Why this Democratic senator thinks his party's message is 'really, really flawed'

On the eve of the November election, conventional wisdom went something like this: Senate Democrats were going to retake the majority.

It didn’t work out that way. At all.
Democrats wound up picking up two Republican seats — in Arizona and Colorado — and losing Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama; that meant a single seat Democratic gain, short of the net pickup of three seats the party needs to be in the majority come 2021.
While Democrats still retain a path to the majority if they sweep the two runoffs in Georgia on January 5, there’s no question that the party badly underperformed expectations at the Senate level on November 3. And Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) has an idea as to why.
    In a conversation with The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin about the election and the state of the Democratic Party, Tester said this:
    “I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this President, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.
    “So that tells me our message is really, really flawed, because I certainly don’t see it that way.
    *We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that. You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing.”

    There’s no question that the greatest trick Donald Trump ever pulled was convincing rural Americans that he was one of them — or at least, knew their problems and would fight for them. After all, Trump, prior to coming to Washington to serve as president, had never lived outside of New York City. Which is, last time I checked, not a rural enclave.
    But Trump’s ability to convince rural voters he was their guy was also enabled, as Tester argues, by a Democratic Party that simply can’t figure out how to shape its argument to appeal to voters who live somewhere other than the two coasts of the country.
    While Democrats struggle among rural voters — largely located in the Midwest, South and the Plains — that weakness is made up for by its strength in urban areas and growing appeal to suburban voters at the presidential level. So, Joe Biden can lose rural America by 15 points, according to the 2020 exit polls, and still win the presidency by 7+ million votes because he wins urban areas by 22 points and suburban centers by 2.
    Democrats’ problems among rural voters really hit home when you look at the battle for the Senate majority. Republican majorities in the Senate have long been built on their dominance in smaller, more rural states between the coasts. As Ron Brownstein, a CNN contributor, wrote in The Atlantic just before the election:
    “Boosted by their dominance of smaller states between the coasts, Republicans have controlled the Senate for 22 of the 40 years since 1980. But according to calculations shared with me by Lee Drutman of the centrist New America think tank, if you assign half of each state’s population to each senator, the GOP has represented a majority of the American public for only one two-year period during that span: 1997 to 1998. Today, according to Drutman’s figures, the 47 Democratic senators represent almost 169 million people, while the 53 Republican senators represent about 158 million. Measured by votes, the disparity is even more glaring: The current Democratic senators won about 14 million more votes (69 million) than the Republican incumbents (55 million), according to calculations by Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.”
    This disparity has led plenty of Democrats (and party strategists) to suggest Senate representation is fundamentally broken. Maybe! But that doesn’t change the current reality that Democrats’ struggles to win in rural areas is why they didn’t come close to living up to expectations in November
    Consider some of the toss-up races coming into Election Day that Democrats lost.
    * In Iowa, 39% of the overall vote was cast by people living in rural areas. Trump carried those voters by 28 points. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst beat Democrat Theresa Greenfield by 7 points.
    * In Montana, 70% of the voters lived in rural areas. Trump won them by 21 points. Republican Sen. Steve Daines beat Democrat Steve Bullock by 10 points.
    * In North Carolina, 27% of the vote was rural. Trump won that group by 19 points. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis beat Democrat Cal Cunningham by 1.8 points.
    That’s the Senate majority right there.
      Of course, if Democrats win both Georgia runoffs, all of their disappointments on November 3 will be forgotten. As will their struggles among rural voters.
      But the party would do well to heed Tester’s concerns about its messaging in places like the one he represents. Long-term Senate control runs through those places.

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