When Beto O’Rourke was running for the U.S. Senate in 2018, he made a point of visiting every county in Texas — which meant the Democratic candidate spent an inordinate amount of time in sparsely-populated counties that had voted 80% — a few even 90% — or more for Donald Trump. O’Rourke jokes that those counties glow so red you can see them from outer space; nevertheless, his campaigning there became part of his political identity: Here was a different kind of Democrat, one who would not write off rural voters.
At the time of one of O’Rourke’s earlier Virginia stops, we said that he ought to make a point of visiting the most pro-Trump county in the state — Bland County, where 82% of voters cast a ballot for Trump. To our amazement, last Friday O’Rourke strolled into the Sunoco station in Bland — past the Donald Trump hats and shirts for sale — to meet about two dozen local Democrats crammed into the Bland Square diner in the back.
O’Rourke has a hard time articulating why he should be the nominee. He’s a personable fellow, perhaps even charismatic in some ways. He gives a good speech about standard Democratic talking points, but it’s a speech that any of the other Democratic candidates could also give.
But O’Rourke is absolutely right that Democrats need to spend more time talking to rural voters. Democrats have done just fine winning in Virginia without worrying about, say, Bland County, or rural voters more generally. Other states, though, have a different urban/suburban/rural mix and there, rural voters matter more. If Hillary Clinton had run just a few percentage points better among rural voters in North Carolina and Florida, she’d be president. If O’Rourke were the party’s nominee, he’d certainly not make the Clinton mistake of never visiting Wisconsin. Trump delights in dividing Americans, appealing only to his base. O’Rourke very symbolically makes a point of reaching out — one reason why he might make a reassuring and potentially popular general election candidate.
It’s unclear, though, whether O’Rourke has anything to say to rural voters other than he knows they’re there. In Bland, O’Rourke spoke only to local Democrats — and the staff at the restaurant. Nor did he really have a message specifically crafted to them. On the one hand, he didn’t pander to them. On the other hand, O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have a policy for how to deal with what economists call “the great divergence” between the rural economy and the rest of the country in the post-industrial age. The candidate with the best plan is actually Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is even younger than O’Rourke but brings far more policy heft. Still, O’Rourke has set a standard that we’d like to see other candidates emulate: Who will be the next candidate to come to Bland, and what will he or she have to say?