When the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a staffer to rural New York to help defend the seat of an incumbent member of Congress a few years ago, a local party leader noticed a cultural disconnect.
“She was from New Orleans, and they stuck her in the Adirondacks in the cold weather,” said Maggie Barley, vice chair of the Essex County Democratic Committee in New York’s 21st district. “She said, ‘I can’t get a cell signal, and where’s the Starbucks?’ We don’t have that. Half of our people don’t have cell service. Maybe in town you’ll have a cell signal but once you drive out, boom, it’s gone.”
The staffer’s struggle to acclimate to a rural district extends to the national Democratic Party, Barley said.
“Advice from the DCCC does not apply to rural areas,” she said. “The methods developed in urban and suburban areas don’t work here.”
Democrats need a different game plan for rural, Barley said.
With President Donald Trump’s approval rating at roughly 40 percent, Democrats are hoping for a blue wave that might crest in rural areas that Trump won just two years ago. The Democratic win in Tuesday’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania may raise hopes higher, but the PA-18th is 81 percent urban and may not say much about rural New York.
Democrats need to net at least 23 more seats to secure a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many analysts think the party’s path to a majority skirts rural and runs largely through suburban America, which since the 2016 presidential election has tilted heavily toward Democratic candidates.
One post-mortem on the 2016 election, led by U.S. Rep. Sean Maloney of New York, suggested that Democrats focus their efforts into urban and suburban areas, and stay away from rural communities. In an early 2017 story in the Washington Post, Maloney named the three biggest predictors of a House district’s partisan lean: how rural its population is, what percentage of its voters hold college degrees, and its racial diversity.
Those findings notwithstanding, many rural districts have seen a surge in political activity among Democrats. Take Maloney’s home state of New York, whose 19th and 21st congressional districts rank as the eighth and 20th most rural districts in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Just because a place is rural does not mean that it is overwhelmingly conservative, particularly in the Northeast,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“Both [the] 19 and 21 [districts] have big fields but that’s OK — it’s a way to get people involved and a way for these candidates to get vetted in advance.”
— Kyle Kondik, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball
As evidence, Kondik pointed to Vermont, which borders NY-21. Vermont’s single congressional district is 61 percent rural, ranking between the two New York districts as 14th most rural in the country. “Of course it’s one of the most liberal states in the whole country,” Kondik said. Vermont voted 57/30 for Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Both NY-19 and NY-21 voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping for Trump in 2016. The 19th, however, is rated as a “toss-up” by both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball, while the 21st is considered “safe Republican” by both.
The difference stems in part from Trump’s margin of victory in each district: 7 points in NY-19 versus 14 points in NY-21. (The Pennsylvania district that elected Democrat Conor Lamb Tuesday favored Trump by 20 points.) Educational attainment is higher in NY-19 than in NY-21, too: more of its voters hold college degrees, which is one of Maloney’s predictors for partisan lean.
The parts of New York outside of New York City often function as congressional battlegrounds. Democrats held all but two of the state’s more than two dozen districts as recently as 2010, but now hold only two-thirds —18 out of 27. Although Republican presidential candidates haven’t fared well in New York, Trump did better than most, winning nine of 27 congressional districts — six more than Mitt Romney won in 2012.
“In some ways I think that Trump Republicanism may not be that bad of a fit for the Northeast,” Kondik said. “Certainly in New York, Trump performed pretty well outside the city. Look at Erie County around Buffalo: it voted for Clinton but not by the margin you would expect. The Northeast has some of the same economic challenges outside urban areas that the Midwest does, like fading blue-collar employment. Trump spoke to those fears.”
Even so, there’s a buzz of activity among Democrats in New York’s North Country. Seven Democrats are running in the 19th to challenge first-term Republican U.S. Rep. John Faso. In the 21st, another seven Democrats are running for the nomination to face 2-term U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik.
“Both 19 and 21 have big fields but that’s OK — it’s a way to get people involved and a way for these candidates to get vetted in advance,” Kondik said. “When Obama was in the White House, Democrats sometimes had trouble getting candidates. Now we have too many, but they’d rather have too many than too few. These primaries help to distinguish which are good candidates versus those who look good on paper but can’t perform.”
The 19th sits between New York City and Albany and includes part or all of 11 counties. The seat has bounced back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, although it remained Democratic for a long stretch in the 20th century, from the mid-‘20s until 1992, when Republican’s regained it until 2006. Redistricting after the 2010 Census shifted its boundaries and representatives, with Faso taking the seat with 55 percent of the vote in an open-seat race in 2016.
“The main thing that may have turned out a bunch of candidates this time is anger, which is going on in a lot of places.”
— Calvin Exoo, St. Lawrence University
The district’s dynamics have pushed Faso to thread a narrow path in Congress. He voted in favor of repealing Obamacare but against provisions that would have stripped funding from Planned Parenthood. He was one of only a dozen Republicans to vote against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 — the tax bill that many GOP incumbents are featuring as a core part of their campaigns.
The good news for Faso is that none of his seven potential challengers has distinguished themselves from the field so far, giving Faso a head-start in the months ahead of the June primary that will nominate the Democrat to face him.
The 21st District, which includes all or part of 12 counties, also has tilted back and forth in recent years. It was Republican from 1993 until 2009 when then-Congressman John McHugh, a moderate Republican, was appointed by Obama to become U.S. Secretary of the Army. The ensuing campaign to fill McHugh’s open seat generated national attention, culminating in Democrat Bill Owens winning after the GOP’s ascendant Tea Party wing turned on Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava in favor of third party candidate Doug Hoffman.
Owens retired in 2014, and the seat was won by Stefanik, a former staffer in the George W. Bush White House who at 30 became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Stefanik won that race with 55 percent of the vote and increased her margin two years later, winning reelection in 2016 with 66 percent — 12 points better than Trump. In the current term, she has served as co-chair of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group, voted for the Obamacare repeal, and voted against the new tax legislation — all of which allows her to campaign as a relatively moderate candidate in the district’s tradition.
Even so, district Democrats are riled up, mainly over the current occupant of the White House.
“The main thing that may have turned out a bunch of candidates this time is anger, which is going on in a lot of places,” said Calvin Exoo, a professor of government at St. Lawrence University who lives in NY-21. “There’s a big, capital-R resistance movement in NY 21. Most of the candidates were part of the movements that grew up after Trump got elected.”
Citizens Acting Together for District 21 was one of several organizations formed after the 2016 election, according to co-founder Bob Lippman. The group was established in the Greater Glens Falls area of Warren and Saratoga counties to raise awareness and increase community involvement through engaging NY-21 residents.
Some of the post-election anger has been directed not at Trump, but at the Democratic establishment.
“We’re close to Vermont, so Bernie [Sanders] was very popular up here,” said Barley with the Essex County Democratic Committee. “I went to a meeting shortly after the election, and it was full of Democrats so angry at the Democratic Party and at me, because they thought we had not supported Bernie. We’re still trying to get them back in the fold.”
What type of candidate might be able to unseat Faso in the 19th or Stefanik in the 21st? Someone who has an authentic connection to the region, said Barley, and preferably someone born there. And in NY-21, Barley said the challenger may need to be a woman to have a chance at winning, given the fate of Stefanik’s last two, male challengers.
Government professor Exoo said the North Country’s issues reflect those found in many other rural areas: “We’re not so different from a lot of places. Yes, we have opioids and a drug situation in St. Lawrence County. Guns are an issue. I don’t know there are a lot of people who vote on that alone, but it’s important to hunters. Jobs are always an issue. This district was the center of American life for a few years at the outset of our history, when the St. Lawrence River was the only ingress into the continent by water. Once the Erie Canal got built, we were out of business.”
The 6.1 million-acre Adirondack Park, which contains 102 towns and villages, limits real-estate and economic development opportunities, creating additional economic challenges.
In many ways, Lippman said, NY-19 and NY-21 are representative of the country.
“These rural districts are microcosms of the United States,” Lippman said. “The rural areas are really red. Towns like Poughkeepsie or Woodstock are blue. And there’s not a lot of dialogue between red and blue. The folks in woods don’t come into town unless they need to go to the hardware store, and people don’t ever leave Woodstock because the farms and forests feel alien. The 21st is even more a microcosm of the U.S.: from lake to shining lake, with a mountain range in the middle.”
As go NY-19 and NY-21, then perhaps so goes the nation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the votes of U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik on Obama care and tax reform. Stefanik voted for repealing the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) and against changes in tax legislation. The Daily Yonder regrets the errors.