When Elizabeth Warren wanted to talk about the nation’s opioid epidemic last month, she went to West Virginia — a state hard-hit by drug deaths but of little consequence to the presidential nominating contest.
Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, has held events in far-flung Idaho and Utah. Amy Klobuchar visited Nebraska. And when floods hit northeast Oklahoma recently, Beto O’Rourke rearranged his schedule and flew from California to tour the damage there.
Story Continued Below
Though the sprawling field of Democratic presidential candidates continues to train the majority of its travel schedule on early nominating states and coastal fundraising centers, the candidates are also beginning to expand their primary maps, sometimes to the reddest of red states. It is an effort not only to connect with voters in less influential primary states — but more significantly, to prove to early presidential state voters that they can.
“Going into West Virginia, Oklahoma, Northern Florida, those are the areas where you need to be able to go in and talk to people,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Joe Biden speechwriter who now supports Kamala Harris. “If people disagree with you, that’s OK. If you’re able to go in and talk about your ideas, and it gets covered … I think it does help build the electability case.”
The eventual Democratic nominee is highly unlikely to win in places like Idaho or Oklahoma in the general election. But in a primary colored by severe apprehension among Democrats about their nominee’s ability to defeat President Donald Trump — including winning back some states he flipped in 2016 — the stops in more conservative swaths of America serve as a predicate for a candidate’s argument about their ability to win votes across the map.
In the nominating states that matter most, the candidates’ travels are getting attention. Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa state Democratic party chairman, said Warren’s trip to West Virginia, for example, “got known around here.”
“We watch very closely how they’re doing in other states, because we want to select somebody that’s going to be viable come November,” Nagle said. “So, one of the things I counsel candidates to do is to makes sure that you inform people in Iowa when you have a positive development in another state.”
Warren used her trip to Kermit, W. Va., in May to discuss her plans to address the opioid epidemic if elected president. But she drew just as much, if not more, attention for the location — in a state that Trump won by more than 40 percentage points in 2016.
The primary electorate’s interest in a candidate’s viability in a general election has rarely been more pronounced than this year. Democrats across the country were stunned by Trump’s sweep through the industrial Midwest in 2016, resulting in a whole swath of Democrats anxious to reconnect with white, working-class voters.
The most recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom survey found about two-thirds of likely Iowa caucus-goers prefer a candidate who can beat Trump to someone who shares their views on major issues — a survey in line with other polls.
Mark Longabaugh, who was a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said he would still advise candidates to spend most of their time in Iowa and New Hampshire. But for candidates who stray from the beaten path, he said, “I think doing those things occasionally is kind of smart. It gives your campaign schedule a little bit of diversity and allows you rhetorically to reference things that you’ve done that are of concern to voters.”
He added, “Doing these events shows political empathy.”
Few candidates are campaigning more explicitly on an effort to connect with voters outside of Democratic population centers than O’Rourke.
After visiting every one of Texas’ 254 counties in his closer-than-expected Senate loss against Republican Ted Cruz in Texas last year, O’Rourke opened his campaign in March in Iowa in a county that pivoted from Barack Obama in 2012 to President Donald Trump in 2016.
He regularly cites his experiences in conservative Texas as a means of establishing his electability, and even when campaigning in large, Democratic states, he has searched out its more conservative, less delegate-rich expanses. Prominent Democrats so rarely visit California’s conservative-leaning Central Valley that when O’Rourke there recently to talk about water and climate change, his hosts swooned at the gesture.
“I want to thank you for coming here,” Couper Condit, a local planning commissioner and grandson of former Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) told O’Rourke. “We’re an area of California, we’re a region that gets overlooked.”
O’Rourke said — as he has in other far-flung cities — that he was “grateful for the opportunity to learn from you.”
But if a small roundtable in a minor media market was a learning opportunity for O’Rourke, its broader significance to his presidential campaign came into focus in a television studio several hours later.
Outlining his climate change plan on MSNBC, a vein to a national audience of progressive Democrats, O’Rourke not only pointed to the heavily polluted Central Valley as a place inordinately affected by climate change, but as evidence of his ability to reach Democrats in rural areas of the country. It was a validator for a campaign now lagging at 4 percent in the latest Morning Consult poll.
“If you think about how divided this country is, we need someone who can unify people across the differences, towards these common aspirations and goals,” O’Rourke said. “I’ve shown that I can go everywhere, talk to everyone with the courage of my convictions on a proud progressive agenda, but win the votes not just of Democrats, not just of independents — which we did [in the Texas Senate race last year] — but also of Republicans, to find that common cause to advance this country’s agenda.”
Noting that an area’s politics typically evolve over many years — not one election cycle — Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates across the country, said, “This is something that the party needs to be thinking about long term.”
“The more Democrats talk to voters all over the country, especially in communities that don’t normally get attention, the better for the party,” he said. “You’re playing to win, but if you don’t win, you’re establishing relationships that could help you through a lifetime.”