In new book, a progressive Maine lawmaker urges Democrats to pay more attention to rural voters

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Sen. Chloe Maxmin, a Democrat from Nobleboro, spoke about her Green New Deal bill during a press event in 2019, when she was part of the Maine House of Representatives.
Steve Mistler

Democratic State Sen. Chloe Maxmin has won two legislative races in rural, overwhelmingly Republican districts. In a New York Times essay published this week, and a book coming out next week, Maxmin says Democrats are losing those districts because the party has willfully abandoned them.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz talked with Maxmin about how she succeeded in those races and what lessons Democrats can learn from them.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maxmin: Every day in our campaigns here in Maine in 2018, and 2020, I talked with voters who had never been contacted by a Democratic candidate or canvasser in their entire voting history, and I had amazing conversations with these people. They're my friends, they're my neighbors, and they're my constituents, they voted for me. So we've seen just really up close how Democrats haven't taken the time to talk with so many folks. We're just really focusing on our base and leaving so many people behind.

Gratz: There's a lot of conventional wisdom, as well, that says what Democrats are losing are white working class voters. And that seems to me to speak to a problem that may go beyond rural America.

The Democrats have a problem, not just with rural America, but you know, with young folks, with half of millennials registering as independents these days, the problems are not limited to rural folks. But the rural vote has a disproportionate impact on our political system because of how the electoral college is structured. And, you know, since Democrats are really focused on more statewide state level campaigns, like congressional campaigns or governorships, we are not focusing on the local level, which is leading state legislatures to also tilt to the right. And the consequences of that are really big in this moment in time when, you know, we're on the verge of climate catastrophe and our civil rights are on the line and our elections are in question. We just don't have time to have any doubt on these issues.

Well, let's talk about tactics. What are some of the things that Democrats should be doing when they run for office in Maine or elsewhere in rural communities that they are not?

I think it all starts with who we're talking to. We were told by the state party when we were running in 2020, you know, we don't talk with Republicans. And we couldn't run our district if we didn't talk to Republicans. When I first ran in 2018, in former district 88, only 27% of the district was registered Democrats. So there was literally no way to win unless you go and talk with folks who are different from you, and who have a different mindset and a different way of thinking about the world, which is OK, that's what makes the world go round. So what we need to do differently is go talk to people, listen, respect what we're hearing, and understand it. Of course, there are times when there are conversations that are too heated or too angry, and they're not productive. But you know, I've knocked on about 20,000 doors in the last two cycles. And a vast majority of those have been really wonderful, meaningful conversations. Even if someone doesn't vote for me, we've connected and we've listened to each other.

Well, but listening only goes so far. Of course, as you point out, at some point, you have to get these voters to agree with you so that they will vote for you.

I always think so much about how campaigning is kind of this world where we don't expect things to follow the rules of being human. We expect to agree 100% with our candidate, and that's just not realistic. I don't agree 100% with any human being that I know in my life, so I find that a lot of times that there's space to have disagreement, but it's like the solidness of a relationship that deserves a vote. I wouldn't want someone to vote for me if I just showed up once and said, 'Hey, I'm Chloe, will you vote for me?' And they said, 'Sure.' That doesn't feel solid to me. But having a conversation with someone where we agree on some things and disagree on others, and have a firm commitment to always have a conversation like that, that means so much more.

What are some of the issues on which you were able to find common ground with those Republicans?

It was surprising to me and I'm kind of ashamed that it was surprising to me, but I didn't find it that difficult to find common ground with people. You know, I think often we have just very different ways of talking about issues. We might have different ideas of how do we lower our property taxes or what does good health care policy look like. We we get disjointed at the policy level. But values wise, we share so much in common. The biggest thing that I heard from people, the theme that was echoed the most was that, 'We just feel so profoundly let down by our government. We don't feel heard. We don't feel represented. We feel like we have the the wool pulled over our eyes every cycle when a candidate says, "I'm gonna answer your phone call and do things different," and they don't.' There's so little trust left in our system that that has become the foundational issue that I've heard from my constituents.

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