In the 1880s and 1890s, a prairie wildfire swept through American politics. The generation of pioneers that had taken the risk to head out west and take advantage of Abe Lincoln’s Homestead Act, where our government literally gave away free land to any poor and working-class people, had successfully battled terrible weather and intense loneliness. They had worked their butts off to become farmers and ranchers, and made a good life for themselves. But when railroad barons, Wall Street bankers, and oil monopolists began to squeeze them and make it tougher and tougher to make a living farming and ranching, they rose up and started organizing a populist movement that changed American politics and policies. States like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma rebelled against pro-big business politicians, and much of what they demanded — breaking up the big corporate trusts, tougher financial regulations, easier credit, Social Security, a minimum wage, an eight-hour work day and no child labor, women’s suffrage, stronger labor unions — eventually became incorporated in the reforms of the Progressive era of the early 1900s and the New Deal of the 1930s.
Eventually, though, those Plains States became much more conservative, and are now among the reddest of the red states politically. Something is going on out there, though. In this strange political year, where most pundits and historical trends suggest that it is likely to be a Republican year, the Plains States are shaking things up. While it isn’t exactly like the Populist movement of old, there is a growing rebellion in these states that suggests the current brand of extreme conservatism may not be going down so well in these normally Republican states.
In Oklahoma, the Republican Governor Mary Fallin is having a surprisingly tough time winning what was expected to be a very easy re-election campaign. In four of the seven public polls taken over the last several weeks, she has been under 50 percent, and in two she has been right at 50 percent. Her Democratic opponent Joe Dorman has an internal poll out last week showing him down only two points, 47-45. And the RGA is worried enough that they have been spending quite a bit of money there.
In North Dakota, where Democrat Heidi Heitkamp shocked the punditry by pulling off a come-from-behind upset in 2012, the House race is one of the hottest in the country, with recent polling from Mark Mellman showing George Sinner up 42-40 over the incumbent Kevin Cramer, who is a far-right extremist.
In my home state of Nebraska, the open-seat governor’s race is very competitive, with prairie populist Chuck Hassebrook within seven points in the latest public poll of close friend of the Koch brothers (he spoke at their secret meeting in June), Pete Ricketts. Hassebrook has spent his career advocating for small farmers and small town businesses at the Center for Rural Affairs, while Ricketts’ Koch-style extremism has gotten him into hot water. (First bias alert: Hassebrook is a longtime friend.) Meanwhile, the Democrat running for the House in the Omaha district, Brad Ashford, is in a dead-heat race with Republican incumbent Lee Terry.
In Kansas, as anyone following politics has become aware of in recent weeks, both incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback and incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts are in very deep trouble, with high unfavorability numbers and trailing consistently in the polls. The Roberts campaign has been awful, but a big part of the reason for the problems these Republicans are having is that Brownback’s extreme tax and spending cut agenda have badly alienated voters.
Finally in South Dakota, in a race long written off by many pundits and national Democrats, support for Republican Mike Rounds has been collapsing in a four-way race, and Democrat Rick Weiland (second bias alert, Rick is also a good friend whose campaign I am helping) is now close enough in the polling that both the DSCC and several progressive groups are putting real money into the state to help him. Rick is running a classic folksy prairie populist campaign against big money, including writing his own lyrics and singing songs like this one on the campaign trail:
That’s five hard-red Republican states, with three governor races, two Senate races, and two House races all closely competitive. At the beginning of this year, not a single one of those races except maybe the ND House race was considered likely to be in play for the Democrats. And this is not in a Democratic tide year like 2006, it is in what is considered by most pundits more likely to be a Republican year.
So what is going on in my home region? I have a couple of observations.
The first is that these Democrats are campaigning with gusto in small towns and rural counties. There is a very large part of America that Democrats can’t win without appealing to rural voters, and as Democrats have become more oriented over the years toward focusing on big cities and the suburbs, they have sometimes forgotten to reach out to folks in small towns and on farms and ranches. That has made red states redder, and it has made it harder for Democrats to win a majority in the House. But Democrats in the Plains States are making campaigning in small towns and rural counties a cornerstone of their campaigns. Hassebrook, as I mentioned, has been an advocate for rural folks his whole career, and had robust, active steering committees set up in every county in Nebraska from early in his campaign. He fully expects to win or come close in a lot of rural counties where the last Democratic candidate for Governor, Bob Kerrey, did not get to 30 percent. In South Dakota, Rick Weiland has made the centerpiece of his campaign strategy the idea that he would become the first candidate to ever go to all 311 South Dakota towns, making quite a contrast with Rounds who has spent most of his campaign raising money on the east and west coasts. The bottom line is that rural voters are like anyone else: If you ignore them, they won’t like you. National Democrats have been ignoring rural America for too long, but these Plains States Democrats are proving that they can win a lot of rural votes if they just work at it.
The second observation is this: The virulent, extreme form of Southern conservatism that has become the heart of modern Republicanism nationwide is different from the conservatism of the Plains States, and as Southern-style extremists have taken over the Republican party in those states, it isn’t playing well with voters. The politics of Bob Dole are not the mean-spirited politics of Mitch McConnell or Sam Brownback or the Koch brothers, and voters in those states understand the difference and are rebelling this year against that mean-spiritedness.
None of the races I have described are easy pick-ups by any means for the Democrats. These states are all still solidly Republican — they don’t like Obama or what they perceive as big government. But the fact that there are seven highly contested races in solid red states that few people thought would be competitive is a sign that something unusual is going on the small towns and wide open spaces of the Great Plains. It’s not exactly the populist revolt of the 1890s, but it is making things interesting.