Heartland Democrats to Washington: ‘You’re Killing Us’A new report blames an elitist national party for alienating vast swaths of once reliable voters. If the party doesn’t win them back, it could spell disaster in 2020.
By MICHAEL KRUSE
January 11, 2018
AUSTIN, Ind.—Steering his white Dodge Ram while wearing a tan knit cap, a drab green Carhartt coat and a smear of brown livestock feed on his cheek, Terry Goodin jounced over frozen-hard mud toward his 100 head of beef cattle. “Make sure they’re all four legs down and not four legs up, in this kind of weather,” he told me in his southern Indiana drawl. The temperature overnight had dipped toward zero. Now, mid-morning, it stood at 16 degrees. On the rear of his old pickup truck was a “Farmers For Goodin” bumper sticker, and rattling around his head were thoughts of what he was going to say the following week in a starkly different setting—up in Indianapolis, at the regal marble capitol building, in his introductory speech as the leader of his caucus in the state legislature.
He wanted to talk about the importance of public education, affordable health care and a living wage, and the moral necessity of addressing the opioids scourge. Six days later, dressed in a sharp suit and a striped tie, he would stress those priorities—and also deliver a declaration of identity:
“I am a Democrat. I am a Democrat from rural Indiana.”
That Goodin, 51, who has held political office for more than 17 years, felt the need to say this out loud speaks to the divisions bedeviling the Democratic Party. A father of three and the superintendent of a 500-student school district, Goodin is the last Democrat in Indiana who represents an entirely rural area. A member of the Indiana Farm Bureau, the National Rifle Association and the Austin Church of God, he’s a pro-life, pro-gun, self-described “Bible-poundin’, aisle-runnin’” Pentecostal. This unusual profile for a Democrat makes him a species nearing extinction within the national party, but it’s also the very reason he keeps getting reelected here. This paradox is why he is prominently featured in a report set to be made public today by the leadership PAC of third-term congresswoman Cheri Bustos.
The report, “Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington,” lands at a moment, of course, when Democrats are riled up with activist energy but also wrestling with themselves about the direction of their party—their most reliable areas of support having receded to cities, coasts and college towns. In contrast, this report is based on interviews with 72 Democrats who hail from none of those places but rather largely agricultural, blue-collar areas in the vast, eight-state center of the country. It will be distributed to local and regional party leaders as well as the most important Democrats on Capitol Hill. Bustos shared an early copy exclusively with POLITICO.
The facts are harsh. “The number of Democrats holding office across the nation is at its lowest point since the 1920s and the decline has been especially severe in rural America,” Bustos writes in the report. In 2009, the report notes, Democrats held 57 percent of the Heartland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now: 39 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama won seven of the eight Heartland States. In 2012, he won six. In 2016? Trump won six. There are 737 counties in the Midwest—Trump won all but 63 of them. “We can’t keep bombing in the rural parts of these states,” Bustos told me. And with arguably some of the most critical midterms in American history less than 10 months away, the 2020 presidential election already looming and redistricting control on the line, Democrats need to find a fix fast, said Robin Johnson, a Bustos adviser and consultant who teaches political science at Monmouth College in Illinois, and conducted the interviews for the report last summer. “If we don’t get this right in the next two cycles,” he told me, “we’re done”—rendered mostly powerless in Congress and in Heartland state houses. He called the report “a cold reality check.”
From the Appalachian regions of Ohio to the Iron Range of Minnesota and the northern reaches of Michigan and Wisconsin, across Iowa and Missouri and through the southern swaths of Indiana and Illinois—areas in which Bill Clinton triumphed and Hillary Clinton tanked—the quotes from the 72 rural Democrats Johnson interviewed read like a pent-up primal scream. And Terry Goodin’s comments pop out in particular. In the report, he says the Democratic Party is “lazy,” “out of touch with mainstream America,” relying on “too much identity politics” where “winners and losers are picked by their labels.” The Democrats in his district, he laments, “feel abandoned.”
“The Democratic Party is a party of elites,” Michigan State Rep. Donna Lasinski told Johnson.
“Democratic leaders don’t understand the needs of rural voters,” former Illinois State Sen. John Sullivan said.
“The ‘metro-centrics’ in our party don’t know the difference between majority and minority,” Minnesota State Rep. Gene Pelowski added. “They just play to the base. They don’t care about winning elections.”
Wisconsin State Sen. Janet Bewley sounds practically protective of her rural constituents. “If anyone calls them Bubbas, they’ll have me to contend with,” she told Johnson, referring to Democrats who are “dismissive of those who listen to country music and watch NASCAR.”
“The Democratic brand,” said Illinois State Rep. Jerry Costello, Jr., “is hugely damaged, and it’s going to take a while to bring it back. Democrats in southern Illinois have been more identified by bathrooms”—transgender bathrooms, that is—“than by putting people back to work.”
Several of the lawmakers that talked to Johnson called some in the Democratic Party intolerant.
“We say we’re diverse and tolerant,” former Indiana State Rep. Dennie Oxley said, “but we’re really not tolerant of certain groups.”
“Some in the party, especially from metro areas, are not tolerant of other opinions, especially on guns and abortion,” Minnesota State Rep. Jeanne Poppe said. “It’s OK, if you’re liberal, to be intolerant.”
“Democrats have become less inclusive, the party has,” he said to me one evening driving from Indianapolis back to Austin, snow-specked fields speeding by on either side of the car.
“The traditional Democrat Party was a party of diversity,” Goodin said. Now? “They don’t really walk the walk.”
“The single most unifying factor for Democrats is our commitment to working people in this country.”
That much he and Pelosi and Goodin agree on. Goodin is a Democrat in the first place, he told me, because his grandfather was a union coal miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, and because his father was the school superintendent in Austin. He’s a staunch supporter of public education. A graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, he has a doctorate from Indiana University in Bloomington. But he calls himself a “Hoosier Democrat” the same way Senator Joe Manchin calls himself a “West Virginia Democrat”—and that means, he said, that he takes some positions that are to the right of most of his fellow Democrats.
Goodin, for instance, has taken traditionally Republican stances on gun rights. He said he wanted to implement in Indiana’s schools a program that would teach fourth-graders how to safely handle a gun. “I’m A-plus with the NRA,” he said. “Whether that’s good or bad, that’s just who I am.” Goodin owns seven guns, and his four-year-old son, he told me, has four .22-caliber rifles of his own. “The good guys in Westerns carry guns—and they beat the bad guys,” he explained.
The lesson? “That the more moderate to conservative Democrat needs to come back in order for us to get the majority,” said Baron Hill, the former Democratic congressman from southern Indiana who lost in 2010. “The Democrats have got to do a better job of appealing to what was described a while back as the ‘deplorables,’ if you’ll recall.”