Biden's plan for rural America is the latest Democratic outreach to Trump country

As the Democratic Party argues over the best strategy to defeat President Donald Trump, Biden is making his argument to voters who've left the party.
Image: Joe Biden
Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's house on July 15, 2019, in Waukee, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP

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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — It’s no coincidence that, only one day after rolling out a health care plan built around protecting the Affordable Care Act from proposals to provide Medicare for all Americans, former Vice President Joe Biden unveiled his plan for revitalizing rural America.

As Democrats struggle with the question of whether energizing their progressive base or wooing back moderate voters is the best strategic path to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, Biden is staking out his position on issues.

On Tuesday, he offered his “Plans for Rural America,” home to 20 percent of all Americans. His plan includes a suite of proposals aimed at boosting farmers, creating low-carbon manufacturing sectors in every state and investing in rural broadband.

“We don't seem to concentrate on the people who live in rural America,” Biden said while announcing his plans in a speech in Manning, Ohio. “We have to ensure as we rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class, we bring everybody along, everyone”

And he’s not the only one focusing on reaching out to voters who turned out strongly against Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

In May, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., rolled out his plan that targets corporate farms, vowing to break up big agribusiness and incentivize more community ownership of local farms, among other proposals. Other candidates have also offered some similar proposals.

And they’re showing up in those areas too. After the union representing coal miners, among Trump’s most loyal constituencies, extended an invitation to the entire Democratic field to visit a mine, at least 13 of them were quick to accept — including Biden, Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California — according to the United Mine Workers of America.

When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York recently visited Youngstown, Ohio, she was asked to define “white privilege” by a white woman struggling to make ends meet to support her child. The Democratic presidential candidate’s answer drew applause from both white union workers and the minorities in attendance.

“Institutional racism is real. It doesn’t take away your pain or your suffering. It’s just a different issue,” Gillibrand told the woman. “Your suffering is just as important as a black or brown person’s suffering but to fix the problems that are happening in the black community, you need far more transformational efforts.”

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In 2016, from Youngstown to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Democratic nominee Clinton sought to make a personal connection with voters while touting her economic plan, calling it the biggest investment in jobs since World War II. She shared the story of her grandfather, who did “dangerous” work in a Scranton, Pennsylvania, lace mill, and pledged to “fight” for those who feel “left behind."

Still, Trump won those same communities and remains popular today, according to recent NBC/Wall Street Journal polling. In rural areas, Trump still has a 62 percent approval rating, compared to a 33 percent approval rating in urban centers.

Those numbers help make this early conversation all the more complicated — are enough of those voters open to the Democrats' message at a time when employment is high and wages remain low for many, or is the party better served by championing more progressive policies on health care, education, taxes and social justice issues?

‘False Choice’

Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand’s communications director, said Democratic successes in the 2018 midterm elections prove that the party’s eventual nominee can do both.

“It’s a false choice,” she said. “We couldn’t win 40 swing districts in 2018 (midterm elections) without both exciting millennials and women and minorities as well as crossover voters. You can absolutely do both.”

Denny Ruprecht, a state representative from a district in the northern part of New Hampshire that went heavily for Trump, and who supports Biden, said the specifics of the candidates’ proposals were key to attracting support across the board. He noted that he didn’t see candidates rolling out plans “of this magnitude” in the last cycle.

Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, agreed, saying Clinton in 2016 was "a champion for rural issues in the Senate, but I feel it was fairly well documented that there appeared to be a lack of a focus on rural issues” in the campaign.

Indeed, Sanders’ policy adviser Josh Orton confirmed that even many of the Vermont senator's ideas are new since his failed nominating bid four years ago.

“You have people working multiple jobs barely making ends meet,” Ruprecht said. “We’ve got a long ways to go in terms of making sure working people have a path to the middle class.”

Biden’s rural plan

In an interview with NBC News, Biden policy director Stef Feldman said the rural plan “was a priority for us,” adding that, “we want to make sure we are speaking not just to people in the cities but to people in the small towns.”

“For a really long time, economic development has been extracting resources from the area by people who take those resources and take the profits with them,” Feldman said. “This is going to be different.”

Biden’s plan would prioritize funding for communities that have been living under the poverty line for decades; deploy a “strike force” of federal agency representatives into the neediest communities to help them apply for loans and grants; create a pipeline for fresh produce between small farmers and consumers including schools, and focus on shoring up rural hospitals.

The push comes at a time when Biden is starting to strengthen his message to supporters that he can win over the working class and beat Trump in areas where Clinton lost. And it’s likely to further spur other candidates to issue similar plans, according to campaign aides who spoke on background with NBC because they were not authorized to disclose the plans.

At a house party in West Des Moines on Monday, Biden reminded the crowd that he’s always been known as “Middle Class Joe” and that his support in that crowd can put him over the edge in key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

He emphasized that he is the only Democratic candidate who can realistically win key battleground states that Clinton lost because he knows “who the hell” built America — the working class.

“I'm accustomed to winning working-class neighborhoods. I'm accustomed to winning in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, places where there's no way a Democrat can get elected president without winning Pennsylvania,” he said.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed.