While the growing list of Democratic candidates for president is dominated by politicians from predominantly urban settings, some still have decent track records on agriculture and food issues. This policy experience could help them in rural communities, a weak spot for the party in 2016. But rural and agriculture advocates caution that the candidates need to build on past proposals if they hope to steer rural voters away from Donald Trump and the GOP.
“The first step is to go out to rural communities and start listening and learning,” says Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Rural communities are much more diverse in their political thinking than they are represented.”
The contenders for the Democratic nomination have not introduced campaign platforms, but their policy records tell a story about their food and agriculture backgrounds. Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, for instance, have taken on specific agricultural issues and sponsored legislation that aligns with concerns of independent farmers.
Sen. Booker championed stronger antitrust enforcement in the agriculture sector, including a bill last year that would place a moratorium on mergers and acquisitions in the food and beverage sectors. And Sen. Gillibrand has worked on dairy policy for several years, as New York dairy farmers struggle through a national crisis of low milk prices. Among other things, she has demanded that the Treasury refund dairy farmers who paid into the first failed round of the Dairy Margin Protection Program, a federal dairy insurance program that ultimately paid out little to flailing farmers.
Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, says that, while these initiatives are promising, the candidates need to couple them “with an economic opportunity component. Holding Wall Street accountable and regulating a market that’s benefiting those folks, that’s going to resonate [with voters].”
Economic justice is the main issue of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who announced her candidacy this month and has long advocated for consumer protections and stronger regulation of large corporations. In many rural communities, corporate power is a major issue as factories and small businesses close in the face of widespread economic consolidation.
“Rural America has been struggling economically because of what rural America understands, which is the corporatization and industrialization of our agriculture industry at the expense of family farmers and rural communities,” says Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “The system isn’t working for people out here right now.”
Most of the Democrats who have announced their presidential ambitions came as no surprise. Sens. Warren, Booker, Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, of California, and Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, had long been rumored to be considering a run in 2020.
California is the nation’s leading agricultural state, and Sen. Harris has sponsored legislation to improve working and wage conditions for farmworkers—Sens. Booker Warren were co-sponsors—and to ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Neither bill passed.
Sen. Klobuchar served on the Senate Agriculture Committee, potentially positioning her well to speak to rural constituencies. Several of her proposals were included in the final version of the new farm bill, including expanded disaster response, supports for dairy farmers, and increased conservation acreage.
Other Democratic hopefuls include Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Julian Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration; and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii.
When it comes to rural concerns, Democratic candidates will face pressure to correct for the errors of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, which was criticized for effectively ceding swaths of rural America to Trump without much effort to sway undecided voters. Trump ultimately won over 60 percent of the rural vote. If Democratic candidates want to get rural voters’ attention, they’ll have to make an effort to understand the issues facing rural places, advocates say.
“I’d like to think that 2016 was a wakeup call to everybody in our country to start thinking about rural America differently and start listening,” Gibbons says.
And candidates may hear complex, and often contradictory, messages when they do talk to rural voters. “A lot of the rural community is greatly divided,” says Joe Maxwell. Debates are “too much focused on President Trump and not on policy.” Consequently, he says, it’s important to speak to the issues that rural voters can unite around—things like trade, healthcare, and corporate power.
The newly announced Green New Deal could be an important vehicle for getting ideas about food and agriculture into the presidential debates, says Navina Khanna, director of the HEAL Food Alliance, a sustainable agriculture coalition. Momentum around that policy, and the sense of urgency among Democrats after 2016, means that “food and ag folks are much more primed to be pushing candidates to talk about these issues,” she says. “Now is the time for us to start organizing.”