“There is no secret sauce!” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., laughed. During a brief interview after his appearance at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference on Wednesday, the burly farmer with a buzz haircut told me there is no mystery as to how to appeal to rural voters. In fact, he thinks rural America is “there for the taking” if Democrats do their work in 2020.
Tester was re-elected in 2018, a tough year for Senate Democrats, who lost in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri. If he doesn’t exactly have the secret sauce, Tester did give conference attendees some sound advice.
He began his remarks to the leading progressive think tank with the admonition “You shall reap what you sow.” What should Democrats be doing? Tester said, “In rural America, you should start by listening.” If they don’t show up they won’t win. “It’s a huge mistake to pull rural America off the map,” he warned.
Tester said that the No. 1 issue for rural America is health care. Medicaid expansion now serves about 10 percent of his state’s population. President Donald Trump’s threat to eliminate the Affordable Care Act would have been a calamity for rural voters, and for hospitals. A rural hospital closes and the town around it dies, he said. (It’s a good reminder that, when talking about health-care plans, the candidates should keep in mind the profile of a rural voter who not only worries about cost, but about access to providers.)
Education is also high on the list in rural America. Tester declared, “Nothing done more to make this country the leader of the world than a public education.” The administration siphons off money for charter schools, which aren’t plentiful in rural areas. That leaves the public schools worse off. And college affordability, he told the conference crowd, is just as much an issue as it is in urban and suburban parts of the country.
Tester talked about Trump in terms of broken promises. “His handshake is worth nothing,” he observed, whether it is a promise to strike an infrastructure deal or in international affairs. “Our trading partners and allies say, ‘No way. We want nothing to do with him.’ ” Tester counseled Democrats that qualities such as honesty count for a lot. In a nervy swipe at the far left, he said that these voters don’t buy “jobs for everybody, totally free education for everybody”; they just don’t think these are possible. (Not coincidentally, presidential candidates from rural states — such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — intuitively get this.)
During our conversation, Tester told me that Trump voters impacted by tariffs aren’t yet furious with the president over tariffs, or at least they don’t say so. “Maybe internally” they’re fretting, but Tester said the breaking point may come in the fall “when the bills are due.” The payments to farmers don’t make up for lost markets and reduced commodity prices. “What you get from the government never makes up for what you lost,” he observed. Moreover, payments to soy bean farmers, for example, leaves others out in the cold. He told me, “You know wheat got hit … and what about the guy who owns the import shop?” The result of continued economic stress will be further consolidation of big agriculture and the end of the family farmer, he predicted.
Tester had advice on two other topics for Democrats. On national security, “Trump can puff up his chest … [but] he’s been flat-out horrible.” Pulling troops to go to the border where they aren’t needed and raiding defense funds leave us less safe, he argued. It’s a good message for Democrats who, at times, seem allergic to any discussion of foreign policy.
When it comes to climate change, it’s a matter of how you phrase it, Tester cautioned. Talk about climate change — Tester wrinkled his nose, anticipating the kind of response you would get — and the conversation ends in red states. Talk, however, about being fiscally responsible, not sabotaging your own economy, and you might get a different response.
Democrats who are thinking “What does Tester know? We’re not winning Montana in the presidential,” should think twice. In the primary, Iowa is make-or-break for many of the 23 candidates, and in the general election, Democrats will need states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan — which means not letting Republicans run up the score in farm country. The Democratic nominee might be smart to bring Tester along.
And speaking of the Democratic nomination, Tester promised to make an endorsement in the next few weeks. It would be a surprise if it’s not Bullock, his home state governor, whom Tester says has done a “great job” on issues such as campaign finance reform).
If conference attendees and other progressives are smart, they’ll take Tester’s advice: Show up, don’t promise what you cannot deliver and remember, as he told the audience, “Neither side has all the answers, but Democrats have good ones.”