Skip to main content

Democrats’ Rural Problem in Wisconsin

Now that the state has fair election maps, the only thing stopping the left from flipping rural districts is themselves.

Jill Brunscheen, a Joe Biden supporter, attends a rally outside the Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry on September 21, 2020 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin., (Stephen Mature GettyImages-1228645113-1536x1033)

In 2022, Brad Pfaff was running for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, a mostly rural region encompassing western and central parts of the state. Pfaff, a state senator, comes from a farming family and has a resume full of Democratic and agricultural bona fides. His opponent, Derrick Van Orden, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on January 6, 2021. While photographs allegedly show him marching with the crowd toward the Capitol, he has denied that he entered the building.

Mere weeks before the election, national Democratic groups canceled scheduled TV advertisements for Pfaff’s campaign. Despite losing party support, Pfaff lost by only four points, outperforming both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the district in 2016 and 2020, respectively. 

“I’ve been very blunt—very blunt—with the Democratic leadership in the United States House of Representatives for walking away from the 3rd Congressional District,” Pfaff says. “I’ve been very blunt with the leadership in the state of Wisconsin with the Democratic Party that we need to be committed to the people, all the people, of this state, including our rural residents.”

In February, after a long, drawn-out legal fight, new legislative maps were signed into law in Wisconsin. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave both the new state legislature maps an “A” letter grade for partisan fairness; previous maps, enacted in 2011 and 2022, were given an “F,” and considered “some of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in the United States.”

The new maps and the fall election, where all state Assembly and Senate seats will be up for grabs, have generated a lot of optimism among Wisconsin’s Democrats. As Gloria Hochstein, chair of the Rural Caucus of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, put it in February, “Even in the few days we’ve had since we now know what the new maps look like, there has been a dramatic change in interest in running for office.”

“Two years ago, we were just frustrated,” Hochstein adds. “We almost had to force people to run for Assembly and Senate seats when they knew they were going to get trounced . . . . I think candidates and voters are thinking, ‘you know what? Maybe my vote will count now.’ ” 

Pfaff shares that optimism, albeit cautiously. He, like many other rural Democrats, believes there are opportunities for the party to grow in rural Wisconsin, but it will take some work. 

“Democrats can do a lot better in rural areas,” Pfaff says. “The first place they need to start is . . . to recognize that [Democrats] need to invest and appreciate and respect the people that live in rural Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin is not alone in witnessing a rural decline in Democratic support. Nicholas Jacobs is an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Maine and co-author of The Rural Voter, which is based on the survey responses of 10,000 rural residents across the country. According to Jacobs, Democratic candidates have been shedding rural votes since the 1980s. “Donald Trump is actually just a continuation of a trend,” Jacobs says. “[If] you draw a line since 1980, Trump does just a little bit better than he should have given that trend.”

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

The dynamics behind this decline, Jacobs argues, are multifaceted. But one common misunderstanding is the assumption that rural voters have fundamentally different concerns from the rest of the country.   

“A lot of the problems that rural people are confronting are problems that people outside of rural America are confronting, especially poor people,” she says. “Rural America, on average, is poorer than suburban and urban America, but there are deep pockets of poverty even in the suburbs [and], of course, in our major cities. And a lot of the anxieties and concerns and the motivations that have been driving a lot of rural politics are no different than those that are driving other geographic subgroups. Now they’re voting differently, which is, of course, very interesting.”

Jacobs points to two key differences that shape rural politics: First, rural voters tend to believe in meritocracy and that hard work is enough to be successful; and second, an awareness that, culturally, their communities are looked down upon. The latter is a particularly sensitive point because “rural people, by and large, love living in rural America.”

“As much as it’s called a ‘hellhole,’ a wasteland of alienation, economically collapsed, [and] socially disconnected, most rural Americans don’t want to leave,” Jacobs says. “There’s this pride there, and I think that’s what makes these cultural depictions especially noxious to many rural people.”

In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, historian and journalist Thomas Frank sought to understand why rural voters seemed to routinely vote against their economic interests. That question assumes that, at least to some extent, rural voters are being tricked by conservatives to vote against Democrats. But for Jacobs, the legacy of Democratic-led, pro-corporate reforms—such as the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton Administration—was significant in pushing rural voters away.    

“I’m not saying that conservatives or Republicans are guilt-free in any of that . . . . [Former USDA Secretary] Earl Butz under the Nixon Administration pursued agricultural consolidation just as aggressively as his Democratic predecessors,” Jacobs says. “But the idea that Democrats are somehow guilt-free in this, I don’t think is correct. And in one instance, they have a whole lot of baggage, which is the fact that it was a Democrat that signed NAFTA.”

Globalization and deindustrialization wrought havoc on rural communities, where residents tend to have lower incomes per capita than those in suburban or urban communities. Bill Hogseth, an organizer with GrassRoots Organizing in Western Wisconsin (GROWW), often goes door-to-door to canvas around local issues. He often hears from residents who say “their local economy sucks,” that “Main Street is hollowed out,” and “that there’s not a place where you can buy socks, we don’t have a hardware store anymore, things like that.” 

“The sense that we had from our conversations,” he adds, “is that people’s analysis is a lot less about right versus left, or Democrat versus Republican, and more towards top versus bottom . . . . that there’s an elite in our country, and that [this] elite is rigging the rules of the economy so that they benefit and that regular working people are not able to prosper.”

“And there’s also a feeling that ‘one party or the other, not a lot has changed in my town. Depending on who’s the President or who’s in the Senate, things are still getting harder and shittier for me and the people who I love regardless,’ ” Hogseth says. “And it’s to the point where you sense a lot of people are just tuning it out.”

One of the issues GROWW has been working on is water quality in proximity to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Multiple sources told The Progressive that issues and values such as local control, conservation, clean water, and reviving the rural economy could be keys to the Democratic Party reconnecting with these voters. 

But State Senator Jeff Smith, a Democrat who represents Eau Claire, Wisconsin, believes that good policy is not enough; candidates, Smith says, should also be authentic and open about their progressive values, even when talking to voters who disagree. Eau Claire has historically been home to competitive districts composed of half the city and the outlying rural areas. Smith lost two state Assembly races to Republican Representative Warren Petryk but flipped a GOP-gerrymandered district in 2019. 

“I win there because of the fact that I think I am considered pragmatic, but I am not somebody who deserts my progressive values,” Smith adds, noting that he’s advised many candidates to be themselves during their campaigns. “That’s what people really look for. They want a choice in their candidates, and we don’t always give them that choice. It’s thinking that, because [voters are] leaning one way, we’re going to have to really run to that side of the argument and then try to satisfy and win over people from that side. It just doesn’t work. I think that people appreciate when you give them a real, honest choice.”

Smith has an old 1999 farm truck fitted with a sign that he can flip out when it’s parked that says, “Stop and talk to State Sen. Jeff Smith.” He tries to publicize in advance where he’ll be so that voters or “anyone driving by or happens to see” can stop and talk to him.

“​​I’m a realist and always keep perspective,” Smith says. “What these maps do is give us an opportunity to be competitive.”

Smith believes that competitiveness will not only be good for Democrats but also Republicans and voters.

“Getting elected is a challenge,” Smith says. “It’s probably been good for me to have a different perspective than a lot of my colleagues who have been under a gerrymandered map for so long that even my Democratic colleagues . . . don’t really have to do all the things that I’ve just talked about: listening and considering other viewpoints. But now I think everyone will have to learn how to do that a little bit better, and I think that’s going to be good for everyone.”

Since 1909, The Progressive has aimed to amplify voices of dissent and those under-represented in the mainstream, with a goal of championing grassroots progressive politics. Our bedrock values are nonviolence and freedom of speech.

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, we publish on national politics, culture, and events including U.S. foreign policy; we also focus on issues of particular importance to the heartland. Two flagship projects of The Progressive include Public School Shakedown, which covers efforts to resist the privatization of public education, and The Progressive Media Project, aiming to diversify our nation’s op-ed pages. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.