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How Democrats Can Run and Win in Rural Areas

Democrats have overlooked and underestimated rural America for years. Chloe Maxmin proved rural voters are worth fighting for, and has a message for progressives.

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Produced and Edited by Joshua Miller-Lewis and Sam Quigley

Progressive Chloe Maxmin is showing how Democrats can win in rural America. She unseated a top Republican in a rural district in the most rural state in the U.S., then passed one of the 1st state-level Green New Deal bills. We spoke with Chloe to hear what Democrats can learn from her success. Below is a full transcript of the video.

Chloe Maxmin: Nationwide, progressives have a rural problem. If you look at an old picture of me you might not believe that I’d be interested in trying to solve this problem. Many in the mainstream Democratic Party believe that you have to look like a parody of a rural person, like you just shot a buck, to win as a Democrat in rural areas. Others believe that you have to compromise your values and look like you just shot a piece of climate legislation. They’re both wrong. 

This is the story of how my campaign manager Canyon Woodward and I won two elections in rural districts in the most rural state in the country, Maine. One time beating a rural Republican incumbent. 

[News clip]: Tonight we highlight the state’s youngest female legislator, 29 year old Senator Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro. 

Chloe: While in office, I passed one of the first state-level Green New Deal bills in the country. We join a movement of young progressives in rural America fighting for change. If we want to win on climate and everything else that we care about, the Democratic Party needs to learn from our new rural road map. 

[News clip of Chuck Todd]: Taking a look at election results over the past few decades it shows us a flashing warning sign for Democrats as the Nation’s urban-rural divide has deepend. 

Chloe: The mainstream Democratic Party has all but abandoned rural places. Just over a decade ago, in about 2009, rural voters had no partisan lean, Republican or Democrat. But today, rural voters are going 16 points Republican. I think there’s a theme, especially at the national level and within the national Democratic Party that kind of looks down on rural Americans and there are some really infamous examples. 

[Video clip of Hillary Clinton]: You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. 

Chloe: Rural folks are seeing that and understanding that. You know, I have a voice memo from 2018 where I talk about how “Democrat” is a bad word in rural places. A lot of times it ends the conversation. It’s a pattern that’s been developing over decades and that we haven’t really confronted at the grassroots level, across the country. 

The biggest secret to our electoral and policy success? We actually talked to people and built relationships. Every single day of our first campaign, I drove down dirt roads, knocked on doors, and talked to people who had said they’d never been contacted by a Democrat before. These dirt roads were a huge abandoned space for a new politics to emerge. I think the biggest lesson that I learned was the act of listening. And it sounds so simple and I think that it’s a skill that I have learned throughout the 20,000 doors that we’ve knocked in the past two cycles. 

I was canvasing in 2018, I turned down this one driveway, and I could see the owner and a bunch of his friends in the garage working on their snowmobiles, and he said “I just have one question: do you believe in Medicaid expansion?” And I said yes. And he just kind of pointed away and said, you can leave now. I literally said, hold on just a second. Can you just explain to me what you’re thinking? I’d just love to hear your thoughts, even if you don’t vote for me. And he told me this amazing story that still gives me goosebumps to this day about how he grew up in the same house that he lived in without any electricity or running water and he’s built everything for himself. And part of that life for him means buying your own healthcare. 

While I don’t agree with all of the narrative, you know, I have so much empathy and understanding. So we had that conversation together and he ended up voting for me. And it was just such an incredible example of how withholding judgement and kind of just disarming a conversation, taking away that pressure of asking for a vote, how that can open up all of this space for something real. 

In January 2020 I had already started to knock on doors but a few months later COVID hit and we decided to pivot all of that infrastructure towards mutual aid. We provided rides, people still needed to get to the doctor and go to chemotherapy, but they didn’t have any way to get there. We connected them with local food resources. We would facilitate prescription pickups. There was one woman who couldn’t go to the library to read the news and so one of our volunteers bought her a subscription to the New York Times. 

We called people of every single political persuasion and that network still continues to this day. It was a pretty interesting model for how campaigns can really be used to benefit the community. 

When I first got elected in 2018 I really wanted all of my legislation to come straight from my community. I rarely heard people talk about climate change in my community. I didn’t hear them say those words exactly, but what I did hear was so many of our farmers say, ‘it’s so tough to farm now because I can’t depend on the rain,’ and the people who grew up in Maine, we can’t ice fish every winter because the ice just isn’t what it used to be. And we’re really worried about having good jobs in sustainable industries in rural places. And so to me it was really just about translating progressive work into this rural context because we’re not that far apart, we just talk about it in really different ways. 

Our Green New Deal for Maine did two simple but important things. It created quotas for apprentices on large-scale renewable energy projects. So, renewable energy development in Maine trains a skilled workforce and makes good-paying green jobs available long term. It also provided resources for schools that are looking to transition to solar energy. The part about apprentices in the Maine Green New Deal really came from the incredible work of the unions, and they deserve all of the credit for it. I was merely a conduit.

I heard so much from people who, they want to come to Maine, but they don’t know if they’re going to have a workforce in the state. And I also heard from so many young folks who want to be able to stay and work in Maine but don’t know if they’re going to be able to make a living. And so we were trying to solve that problem a little bit. I think it was the second conversation that we had about the bill, you know, the unions were there at the table and that’s the sort of labor-climate movement solidarity that we need in order to achieve the vision of a Green New Deal across the country. 

As with most things in politics, our original bill got watered down. We lost three other parts of the bill. But I’m only one elected official. Our success can offer a roadmap, but we do need to go down the dirt roads and talk to rural America, electing dozens of candidates and passing dozens of bills. What if we saw every campaign as an opportunity to rebuild and transform both our policies and our communities?

Videography by Sam Eilertsen

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