Stanton, Iowa – A sign just west of this small town instructs drivers how to find it, in a mix of Swedish and English: "Valkommen till Stanton. Next Paved Exit."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent about 90 minutes in this town of 637 people last week, talking to a half-dozen local leaders about the lack of reliable broadband internet in southwestern Iowa's Montgomery County. The Democratic candidate for president showed the kind of fluency with small-town concerns that has helped her again and again defy her party's declining fortunes in rural America.
"I'm really focused on improving access to the internet in rural areas and small towns," Klobuchar told the group, between bites of a slice of Casey's pizza. "We want kids who grow up in small towns to be able to stay here, and they can't do that without the internet."
Klobuchar's latest trip to Iowa, which holds the first presidential vote of 2020 with its Feb. 3 caucus, saw a focus on rural life. The day before she headed back to the state, Klobuchar unveiled the biggest proposal of her campaign so far: a $1 trillion infrastructure plan paid for by a 4 percent increase in the U.S. corporate tax rate. Among other goals, it aims to bring high-speed internet to every U.S. home by 2022.
On Saturday, Klobuchar joined a handful of other Democratic candidates in northwestern Iowa's Storm Lake for the Heartland Forum. The discussion turned on what Democrats need to do to win a bigger share of votes in parts of the country beset by flagging economic fortunes, little affordable housing, dwindling health care options, inferior technology, declining infrastructure and population loss.
"I think it's important to have a candidate from the Midwest who can talk about these Midwestern issues," Klobuchar said at the forum. She talked about the need to break up corporate consolidation in agribusiness, boost access to mental health services in rural areas, battle climate change and its implications for agricultural land, and preserve farming as a way of life.
"It's not just earning a living. It's your whole life," Klobuchar said.
In 2016, President Donald Trump tallied huge winning margins in rural counties nationwide, gearing his message to "forgotten Americans." He won 62 percent of the vote in America's small towns and rural areas.
An analysis by the Kentucky-based nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies following the election found an 8 percent jump in rural support for Republicans from the 2004 to the 2016 presidential elections.
"There's a growing chorus of Democrats who just want to write off rural America, and I don't think that's realistic to be a viable national party," said Matt Barron, a Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist highly critical of the party's efforts in rural America. He said he's long found it difficult to persuade Democratic donors to invest in things like ads on rural radio networks and weekly newspapers, despite the often low cost.
Barron said Republicans have benefited from the social conservatism of rural voters, who can be put off by Democratic positions on gun rights, abortion and same-sex marriage. That's despite the fact that, in Barron's opinion, Democratic economic policies would tend to favor the higher concentrations of low-income and elderly residents in rural areas.
Strong in greater Minnesota
In Stanton, Klobuchar was asked why Democrats have suffered with rural voters.
"As you know, I have not," she responded, noting her winning margins in large parts of rural Minnesota in three statewide elections. She said too many Democratic candidates "don't like to go where it's uncomfortable. You get comfortable going to the same places. In some states — even in my state — you can win without going there. But I don't think that's the way to govern, and it's certainly not the way to bring people together."
In 2016, Trump won 78 of Minnesota's 87 counties, though Clinton narrowly carried the state on the strength of huge winning margins in the state's most populous areas. When she was reelected last year, Klobuchar carried 42 of those 78 counties (though that was down from her 2012 re-election, when she carried all but two Minnesota counties).
Klobuchar's emphasis on "heartland" issues relies on the expectation that the Midwest will be pivotal in 2020. Trump's win in 2016 is frequently attributed to his success in Midwestern states that had previously backed Democrats.
"To win America, you have to win Wisconsin," said Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, which co-sponsored the forum.
Recent polls of Iowa Democrats have found Klobuchar struggling to break through. An Emerson Polling survey taken March 21-24 found Klobuchar at just 2 percent support, echoing her standing in several other polls in March. The other Midwestern candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, surged to 11 percent in the Emerson poll.
Montgomery County, Iowa, is about an hour's drive southeast of Omaha. Part of the regular route is now underwater due to massive flooding in the area. In other stretches, the highway asphalt can provoke fears of tire damage. Klobuchar's infrastructure plan calls for flood protection and rebuilding roads and bridges.
Joey Norris, chairman of the county's Democratic Party, came to see Klobuchar in Stanton; he's undecided in the Democratic contest but interested in a candidate who can connect with rural voters.
"If she can prove her authenticity and show a track record of understanding rural issues, I think she could get votes in a place like this," said Norris, an engineer who lives in nearby Red Oak. He said he was "extremely tickled" when Klobuchar compared her broadband goals to President Franklin Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Act of 1936.
Klobuchar told the group in Stanton that progress in solving the dilemmas facing rural America would help to ease the regional splits that have come to define American politics.
"If we want to bridge the urban-rural divide," Klobuchar said, "you have to be able to e-mail someone."