Opinion | What Democrats Don’t Understand About Rural America

When we embarked on this road, the path was rocky. Chloe came home from canvassing distraught one day and dictated a voice memo to herself: “I talked to a lot of people I’ve known my whole life, and they wouldn’t commit to vote for me.” They knew she was a good person; the only reason they refused to support her was that she was a Democrat.

Another day she met a couple who thought people should be able to snowmobile and hunt and fish and ride A.T.V.s on protected lands. Chloe told them she agreed; while she considers herself extremely progressive, there are some things she thinks the left is too rigid on. Then the conversation turned to immigration, and the couple told her that undocumented immigrants should be separated from their kids. “I literally have no idea what to say to that besides just not getting into it,” Chloe reflected. “But is that being disingenuous? Is that not fighting the fight?”

We heard some rough stuff, and we didn’t tolerate hate. But through the simple act of listening, we discovered that we could almost always catch a glimpse of common ground if we focused on values, not party or even policy. If people said they were fed up with politics, we’d say: “Us, too! That’s why we’re here.” If they despised Democrats, we’d tell them how we had deep issues with the party as well and we were trying to make it better. It was how we differentiated ourselves from the national party and forged a sense of collective purpose.

Slowly but surely, we thought we might be able to turn things around. A young woman who opened her door said that she couldn’t afford to take her child to the emergency room. She had never voted for a Democrat, but she committed to vote for us. There was a man with a Trump bumper sticker on his truck who, after talking with Chloe, put a Chloe Maxmin bumper sticker on his tailgate, too. There was a preacher who had never put up a political sign in his life until our campaign.

Perhaps the most memorable experience was in 2018 at the end of a winding driveway on a cold fall day. Several men were in the garage, working on their snowmobiles. Chloe stepped out to greet them. “Hi, I’m Chloe, and I’m running for state representative.” The owner immediately responded with a question: Did she support Medicaid expansion? Chloe answered honestly that she did. The man pointed an angry finger toward the road and told her to leave.

Taken aback, Chloe asked: “Hold on a second. What just happened? I’m honestly just interested to hear your perspective, even if you don’t vote for me.”

This gentleman went on to tell his story, how he grew up on that very property without any electricity or running water; how he had worked hard to build a life for himself and his family, which included paying for his own health care without any help from the government. This was his way of life and what he believed in. It was an honest conversation, and by the end, he said he would vote for Chloe.