Democrats Look to Cheri Bustos to Map Path to Rural Votes

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

ROCKFORD, Ill.—Illinois Rep.  Cheri Bustos is the only member of Democratic Party leadership from the Midwest, and now she has a new job: tutoring her fellow House Democrats on talking to the rural voters that her party has lost to Republicans.

As one of just 12 Democratic House lawmakers representing a district carried by President Donald Trump in last year’s election, the future of Ms. Bustos’s party may depend on her instruction.

“If Democrats can’t do a better job of reaching out to rural voters and getting more of their votes, they’re going to be consigned a permanent minority status in Washington and state legislatures,” said Robin Johnson, a part-time professor at Monmouth College in Illinois.

Last August, as Democrats sent lawmakers home for recess, leadership encouraged them to use the summer break to talk about the economy, national security and to attack GOP counterparts for not acting on legislation to curb Zika, the mosquito-borne illness that was then the current public health crisis.

“It was like ‘what?’ ” 55-year-old Ms. Bustos said of her first reaction to the emphasis on what was then an isolated East Coast issue. “You know, I’m not Florida. Zika was just not an issue in our region. Nobody was talking about it at home.”

Instead, she charted her own path—going on a tour of manufacturers and businesses in her district, dubbed the 21st Century Heartland Tour.

To take control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats need to win 24 seats. Some 23 House Republicans represent districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in November, suggesting that those seats could be in play next year.

But Democrats will also need to win areas of the map they have struggled with, and Ms. Bustos is recruiting potential candidates and helping create a game plan.

Her guidance is “don’t write off small towns,” she said. “Don’t write off the counties in your district that have gone Republican for the last several elections. Don’t talk down to anybody. Whether they voted for Donald Trump or voted for Bernie Sanders, talk to people, listen to people.”

Ms. Bustos, drinking coffee on an all-but-abandoned Main Street, said she knows why Mr. Trump’s message resonated in Rockford, Ill., what used to be known as “Screw City” until the factories once located here mostly moved overseas. The president’s promise of bringing jobs back hit home, she said.

“I certainly don’t argue with people about voting for Donald Trump, but we do talk about some of the promises he made and where he’s falling short right now,” Ms. Bustos said. She said she keeps track of how often she visits the 14 counties in her district, ensuring that no corner, or grocery store, is ignored.

Wandering through a Schnucks supermarket on June 1, Ms. Bustos paused in the egg aisle to introduce herself to Phyllis Jensen, 64, and Keith Nielsen, 52, and asked of their biggest concern.

Their answer: pending health-care legislation, specifically the impact it may have to the couple’s mounting medical bills because of Mr. Nielsen’s disability. The Democratic lawmaker asked how the couple paid for the care, where they worked, how much each treatment cost.

It is part of the lawmaker’s district-focused approach that helped her win her election by about 20 percentage points in 2016. Mr. Trump narrowly defeated Mrs. Clinton in the district by seven-tenths of a percentage point.

While Democratic leadership spent much of 2016 and the time after the election focused on being anti-Trump, it is shifting advice to encourage lawmakers to “explain what you are doing to help people improve life,” instead of talking about the probe of Russia meddling in the presidential and any Trump campaign ties to it, said Rep. Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “As much as Trump is still the top of the headlines, it’s also about what’s happening in your districts.”

Ms. Bustos teamed up with fellow Democratic Rep. Ron Kind  last month for listening sessions in southern Wisconsin. Mr. Kind, who also represents a district that Mr. Trump won, said he has seen a rise in energy from the left since the election, and called the president’s first budget “almost a declaration of war to rural America” because of the cuts to federal programs that help agricultural areas and said it was a sign he was “completely oblivious to where his political support came from.”

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D., Iowa), who also represents a Trump district, said he has focused on expanding broadband access in rural areas and economic development.

“I go to where people, work, live and play,” Mr. Loebsack said. “I’ll go out to a farm and we may not agree on all the issues, but I’ll go there and hear them out.”

When asked by a constituent recently at a local rotary club in Knoxville, Iowa, if Mr. Trump would be impeached as a result the way he has managed a probe into his presidential campaign’s alleged ties to Russia, Mr. Loebsack stuck to neutral ground. The investigations into collusion with Russia should continue to unfold, he said, adding that he had his own concerns.

Mr. Trump or the tensions in his administration aren’t typically issues that Ms. Bustos brings up with her constituents, and she doesn’t go out of her way to mention gay marriage or gun control. Her party must tie itself to supportive economic policies and not social issues, she said.

“When somebody sees a ‘D’ by somebody’s name, we want them to think about ‘yeah, they’re the ones fighting for us,’ ” she said. “That’s what we’ve got to work on, is to change that overall view, when somebody is labeled a Democrat, and I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”