be in the ears of those presidential campaigns [saying] that you can’t just talk about rural issues once in Iowa and check the box and think that you can then move on. So we have to do a better job talking about not only trade, but talking about property rights and rural hospitals and some of the other economic issues that are facing our rural communities all the time.”

On the crisis of access to health care in rural communities 

“So you have moms who are pregnant that are having to travel an hour to get to a hospital. Our daughter [Maya] has autism, and we live in a small town of 25,000. So that’s big relative to some other rural towns. But it took us eight months to get an appointment with a mental health therapist for Maya. That is unacceptable. We don’t have enough mental health therapists in our small town in order to meet the needs of our kids and adults who have mental illness. And if we had a child who had to be inpatient for an eating disorder or another mental illness, we would literally have to put our kid on a plane to Denver or another big city because there’s not an inpatient treatment facility anywhere near us. So there’s a real crisis happening, and there’s real common ground that Democrats can stand on to show that we’re standing up for our families. But we got to start talking about it on a regular basis.”

On how Democrats united with rural voters in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline

“This was a real unlikely alliance that took us three years to develop trust among farmers, ranchers, tribal nations, as well as kind of progressive climate advocates. We showed rural communities in Montana, in South Dakota and in Nebraska that Democrats were standing with them. And that was a real shift. And I know personally, hundreds of farmers and ranchers who are no longer Republicans anymore that were involved in that fight. Some of them are actually not Democrats, but the vast majority could not … that’s a bridge too far, but they’re registered independents. But they have started to see Democrats in a very different light. So that’s what we need to do. And that’s what I’m arguing, is that there are issues when it comes to Medicaid expansion, eminent domain, climate change, [and] protecting small family farms from corporate agriculture. These are all issues that urban Democrats agree with as well.”

On how the Democratic presidential candidates can win rural voters

“I think every single Democratic candidate that’s in the primary, including [Michael Bloomberg], including [Bernie Sanders], both of them can win [rural voters]. And everybody in between can win [rural voters]. The question for me is, will they put resources on the ground? Because what often happens is that we play in this swing state map. That model is outdated. President Trump has rewired the electoral map. We have to play everywhere, including in states like Nebraska and South Dakota.”

On why winning back rural voters in this election is so important for Democrats 

“By 2040, 80% of the population is going to be concentrated in 15 to 17 states. That means that less than 50% of the population is going to be electing 84% of the U.S. senators. So we as a Democratic Party have to decide this election cycle if we’re actually going to be taking rural states and rural voters seriously, because otherwise we are literally handing elections over to the Republican Party, even though Democrats will have the majority of votes, when you look at popular vote versus Electoral College. I’m definitely telling presidential candidates and their campaigns and their surrogates that they have to start showing up in rural communities if we’re gonna win the White House, but more importantly, if we’re going to win some of the U.S. Senate seats. And I know people often only look at the shiny object of the White House, but we have to look at the structure of how we elect people because we actually can elect Democrats in these rural states if they have the resources to run and win.”

On why it’s important for Democrats to focus on state and local races 

“In Nebraska, we had 850 Democrats run across our state in 2018, and 73% of them won. And that was a lot of down ballot races — mayor, city council members, school board members, state legislators. So we can start to build a very strong bench where also local control matters. You can impact climate change and the issues we care about, like expanding Medicaid, that can be controlled at the state level. But what we have done for many years, I would argue for the past 20 years, we’ve completely ignored state parties, and they are the backbone of every single candidate on the Democratic ballot from president all the way down. If we’re going to start winning in these red states and rural states again, you have to fully invest in state parties.”

On how Nebraska will play in the 2020 election 

“Nebraska’s unique, very similar to Maine, where we split our electoral votes by congressional district. And so there’s no question both our [1st Congressional District] which has Lincoln and a lot of small towns, as well as [the 2nd Congressional District], which includes our biggest city of Omaha, those districts are definitely in play for the Electoral College map. Right now, unfortunately, presidential campaigns are not on the ground yet in Nebraska. But hopefully after Super Tuesday, presidential campaigns will get serious and start to play on the ground here in Nebraska.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: ‘Harvest the Vote’

By Jane Kleeb


From the book HARVEST THE VOTE by Jane Kleeb. Copyright © 2020 by Jane Kleeb. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

"Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America" by Jane Kleeb. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)
"Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America" by Jane Kleeb. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)