PHILADELPHIA – It is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, but the farmers who support it are getting harder and harder to find.
Debra Hogenson and her husband farmed in Nobles County for more than 40 years before they recently retired, and this year she is the sole farmer in the DFL’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
When her husband became ill and had to give up managing the operation, she took over and was shocked to hear the animosity toward DFLers at meetings of other farmers. Jokes about President Obama and Hillary Clinton flew around with gusto: “There was a deep dislike among farmers for Democrats, and I was appalled they would be so blatant,” she said.
The DFL’s struggle to win votes among farmers and agricultural communities is not surprising, given a decadeslong national phenomenon of rural communities moving into the Republican column.
The DFL has successfully delayed the trend somewhat — to a point. In 2014, Republicans flipped 11 seats — 10 of them outstate — to win the majority in the state House. Although they know winning farmers will be difficult, the DFL hopes to run up margins in smaller cities to win back a few of those seats, as they chase the seven they need to win back the majority.
“I’m not going to try to spin you. We have some issues with a declining vote share in greater Minnesota, and we have to fix that,” said Ken Martin, the DFL Party chairman. He said Republicans have successfully pitted outstate against the metro region.
Hogenson has been politically active since 1972, a feminist considered an oddball when she kept her name after marriage. When they wanted to put her name on the property deed, the bank insisted on calling her by her husband’s name, and then, “aka Debra Hogenson.”
This is her first national convention, one she badly wanted to attend given her feminist roots and the historic nature of the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to receive a major party’s nod.
Also, her husband suffers from Lewy body dementia, so she is in a hurry.
As for why farmers have turned away from Democrats, Hogenson said she has given the matter a lot of thought. There are the faith-based social issues on which farmers disagree with the more urban DFL.
Plus, agriculture has changed, she said. Razor-thin margins mean any interference from the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Labor, no matter how necessary, can be crippling and can embitter farmers, she said.
She also said it is cultural: Farm communities are cohesive, meaning they pull together to help one another. But they also brook no dissent from people like her who wanted to keep her name, even before people were regularly doing that kind of thing in the Twin Cities, let alone in Nobles County, in the far southwestern corner of the state.
Hogenson said DFL candidates need to show up in farm communities and make the case that they want to create a high quality of life for all Minnesotans — armed with data showing rural communities get more in state tax revenue than they put in — to counter GOP attempts to drive a wedge between outstate and the metro.
She also wants the DFL to focus on organizing newly diverse communities, such as Latinos who work in the farm economy.
Although she understands that most resources go where the voters live in the densely packed cities and suburbs, she said that is shortsighted: “It will give us wins for governor and senator, but it won’t help us win back the statehouse.”