It’s still all about God and guns in the rural Midwest

Donald Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton in the Upper Mississippi River Valley for a straightforward reason

For the last two decades, rural America increasingly backed Republicans in presidential elections. But during most of that time, the Upper Mississippi River Valley — an area that includes northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin — remained steadfastly Democratic. Democrats’ success in these sparsely populated counties was sometimes referred to as the Upper Mississippi River Valley Anomaly

But something surprising happened in the 2016 election. Not only did Hillary Clinton lose to Donald Trump in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, she got clobbered there.

 Trump picked up eight counties in southeast Minnesota that Obama won in 2012, enough to get him within 1 percentage point of claiming a state few thought he had a chance of winning. In southwest Wisconsin, Trump lost just two counties four years after Mitt Romney won only one, a flip of roughly a dozen counties.

More than 30 Iowa counties flipped from Obama to Trump, the most of any state. Only one of the 20 or so counties in northeast Iowa voted for the Republican nominee in 2012. In 2016, all but one did.

And in Illinois, a cluster of 11 counties in the northwest part of the state voted for Obama in 2012, helping him win his home state comfortably. But in 2016, all those counties save one voted for Trump.

Two Upper Mississippi River Valley counties are among the nine featured in The Race to 2020. Trump flipped Howard County, in northeast Iowa, by 42 points and Trempealeau County, in western central Wisconsin, by 26 points.

These dramatic shifts had something to do with Donald Trump’s unique ability to attract the votes of working class whites. But after spending five weeks talking with people in Howard and Trempealeau counties, I found that they also had a lot to do with a Democratic Party whose values and priorities no longer resonate with rural voters.

 The Upper Mississippi River Valley is full of agricultural communities whose residents value faith, family and a more traditional way of life. Many people in these places say the Democratic Party has become too liberal.

Trempealeau County resident Bob Kopp, a Republican, said you can talk to people in any bar in the county and their conservative values are quickly apparent. They value tradition, faith, hard work and law and order, he said. 

Howard County resident Joe Wacha said that although he is a registered Democrat, he voted for Trump because today’s Democratic Party isn’t the party he knew growing up. Today’s Republican Party, he said, is “more like the way the Democratic Party was 30 or 40 years ago.”

I asked Laura Hubka, who chairs the Democratic Party in Howard County, and Kathy Vinehout, who for the last decade has represented parts of Trempealeau and eight other mostly rural counties in the Wisconsin state Senate, to talk about what Democrats must do to compete again in the rural Midwest.

Both mentioned guns and hunting as a crucially important to people in the region. Hubka lamented that many progressives want to impose purity tests on their candidates and worried that they will try to push the party too far to the left. “The people that are purists on the progressive side of the party [are] saying, ‘This is our platform, if you’re a candidate and you’re okay with guns, we don’t want to support you.’ [But] it’s Iowa. People have guns, you know?”

State Sen. Vinehout, who was a full-time dairy farmer before getting elected to state office, also identified guns as a crucial issue for most western Wisconsin voters. “Hunting is just a huge part of my world,” she said when I met her at her office in the Wisconsin state capitol.

“I heard over and over again from the election judges that if Hillary won, people would not be able to fill their freezer. This is really important in a rural area, because people do hunt for food, and they have for generations. It’s not just Republicans… .That’s the way people live, so I think that’s important part of the culture.”

I asked Vinehout whether the Democrats’ extreme stance on abortion alienates voters in her district. “Do we need to rethink how we talk about these issues? I think it would be helpful,” she replied. “I think it’s right to honor where people are, and these are conversations that I’ve had for 15 years with people who have a much more nuanced view about issues like choice and abortion.” Vinehout suggested that it would be advantageous for Democrats to return to Bill Clinton’s stated desire to make the practice “safe, legal and rare.”

A few Democrats seem to have learned something from the 2016 and are trying to recruit more conservative candidates to run for office. There is an effort to revive the Blue Dog Caucus, a group of moderate Democrats in Congress whose membership shrunk to nearly zero in the Obama era.

But all the energy in the Democratic Party is with progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison, who seem averse to moderation. It’s hard to imagine them altering their positions on gun control or abortion, or even ending their purity tests on these issues for candidates seeking office in rural areas of the county.

Next: Understanding Donald Trump Voters

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