Debate: Rural Issues Fizzle after First Night

Rural gets a little attention in the first night of the Democratic presidential candidate debate. But night two participants gave rural America the silent treatment.

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If you can judge political buzz by the number of mentions an issue gets in a presidential debate, interest in rural America soared earlier this week.

Then it disappeared into the abyss.

Democratic presidential candidates on Tuesday night – the first of the two-day debate marathon – cited several rural topics and name-checked some small towns.

But candidates in the second night of the debate mentioned rural exactly zero times.

It was an odd juxtaposition, given that the two flights of candidates covered the same general topics: healthcare reform, climate change, the economy, and other domestic issues.

First-night candidates former Texas member of Congress Beto O’Rourke and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar emphasized that they are experienced working with rural voters. They said a strategy to win the White House needs to address rural voters.

O’Rourke said he employed the Texas version of a 50-state strategy in his 2016 Senate campaign, in which he lost to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz by about 2.5 points.

“There is a new battleground state, Texas,” O’Rourke said. “It has 38 Electoral College votes. And the way that we put it in play [in the 2016 Senate election] was by going to each one of those 254 counties. No matter how red or rural, we did not write you off. No matter how blue, or urban — we did not take you for granted.”

Klobuchar said she’s learned how to include rural voices in Senate work, which began with her election in 2006.

“I think how we win an election is to bring everyone with us,” she said. “And, yes, I have won in a state every single time statewide. I have won those congressional districts that Donald Trump won by over 20 points. … And I have done it by getting out there and talking to people, by knowing rural issues and farm issues.”

Klobuchar also mentioned rural broadband as an infrastructure need she would invest in if elected president.

Rural communities also arose in one of the evening’s flashpoints — debate over expanding a public insurance option to younger Americans. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders calls it Medicare for All and proposes phasing in a single-payer system that is modeled on, or part of, the federal Medicare program, which provides medical insurance to Americans 65 years and older.

Maryland’s John Delaney, a former member of Congress, called Medicare for All a radical idea and said it would hurt rural healthcare.

“I’ve been going around rural America, and I ask rural hospital administrators one question, ‘If all your bills were paid at the Medicare rate last year, what would happen?’ And they all look at me and say, ‘We would close.’ ”

Candidates also expressed sympathy for American farmers whose futures seem uncertain because of trade wars.

“You know, a farmer … said to me, every time that Trump tweets, we lose hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said candidate Steve Bullock, governor of Montana.

Other candidates name-checked small towns. Marianne Williamson mentioned Denmark, South Carolina, a city of about 3,400 in southern South Carolina.

Other candidates in the Tuesday debate were Ohio Representative Tim Ryan and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.

But by Wednesday, the rural flame had sputtered out. The 10 candidates in Wednesday’s debate made no direct comments on rural issues.

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