Virginia Sen. Jim Webb says he and some other freshmen Democratic senators belong to an informal “redneck caucus." Webb, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana all won in 2006 in notoriously Republican states — “red" states — thus, the redneck caucus.
Since 2006, the common assumption has been that Webb, McCaskill and Tester all won because they pulled an unusual number of votes from rural areas. That didn’t happen. These three R.C. members in fact did no better in rural counties than had other (unsuccessful) recent Democratic candidates. All three won because of large turnouts in urban areas.
Goodness knows they tried to win in rural areas. Tester is a flat-topped, true-to-life farmer. Webb is a military guy, a former Navy Secretary who isn’t shy about exercising his Second Amendment rights. Democrat Claire McCaskill spent months campaigning in rural Missouri and, according to The New Yorker, had what for the magazine was a special ability to “speak in language familiar to, among others, the disaffected hog farmers of Missouri." (We'd like to see that lexicon!)
But did all this attention to rural voters pay off in ’06 with an unusual (for Democrats) number of rural votes? It’s not just an academic question. Democrat John Edwards is running hard after the rural vote in his presidential campaign. His rural advisor, Dave “Mudcat" Saunders, is telling reporters that Democrats can win over rural voters if they speak the right language, back the right issues and don’t come across like they’ve never seen a round bale. "We had to win rural Virginia in (the 2001 governor’s campaign, won by Mark Warner), and we ended up taking our message to rural Virginia concerning economic fairness or the lack thereof," Saunders told the Iowa Independent. "And we ended up getting something like 51.7 percent of the rural vote in Virginia, just by going out and talking to people. And understanding the culture and the power of the culture."
It’s instructive that Saunders had to reach three elections back to 2001 to find a Democrat who won a majority of the vote in rural Virginia. That’s because Democrats have lost rural Virginia in every important statewide election since, including the “Redneck Caucus" vote of “˜06. Webb did better in rural Virginia than had the effete and decidedly non-rural John Kerry, but he still lost the nonmetro parts of the state by 42,000 votes. (Webb actually did a little worse in rural Virginia than Democrat Tim Kaine, who won the state’s governorship in 2005 — but still lost the rural vote by ten percentage points.) Webb won because of a big turnout in urban Virginia.
The truth is, the Democratic gains (in the Senate, at least) in 2006 were not won in rural Virginia, Montana or Missouri. Claire McCaskill may very well have a mystical talent for speaking in the language of “disaffected hog farmers," but she won her place in the Redneck Caucus by piling up a 113,000 vote lead in Missouri cities. She lost rural Missouri by more than 71,000 votes. McCaskill was lauded throughout 2004 for her attention to rural Missouri — but she polled in the countryside no better than had Jean Carnahan, the widow of the late senator, who ran against Republican Jim Talent in 2002.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana
How about the flat-topped farmer, Jon Tester? Tester lost rural Montana by 10,000 votes. But he won the urban parts of the state by 12,000 — and was off to Washington. Tester did much better than Kerry in rural Montana, but not so well as Democrat Brian Schweitzer, who was elected governor in 2003.
None of the members of the Redneck Caucus polled better in rural precincts than other recent Democrats. And the reason they all won 2006 was because of a bulge of votes coming out of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Missoula and St. Louis.
What will happen in ’08 is anybody’s guess. But Democrats shouldn’t presume some kind of natural success in rural counties next year based on results from the Senate races in ’06. Because in 2006, the Redneck Caucus lost the rural vote.
TUESDAY NIGHT ADDENDUM:
Okay, some have asked, how did our Caucus members do compared to other Democrats running in the same state. After all, the argument is that Democrats did something special in '06 — they picked candidates who could appeal to rural voters and they picked issues that resonated with rural communities. If something changed, then this crop of candidates ought to have fared better than prior Democrats.
To test the theory, the Yonder compared our caucus members (plus Democrat Harold Ford of Tennessee) to the most recent serious statewide Democratic candidate. Here's what we found.
First, Missouri. In 2002, Jean Carnahan ran against Jim Talent for the seat held by her late husband. She lost, and Claire McCaskill ran against Tenant in '06. We can see here that McCaskill didn't beat Talent because she did better in rural areas, but because she really increased her take of the large vote in the cities.
Okay, next we have Virginia, where Jim Webb won in '06. But did he do better than Tim Kaine, who won the governorship for the Ds in 2005? Nope:
Jon Tester won in Montana in '06, but didn't do as well as Brian Schweitzer when that Democrat won the governorship the year before. Tester was rural to the core, but he didn't do as well as Schweitzer in the '05 election. Tester won because he pulled ten percentage points better in the urban areas than he did in rural counties.
Finally, Harold Ford didn't win his Tennessee senate race in '06. Ford is young, black and from Memphis, so he had an uphill run in rural Tennessee. But Ford put on a gimme cap and campaigned without fear or reluctance in rural counties. We compared Ford's race in '06 to Bob Clement's unsuccessful run against Lamar Alexander in 2002. Clement was a congressman from Nashville running against a former governor, Lamar Alexander. He's white. You'll see here that Ford did particularly well in the cities, but lagged Clement in the rest of the state.