DES MOINES, Iowa — They're flanked by hay bales on otherwise deserted fields, speak atop countertops at small-town coffee shops and tour farms far removed from city centers. Democratic presidential candidates are trying to prove they can gain ground in rural areas that swung to President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday alone, three White House hopefuls — Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar — offered sweeping proposals that touch on everything from farm subsidies to rural broadband and health care. The trio of senators are among the parade of candidates who will fan out across Iowa this weekend to participate in the famed state fair and other events.
The focus on rural Iowa is a mainstay of presidential politics, sending candidates on a sometimes-awkward pilgrimage to the far corners of the state that holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses. But Democrats say the chase for the heartland is especially urgent this year as the party tries to win back some voters who supported Trump in 2016. A strong showing in Iowa, they say, could prove a candidate's ability to make inroads in other rural communities across the country.
"If we don't fight everywhere, we're going to continue to lose in the places where we don't show up, and it's going to get worse and worse," said J.D. Scholten, the Democrat who is challenging GOP Rep. Steve King again after nearly prevailing in the heavily rural northeastern Iowa district in 2018.
The challenge for Democrats is to rebuild the multiracial coalition across urban and rural areas that twice sent Barack Obama to the White House. His victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses helped build momentum to claim the party's presidential nomination. He later carried Iowa in the 2008 and 2012 general elections while also winning states with urban centers, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In 2016, Trump ate into that path , carrying Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Some Democratic candidates are working to reverse those gains by offering ambitious changes to rural voters. Warren's proposal on Wednesday would reshape the current farm subsidy system into a program that would break up big agribusinesses and guarantee farmers certain prices, which she said would raise farmers' incomes and save taxpayer money.
Gillibrand's plan includes a $50 billion block grant program for the Department of Agriculture to distribute to rural communities, among other planks addressing rural health care and infrastructure. Former Iowa Governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised her plan as "unique" for emphasizing a partnership between rural communities and the federal government, and praised it as placing a premium on "rural communities leading this effort."