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Should 'Prairie Populism' Have GOP Worried in 2014 and Beyond?

Surging third-party candidates and signs of growing “prairie populism” have shaken up Senate races in Kansas and South Dakota and could create problems for Republicans in the midterm elections and beyond.

Surging third-party candidates and signs of growing “prairie populism” have shaken up Senate races in Kansas and South Dakota and could create problems for Republicans in the midterm elections and beyond.

In both states third-party candidates have risen in the polls and impacted races that were thought to be all-but-certain to go Republican in November. That raises questions for the establishment wing of the Republican Party.

In the case of incumbent Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who has been in Washington since 1981, the race was moved into the toss-up column in the Cook Political Report’s Senate Race Ratings. South Dakota’s open seat for now sits in the likely Republican column, but the race looks as though it has tightened sharply for former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds.

The races are different, of course. Different candidates and different issues at play in each. But it’s hard to ignore the commonalities the states share – both rural plains states, both more than 80% white, both gave more than 57% of their vote to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.

You can see how deep those likenesses go using the county types in the American Communities Project, a journalism/political science effort based at the American University School of Public Affairs. In both states the largest percentage of population lives in the heavily-Republican counties the ACP calls Rural Middle America.

Those Rural Middle America counties are on this map in royal blue, with North Dakota toward the top of the map and Kansas toward the bottom. And more than others, the people who live in those communities may have a reason to be angry with the status quo.

As Meet The Press Host Chuck Todd noted last week, it is rural America that is struggling hardest in the recovery where unemployment is concerned.

The ACP dug further into that data and found that Rural Middle America counties specifically had seen the biggest drop in the number of people participating in the labor force. Some 175,000 fewer people were looking for work in those counties in July 2014 as compared to July 2010. Many of them have been left behind in the recovery.

And in Kansas and South Dakota, those bad numbers largely hold. Kansas’ 51 Rural Middle America counties have about 5,000 fewer people in the job market now as compared to 2010. Up in South Dakota, other than the cluster of rural counties around Sioux Falls in the southeastern corner of the state, the Rural Middle American counties have seen a net negative in labor force growth.

Why does this matter and why is this “prairie populism” specifically a GOP problem? Because for the most part, rural American is Republican country. Anyone who looks at election maps knows the nation’s vast, sparsely populated interior is pretty solidly red on election nights, especially in presidential races.

But the GOP doesn’t rely only on rural America in national elections. It also leans heavily on the Exurbs, particularly in places like Metro Atlanta and Metro Nashville, as well as the Exurban counties scattered around states such as North Carolina, Missouri. The Exurbs went for Mitt Romney in 2012 by some 17 percentage points.

Right now the Exurbs and Rural Middle America are in very different places. The Exurbs have bounced back pretty well since the recession. Their labor force has grown by more than 700,000 since 2010 as their unemployment rate has fallen. In many ways they have led the recovery.

And beyond 2014, the differences between these two parts of the GOP base may matter more as 2016 approaches. Even if incumbent Roberts recovers and Republican Rounds wins in South Dakota, the push by third-party candidates in those states raise questions for the party.

If rural Republican America is this disgruntled in 2014, what kind of candidate and message are they going to be looking for in two years? And will the GOP be able to find a candidate and a message that can please those struggling, unhappy rural communities and thriving Exurbs?