President Biden Should Pitch Infrastructure Directly to Rural America
By Senator Heidi Heitkamp, co-founder of One Country Project
When I founded One Country Project in 2019 it was already apparent the Democratic Party needed to course-correct in rural America for the party’s nominee to have a chance at winning the White House. Despite beating Donald Trump by a decisive 7 million votes, structural biases toward rural states that lean Republican (namely the Electoral College and apportionment of Senators) mean President Biden cannot afford to rest on the laurels of winning the popular vote.
2020 U.S. Census data shows that rural communities continue to shrink while cities have seen steady growth. Some may claim this is a long-term gain for the Democratic Party, but I encourage anyone celebrating the decreasing population of rural America to remember the structural biases that favor it — and to acknowledge the fact that Republicans currently wield disproportionate influence over redistricting, influencing congressional representation for years to come.
That so many Republicans in Congress are willing to perpetuate the big lie of widespread voter fraud underscores the importance of fighting for every single vote. We cannot fall victim to magical thinking, wherein we ignore the structural realities of the present in favor of imagining a world in which yet-to-be-passed legislation saves the day.
President Biden should also seize the moment to shore up the Democratic brand in rural communities — but time may already be running out. Recent polls have shown a decisive drop in support for the president among rural voters, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
President Obama won many rural states, but the Democratic partnership with rural communities stretches significantly further back in time. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party championed robust infrastructure investments that modernized rural communities and jumpstarted struggling economies.
Today, President Biden is championing a similar once-in-a-generation investment in rural America through his American Jobs Plan. And as the COVID-19 pandemic rips through largely unvaccinated rural areas, this legislative agenda prioritizes the policies that address the crises caused by the pandemic. After all, the American economy begins and ends with how we handle the pandemic. The American Jobs Plan brings good-paying jobs to the small towns that have struggled to come out of the economic shutdowns. It brings broadband access and countless online economic opportunities right to the front door of farmers and ranchers who have lived without internet access for decades. And it invests in the roads, bridges, and railways that open rural agriculture businesses to trade.
Democrats in Congress and the Biden Administration have passed historic legislation to rebuild communities that have been left behind. Now, it’s time to take a victory lap.
If history is to be our guide in showing that Democrats can win in rural America, it should also be a trusted advisor in forecasting how Republicans will react to President Biden’s rural priorities: oppose them at every turn, and then take credit for them if they pass. With midterm elections around the corner, President Biden and his allies should not let Republicans have it both ways.
Instead, the president and his team — including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — should refocus. They should fan out to places that will be helped by the bipartisan infrastructure package and American Jobs Plan in anticipation of their passage. Deliver directly to the people the news about what the Democratic Party is doing for them — and let them know it is their congressional delegations and Republican governors who are standing in the way of investments that would usher in a rural renaissance.
President Biden should deliver a speech, akin to the American Jobs Plan speech he delivered in Pittsburgh, laying out the next steps for his rural agenda — promising to follow through on his anti-competitiveness order, USDA actions, and other policies relevant to rural communities.
Throughout this all, President Biden should paint a stark picture to contrast his administration with the culture warriors on the far-right who have overwhelmed the Republican Party. Whereas he and Democrats have done what they can to support the safe reopening of local economies and protect children and teachers so schools may reopen safely, Republicans seem more interested in using the power of government to tie the hands of local authorities and businesses, unleashing the Delta variant and chaos in the name of loyalty to Donald Trump.
The year isn’t 1940 and President Biden isn’t FDR, but that does not mean the Democratic Party can or should abandon rural voters. On the contrary, from where I sit at One Country Project, we can only go up from here.