Sunday, June 29, 2014

Courting the rural vote in Senate races, from Alaska to Arkansas

Jeremy Peters reports in the New York Times today from Napaskiak, Alaska, population 405, where Mark Begich, the U.S. Senator from Alaska was recently campaigning for votes among Alaska Natives.  The headline is "Past Road's End, Democrats Dig for Native Votes," and Peters reports that Democrats have never been able to rely on the Native vote in Alaska, where for years that vote went to long-serving Republican Senator Ted Stevens.  Indeed, the lede is
No roads go this deep into the tundra, especially not for Democrats.
* * *
Native populations are one of the most important but least understood constituencies for the Democratic Party, and as Alaska has shown, they do not predictably break for one party or the other.
Nevertheless, Begich won the rural vote by five percentage points in 2008, and Alaska Native turnout is expected to be higher this year because an Alaska Native, Byron Mallott, is the Democratic nominee for governor.

Peters explains the increased significance of the rural and Alaska Native vote this year--not only in Alaska, but for the nation:
Unlikely as it may seem, Democrats consider tiny tribal villages like this one — about 60 miles upriver from the Bering Sea, with a population a little over 400 — so vital to their tenuous majority in the United States Senate that they are building a vast outreach operation here and across rural Alaska. 
Speaking of people--and places--that are not understood by outsiders, I like Peters's effort to describe the socio-spatial milieu, as with this quote from local Vivan Korthuis:
It’s really hard to describe to people how we live here; we don’t even have cement [because the freezing and thawing would shatter it].  When I went to school on the East Coast, it was like describing living on the moon.
But Peters's story doesn't end with the importance of the Native vote in Alaska, where Natives are one fifth of the population.  Peters also touches on the significance of the American Indian vote in recent Senatorial races in North Dakota and in Montana (where American Indians are 6.5% of the voting age population), and he explains what Democrats are doing to shore up this vote in the current election cycle:
The effort [in Alaska], like a similar one aimed at Native Americans in Montana, will involve 130 workers in five new field offices spread out across a land mass roughly twice the size of Texas — from here in the state’s southwest to north of the Arctic Circle. 
Working with local chiefs and community leaders, they will undertake the kind of face-to-face campaigning that is so critical in remote areas, where votes are won not with attack ads or automated phone calls but the old-fashioned way: by visiting people at their homes, registering those who have never voted and persuading as many of them as possible to mail ballots in early.
Peters notes that Obama recently visited Indian country in North Dakota, the first President to do so since Bill Clinton in 1999.

This attention to the American Indian and Alaska Native vote has necessarily required more federal attention to issues of concern to these populations, and though Peters doesn't mention it specifically, that necessarily includes rural development.

As for what is happening outside Alaska and the West, Peters mentions rural constituencies in Arkansas and North Carolina.  In the former state, Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor is using a "network of field offices and volunteers who will fan out in less-populated, heavily African-American areas" in the southern and eastern parts of the state.  Kay Hagan of North Carolina is targeting farmers in that state's rural northeast.

As for the overall significance of the rural vote to control of the Senate, Peters writes:
The field work needed to win in the rural states that hold the key to control of the Senate next year inverts the election model Democrats so often rely on to win. Especially in Alaska, Arkansas and Montana, the party’s base is not conveniently concentrated in cities surrounded by a sea of more Republican-leaning areas.

No comments: