As the 2022 congressional midterms approach, there is no shortage of hand-wringing among Democrats worried that a Republican landslide is looming, just two years after voters elected Joe Biden and gave his party control of both the House and (barely) the Senate.
But now comes a clear-headed analysis by a Democratic Maine state senator and her campaign manager, who offer what they call a ”tough-love” diagnosis and prescription to their party. In their soon-to-be released book, “Dirt Road Revival,’’ state Sen. Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward deliver sharp criticism of Democrats, and offer lessons from Maxmin’s successful campaigns in a conservative state House district in 2018 and a state Senate district two years later.
“The Democratic Party has forsaken rural America, relinquishing a tremendous amount of political power that has left our fight for social justice on the brink of despair,’’ they write. “Yet we managed to win two campaigns in Republican-leaning districts.’’
The authors had what they call a “front-row seat” to learn how Democrats “simply ignored’’ voters in their rural districts. They say the Democratic Party is condescending. It relies too often on cookie-cutter campaigns that use out-of-state political professionals rather than locals who know the territory. They say the party spends far too much money squeezing liberal loyalists’ votes out of urban and suburban districts, rather than trying to persuade independents and Republicans to come on over.
But most of all, they say Democrats have failed to listen to rural voters of all parties.
“We found that people from all across the political spectrum share one thing in common: a deep distrust of politics and a profound frustration with not having their voices heard in our government. We have more in common than we believe, but we can only discover the common ground when we take the time to show up, to listen, and to respect one another,’’ they write.
Maxmin was 25 years old when she won in Trump country, capturing the District 88 House seat in 2018. The Midcoast district had never elected a Democrat. Two years later she won a state Senate race in the same area, beating Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow in a tough year for Maine Democrats; Republican Sen. Susan Collins won re-election and Democrats lost seats in the state House. Biden did win the majority of Maine’s votes in 2020, though Donald Trump, as he did in 2016, picked up one of the state’s four electoral college votes.
The Midcoast districts that Maxmin won in 2018 and 2020 include several Republican-leaning towns in Lincoln County — Jefferson, Waldoboro and Nobleboro among them — but the authors say their door-knocking, face-to-face campaigning made the difference.
Their ground-level political operation sounds like a community organizer’s dream. It featured colorful, homemade placards. House parties. Meetings at the North Nobleboro Community Center and local grange halls. Calls to elderly voters to check in during the pandemic. And lots and lots of individual door knocking; Maxmin says she knocked on more than 20,000 doors in the two campaigns.
Many of the voters she encountered were independents and Republicans — neighbors and friends, as well as strangers she met on canvassing trips through the district. Some voters told them that a candidate had never before stopped to listen to them, much less shown up at their door.
Time and again, Maxmin and Woodward return to the “wisdom of rural folks’’ in contrast with “Tesla-driving Silicon Valley technocrats and wealthy suburbanites.’’
“Strong threads of independence and interdependence form the thick fabric of these communities. Folks are divided politically but share an overwhelming frustration and disillusionment with a politics that has failed to support their basic needs.’’
Maxmin says she grew up on her family farm in Nobleboro, and Woodward is from North Carolina. But they also bring liberal bonafides. They both attended Harvard. Maxmin helped found Divest Harvard, a campaign that forced Harvard to unload its investments in fossil fuel stocks. She campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders and progressive candidates in Maine.
She and Woodward argue that it’s the Vermont senator’s genuine, straightforward approach that wins votes as much as his policies – and here they draw a comparison to Trump.
As much as they dislike Trump and his politics, they say that both the former president and Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, are seen by voters as “authentic.’’
“Over and over again, we heard voters express a desire for candidates who are not cut from the same cloth and don’t represent politics as usual,’’ Maxmin and Woodward write. Quoting a campaign advisor, they say the Democratic Party churns out look-alike candidates from a “factory’’ who say the same thing every two to four years. Voters are sick of it.
The subtitle of their book is “How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why our Future Depends on it,” and Maxmin and Woodward spend the last half of the text on what amounts to a handbook for other candidates. She has announced she’s not running for re-election. They have formed a nonprofit that aims to help Democrats learn how to better campaign in rural districts, with an initial focus on races in Maine this year.
Maine’s Democratic governor Janet Mills enters the summer and the campaign that follows with some legislative victories, including $850 relief checks and free tuition at community college for Mainers. She will face off against former Gov. Paul LePage.
Interestingly, Maxmin says voters she speaks with would prefer that $850 be targeted at people and programs who need it. “I didn’t talk to one single person who wanted those $850 checks,’’ she said in an interview.
In the recently completed session, Maxmin successfully pushed “Good Samaritan” legislation that would grant broader legal protection to someone at the scene of an overdose if they provide aid to the victim. With striking numbers of overdoses, that’s a bill that would have an impact in rural Maine and around the state, she says.
As for the national party, Maxmin says she’s calling for it to be accountable to its values. She gives Biden a B-minus, and says the rural initiatives he has proposed haven’t gotten through to her voters. But she also wants him to seek re-election.
Despite their success in one rural part of Maine, the Democrats are in a hole nationally. Over the past few decades, they’ve steadily lost state legislative races across the US. Working class voters have left the party as structural changes in the economy have hit hard. Democrat politicians also have a knack for the self-inflicted wound, whether it’s Hillary Clinton dismissing Trump voters as “deplorables” or some Democrats’ call to “defund” the police. Biden and the Democrats get little credit for bills they passed, and radicalized Republicans in Washington and elsewhere worked to block his Build Back Better act, among other initiatives.
The book by Maxmin and Woodward is landing just as activists and political pundits are turning more attention to the congressional races, and the critique is already drawing attention outside Maine. The authors are about to launch a press and public speaking tour. Their message could resonate as Democrats nationally try to figure out how to improve their situation.