‘We Always Lose the Messaging War’: Democrats Worry Biden’s Plans Not Reaching Rural Voters

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WASHINGTON — If Jacquelyne Leffler lived a few miles down the road, it would be easy to connect to the internet. Instead, it’s a daily struggle that impedes her business.

“I have horrible internet. I sit approximately 10 miles from fiber in every direction and I don’t think it’ll ever come to us,” said Leffler, who runs a cattle farm outside Americus, a Kansas town of roughly 900 people.

Leffler and many other Americans in rural communities have been waiting for years for broadband service, a need that neither political party has yet delivered for her area.

“I don’t care who does it at this point. I just need it,” she said.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which passed the Senate in August, would steer $65 billion toward improving and expanding broadband with a stated goal of delivering reliable high-speed internet to every household in the nation, a promise he made as a presidential candidate.

It’s just one part of what advocates say is an overlooked feature of the president’s broader agenda, a spending plan that could deliver hundreds of billions of dollars in investment to rural regions for programs such as increased access to child care and cleaner drinking water.

Those proposals are tied up in a pair of bills that represent trillions of dollars in proposed federal spending and nearly the whole of Biden’s domestic agenda. Whether Congress passes the two bills remains an open question as negotiations between competing factions in Biden’s party have dragged on for months.

But as rural development strategists and Democrats tout the proposals, they also express frustration that the party, including the president, haven’t done more to promote the benefits for rural Americans.

Even if the party does move Biden’s agenda through Congress, they say, Democrats have a lot of work ahead of them to win over a region of the country that played a small but key role in the president’s victory over former President Donald Trump during the 2020 election.

“We always lose the messaging war,” said Heidi Heitkamp, former Democratic senator from North Dakota. “And we need to get better at it.”

Together the two bills seek to deliver on the plan from Biden’s 2020 campaign, which pledged to steer economic development dollars to rural communities through a new Rural Partnership Program, shore up an unreliable electrical grid, ensure access to clean water and subsidize child care, a major issue for working parents in rural areas who often travel long distances for their jobs.

Democrats say the president’s agenda represents the kind of significant and broad investment they think is necessary to help reverse the region’s steady population decline, especially with programs that disproportionately benefit younger families and the poor in rural areas. It isn’t enough to expand internet access without additional help.

“Being able to stream Netflix isn’t going to be the answer to building back rural America,” said Heitkamp, who now runs a group that helps the Democratic Party navigate rural issues and politics. “We have to build back services into rural America, and especially for young families.”

Several experts also pointed to Biden’s proposed $5 billion Rural Partnership Program as a key example of how the administration is responding to the unique needs of those communities.

A senior administration official called it a “bottom-up approach,” which will enable rural communities to craft plans based on their local resources. “It’s intentionally flexible to allow communities to be in the driver’s seat,” the official said.

Rural communities often struggle to qualify for existing federal grants because of a lack of matching funds or because the community’s needs transcend multiple federal agencies, experts said. But Biden’s proposal would offer flexible funding for locally led projects.

“I think it’s a smart approach because it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach for different communities with different histories, different legacies, different natural assets, different human assets,” said Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution.

“This partnership program is really a game-changer,” said Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited, a rural development organization which serves communities in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee — states which represent 45% of the nation’s federally designated persistent poverty counties.

Polonius said the Biden administration reached out to her and other rural development leaders during the transition process and has regularly sought their input on how to ensure programs work for rural communities. “They want to make sure that the funding actually gets into the communities that need it the most,” Polonius said.

Republicans, however, point to the price tag as a reason that rural voters should be skeptical of Biden’s agenda.

“I feel like the White House is going to give rural America $10 but take back $100 in return,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who noted that proposed tax changes to pay for the programs could adversely affect family farms. “When you put all this together — the tax consequences — it’s too expensive.”

Biden won only 10% of the nation’s rural counties during last year’s election, according to the Brookings Institution. But in many of those places, he held support steady or slightly better than the performance of former Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Democratic data firm Catalist, in a post-election analysis published this spring, found that Biden won 33% of the overall rural vote, a percentage point better than the 32% Clinton won. The small but important shift helped Biden achieve narrow victories in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, where he won by fewer than two percentage points.

But even if Biden’s proposed agenda would help non-metropolitan areas, Democrats say voters in the region aren’t yet responding to it. The substance is there, they say, but not the message.

“That’s one of the biggest struggles we’re seeing right now from the Democratic Party and from this administration,” said J.D. Scholten, a former Democratic congressional candidate from rural Iowa. “What they are saying is not getting to people’s ears, at least ears out here.”

The senior administration official pointed to weekly meetings with rural organizations through the White House Office of Public Engagement and to on-the-ground events and radio interviews by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as ways the administration was spreading its message.

Matt Hildreth, executive director of RuralOrganizing.org, a national network of rural progressives, said many rural voters don’t see the connection between federally funded programs that are administered at the local level and the party voting to enact them.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is that the money is flowing through the states and through the counties. And so, you know, (Republican Gov.) Kim Reynolds in Iowa doesn’t have a lot of motivation in terms of telling voters what Joe Biden is doing for the state,” Hildreth said.

Hildreth said Democrats need to highlight how the programs in the two bills will affect rural voters.

“Can you imagine the press events Trump would do with half of the policy chops on this? Like, if Trump was doing this, it would be, you know, they would have had an entire national tour for rural voters,” Hildreth said.

Polonius said that it will require trusted local voices to sell the programs to a skeptical rural audience once Congress passes the bills.

“We’re probably not going to start messaging until this is actually passed. We’re not going to start raising expectations and have nothing to show for it,” Polonius said. “Otherwise it just backfires.”

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