Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi Heitkamp, the last Democrat to win a Senate race in North Dakota, stands with a duck call in 2018. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Will Democrats Ever Be Able to Win Back Rural America?

A generation ago, Democrats regularly won in North Dakota. Today, the party is nearly extinct in the state. What happened?
March 12, 2019, 8:13pm

Heidi Heitkamp is nearing the end of her remarks, and she’s tearing up, her voice trembling over the speakers in this Grand Forks, North Dakota, coffee shop.

It’s a Saturday in January. Just weeks ago, she was the state’s junior senator, a moderate Democrat in deep-red rural America. Now, after a long, acrimonious campaign—among the highest-profile ever in this sparsely populated state—that ended with her being soundly defeated by Republican Kevin Cramer, she’s telling a crowd of her supporters to keep fighting.


“We didn't win, but we did not lose. We did not lose because we're still standing, we're still working, and we're still engaging,” she says. “And that's what you remember. Losing is when you quit. Losing is quitting. And I'm not ready to quit.”

This is an important distinction for North Dakota’s Democrats, who have been losing election after election for years. But it’s surely a bitter pill for those who remember their party’s history. As recently as 1990, Democrats held both of North Dakota’s US Senate seats as well as its House seat and dominated state politics. Heitkamp herself was attorney general from 1992 to 2000, winning both her elections for that office with more than 60 percent of the vote.

But no more. Since the early 1990s, the party has lost the governorship, the entire congressional delegation, and 50 seats in the legislature, leaving the GOP with overwhelming majorities in both chambers. The 2016 Democratic US Senate candidate, Eliot Glassheim, raised a total of around $21,000 while incumbent Republican John Hoeven raised millions in what was never a competitive race. Donald Trump won the state with nearly 63 percent of the vote. Heitkamp’s defeat was just the last domino to fall; it could be a generation or more before Democrats’ power returns.

Heidi Heitkamp supporter

Ralph Honda, a retired letter carrier for the US Postal Service, listens while former Senator Heidi Heitkamp speaks at a coffee shop on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Photo by author

“I think now we understand that we are a conservative state,” state House Minority Leader Josh Boschee told me. “When Heidi Heitkamp can’t win North Dakota, someone who has been a bread-and-butter person for 30 years of her life here, everyone knows her, 99 percent name ID—but because she’s associated with the Democratic Party, she was not able to be sent back. By a large margin.”

Heitkamp is a useful avatar of Democrats’ decline here, but it’s hard to pinpoint a culprit for the party’s unraveling. There’s the success of the state’s oil industry. There’s the national party’s progressive reputation—on guns and abortion and more—that rural Democrats can’t outrun. There are questions about a changing media landscape, of shifts in farm politics. There are questions about race.


And as the 2020 campaign begins, that long list of factors has profound resonance beyond North Dakota’s borders. The Peace Garden State is almost certainly out of reach for Democrats in 2020, but it will be a tall task to win the White House without at least a handful of states in the heartland like Iowa or Ohio or Michigan. Those victories will still likely depend on votes from rural counties, places that in many ways resemble North Dakota.

“Take, for example, a state like Wisconsin, which is the kind of state the Democrats really need to win,” said David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College. Democrats will win plenty of votes in Milwaukee and Madison, he argued, but they’ll only win the state by forcing narrower GOP margins elsewhere.

That lends a sense of urgency to a simple question: What happened to North Dakota’s Democrats?

The newly elected Senator Cramer at times comes off as an accessible, folksy uncle. Other times, he can be head-turningly blunt, tangling with the national media over their perceived bias or calling #MeToo a “movement toward victimization.” He was an early endorser of Trump when Cramer was North Dakota’s House representative, and is now a strong supporter of a southern border wall—but he’s been less full-throated in his support of Trump’s trade practices, which have threatened North Dakota’s farm sector.

He’s now bespectacled, white-haired, and nearing 60, but he was there at the beginning—when North Dakota’s GOP, battered by losses and seeking relevance, began its nearly 30-year conquest. He came ready to fight.


In 1990, Cramer, then the state GOP director, found himself in a war of words with one of the state’s Democratic senators, who called him a “hired gun who belongs to the attack dog school of politics,” per a local press report. Cramer said he’d send the senator to his room for those remarks “if he were my son.” That pugnacity didn’t slow him down: In 1991, Cramer ascended to state party chairman; one local newspaper called him a “political pit bull.”

In 1992, the party’s big break came when Republican Ed Schafer won the governor’s mansion. Former Grand Forks Herald publisher Mike Jacobs blamed that outcome on a “fratricidal” Democratic primary. (Disclosure: I worked at the Herald from 2015 to 2018.) Jim Fuglie, who directed the state Democratic machine 1980s and 2000s, called it a “shitty” Democratic campaign. Schafer himself told me Democrats had grown too distant from the concerns of the state.

But all agree on one thing: Schafer’s victory was the birth of the modern North Dakota GOP. The new governor used appointments and the bully pulpit to launch careers and build the party’s political bench—including Cramer. Soon the future senator was a member of Schafer’s administration, first as tourism director, and later as the governor’s economic development chief.

Then came bigger changes.

The state grew wealthier, with average household income surging roughly $35,000 from 1990 to 2017. There was a massive oil boom, which generated mountains of tax money and drew a new industrial influence into the state’s politics. Many Republicans I spoke with credited their popularity to their party’s stewardship of the state in this period. Others see a fading recollection of the Democrats’ heyday.


“It died. I mean literally,” said Jacobs. “My parents’ generation died. They’re gone.”

The past 30 years have seen the state transformed, slowly shifting from populist farm politics toward a future with more industry. All the while, Cramer’s star has risen—to Congress in 2012, and now to the Senate.

“One (reporter) during the (2018) campaign said, ‘A lot of people say you were Donald Trump before Donald Trump,’” Cramer told me last month. “I don’t think my rhetoric has ever been quite as extreme, but it’s always been very honest. And I think what people who don’t understand Donald Trump misunderstand… is that people are attracted to his authenticity.”

North Dakota politics

The seal of North Dakota in the state capitol’s main hall.

North Dakota Democrats aren’t alone. Rural Democrats have begun slamming into an electoral wall throughout the Midwest, with marquee Senate losses last year in Indiana and Missouri. Yet in the early 1990s, eight of Indiana’s ten House representatives were Democrats. In Missouri, the same was true for six of its nine House members.

These states have turned red as the idea of who a Democrat is have changed. According to Pew, Democratic voters have become more diverse more quickly than Republicans since the late 1990s. Democratic voters are also increasingly more urban and educated than those supporting the GOP. A survey from 2017 showed the Democratic base had grown more liberal since 2000. Experts say the parties are realigning less around populism or big business, and more around ideas of culture and local values.


Those changes go back to at least the Bill Clinton years. Bo Wood, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Dakota, said the rise of conservative talk radio helped Republicans sweep through the 1994 midterms. Hopkins, of Boston College, said that during the 1990s, the evangelical right surged, and Republican arguments against the president “emphasized culture.”

“That left some, I think, long-term residue on where rural voters saw themselves in terms of the parties,” he said. “Trump amplified that, but it was happening before Trump came along. We can see it in the data—starting with the 2000 election, rural America just sort of keeps drifting towards the Republicans, and then there’s a big jump between 2012 and 2016.”

When I asked, many experts hesitated to draw a simple cause-and-effect relationship between Fox News and right-wing political power, often pointing out that the cable news channel could not have thrived if its content had not found an already-receptive audience. But Wood noted that partisan media can have an entrenching effect on voters’ beliefs, and a 2017 study demonstrated the channel’s ability to influence viewers. This is to say nothing of the degree to which the highly rated channel has become enmeshed with the Trump administration itself.

In addition, race has been one of the biggest architects of an increasing urban-rural divide, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Many white, rural Americans were “shocked” by the election of a black man to the presidency, he said, and the flames of that resentment were fanned by hardships of the Great Recession. (North Dakota has grappled with its own problems with race. In the 2016 fiscal year, it resettled the second-most refugees per capita of any state, stirring backlash that has at times veered into racist harassment. In interviews, multiple observers said North Dakotans’ views of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were affected by race.)


As the two parties became more culturally distinct, rural voters moved toward the GOP. And as the media landscape changed, conservative outlets found a receptive audience. That’s what has happened to middle America, in the broadest strokes.

The particulars get much messier, because ideas about the gerrymandering, economic changes and more can quickly become tangled together. I heard from many Republicans, for instance, that more sophisticated farming has lessened rural America’s reliance on government programs—and by extension, the Democrats who might tout them.

But the upshot is simple: In America, political fault lines are running deeper and deeper between cities and farm country.

Cramer has his own story about this from the campaign trail. When he visited New York City a “long-time Republican,” as Cramer put it, wondered if guns were really so common on the prairie as he’d been led to believe.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Do people really have (and) carry rifles in North Dakota?’ I was like, oh my gosh,” Cramer said, laughing. “It’s no wonder they don’t understand us, if they have to ask that question.”

Nowadays, Democratic campaigns are often dead on arrival in rural parts of the country. In North Dakota, Heitkamp lost by nearly 11 points, and that was the second-closest statewide race on the ballot. But there are a host of ways moderate Democrats see they can turn the trend around—and it’s not a matter of retreating on big issues.


When reporting this piece, one of the phrases I heard from rural Democrats was “kitchen table issues.” It’s their shorthand for the economic concerns faced by rural Americans, like healthcare costs or access to jobs or student loan debts. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan rattled off a list of things he’d like to see his fellow Democrats take more seriously, from small-town broadband to health care access.

“One of the criticisms that many people have of the Democratic campaign in 2016 was that there wasn’t a bus tour through rural Ohio,” he said. “There wasn’t really rural engagement. So if people are already suspicious of you, you just confirm that by not showing up.”

And the sum of that neglect can be costly. Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb called it a “cycle of mutual neglect.”

“We don’t invest in rural communities, and so they don’t turn out to vote for Democrats,” she said. “And because they don’t vote for Democrats, we don’t invest in rural communities.”

The 2020 primaries are well underway, with a dozen candidates in the race already. It’s unclear what their bus tours will look like, but the strategy is already looking radically different than 2016. “Do you remember the old days of the Democratic Party? Universal health care was controversial. Boasting about taxing the rich was political suicide. And socialism was a dirty word,” Lisa Lerer wrote in the New York Times last month. “It was a different time. It was three years ago.”

But beyond “kitchen table issues” are the thorny questions of the values that almost certainly cannot be bridged by healthcare reforms or student loan policy—from guns to abortion and more—and those make it far harder to imagine a party that can unite urban and rural voters.

It’s an issue I raised with State Representative Corey Mock, North Dakota’s former House minority leader. When I asked him to respond to urban Democrats, who are often frustrated with their rural counterparts’ take on marquee issues, he launched into a discussion on guns. He’s worried for his son’s safety at school, he said, but he mentioned his own concealed weapons permit and the state’s long hunting tradition.

“At the end of the day—and this sounds horrible—do you want to be right, or do you want to win?” he said. “You get into a rural state, a hunting state like North Dakota, and as soon as you hear the words ‘gun control’…. now it’s”—he clapped his hands—“you’re done.”