An Open Letter To The Democratic National Committee From A Rural Democrat

Dear Democratic National Committee,

I’m writing you as a recently defeated Democratic State Senator in the “Red State” of North Dakota to talk about rural America. I’ve heard you may be interested in learning about us after the results of the 2016 election. Some of you have taken to the national airwaves to talk about reconnecting with our life styles here in the heartland. I’m glad it seems we finally have your attention.

Here in the heartland of America, Democrats have been forced to fight against the odds you’ve unwittingly built against us to win elections. Unfortunately after the past couple of election cycles, there are only a handful of rural Democrats left who have been successful at overcoming those odds. One of them I’m proud to call my United States Senator.

You should know that since the election, many of the North Dakota Democrats I visit with have done a lot of serious soul searching. “Where do we go from here?” “Has the national party shifted in such a way that I no longer identify with it?” “How do we reclaim what it means to be a Democrat in rural America?” All of those questions are complex and will take time to resolve. The answers may come differently for each of those individuals, especially for those who have felt abandoned out here. One thing I know for sure, none of them plan to quit and walk away from their drive to improve the community around them. It is the path to successfully have an impact that is the question.

We’ve witnessed good, solid, moderate candidates get abandoned here in the Midwest; financial help stripped from promising campaigns and a separation in policy priorities between North Dakota and the coastal states. This only furthers the difficulty of finding great candidates who are willing to put their name on the ballot under your brand. Believe me; there are elected officials from the other side of the ticket whose priorities do not align with the average North Dakotan. Some of them have their eyes set on higher office. And as you know, Senator Heidi Heitkamp is up for reelection in 2018. We are willing to do all we can locally to get her reelected, but we need the assurance we aren’t going it alone.

It is not just North Dakota Democrats either. A poll done by the Pew Research Center finds Democrats are less optimistic about their party’s future. This is a swift change from the pre-election talk of Trump being the death of the Republican Party as many of your pundits boasted. We also see how party leaders are trying to rationalize this year’s drumming. It was the FBI, it was fake news on Facebook, it was Jill Stein, and the list goes on. Bullshit. All of those likely had an impact, but I fear there is a more fundamental failing in the national Democratic Party.

You’ve forgotten about who we are in rural America, and how many of us live our lives.

I’m afraid you may have learned nothing from the November 8th election. While you talked about us in rural America, Congressional Democrats decided to stick with Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their leader over the other option, Rep. Tim Ryan from rural America. Staying the course with the same leadership that has overseen the decimation of the Democratic Party in the Midwest doesn’t bode well for us in the heartland.

North Dakota Democrats have been in a precarious position for at least a decade. We are an energy-producing state with family and friends in the industry. Some of our towns are built for, and sustained by, energy workers. We understand how vital these resources are to our country while we build new technologies to diversify. We’re also proud farmers who take pride in caring for our land and feeding the world. We hunt, we fish, we own guns, and we have closets full of camouflage, blaze orange, and Carhartts. We’re the crowd at a small town street dance where live music is played on the back of a flatbed trailer. We are community driven individuals who know we all do better when we all do better.

When you push an agenda where at the top you aim to hamper fossil fuels or add foolish rules on farmland, it boxes local Democrats in, here in North Dakota. It has become easy for the local political opposition to simply say, “Those Democrats are out-of-touch. They’re the party of Pelosi!” and they do it effectively. Here, we know how our homes are heated in the cold winter months, what fuels our trucks to drive down our gravel roads, and where our food comes from. That seems like a stark contrast from the rhetoric we hear from many national Democratic leaders who seemingly want to alter our way of life.

So after laying that out, this is often where my more liberal friends ask if there is even a difference between a Republican and us rural, moderate Democrats. You’re damn right there is. To understand this, I welcome you to look at the North Dakota Legislature. Democrats pushed for sales tax exemptions on clothing for families. We reasoned for renters’ relief. We fought for family leave. We defended services for senior citizens, veterans, and people with disabilities. Meanwhile, what was passed by the Republican majority was an oil tax cut, a weakening of insurance for injured workers, corporate income tax cuts that go out-of-state, and threatening a reduction in services for senior citizens and children with disabilities. If people think there isn’t a difference between Democratic and Republican priorities in North Dakota, they haven’t been paying attention. It is on the Democratic Party to do a better job of telling that story and remind the average, hard working American that our values and priorities align with theirs.

While you’ve been focused on the White House and maintaining Congressional seats, you’ve surrendered the fight for us in the heartland. We are now left clinging on to the hope that we can recapture the trust of our local electorate. We hear from the national Democratic Party about how important connecting with rural America is to them now. Here is the problem:

You keep talking about us, but nobody is talking with us.

The first step to understanding us is listening to us. The first step to winning is showing up. There is still time. If you’re interested, I know a lot of small town diners, bar counter tops, gas stations, and locally owned businesses that would welcome you if anyone were interested in engaging and talking with us here in the heartland.

Tyler Axness
Former North Dakota Democratic State Senator

Tyler Axness
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