GUY RAZ, host:
We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The biggest boost in support for Republicans in the midterm election came from voters in small towns. Two-thirds of the GOP's House wins happened in rural districts.
Democrats say many of their small-town icons retire or go down in defeat. They also lost a lot of younger members who were hoping to renew the party's appeal in those parts of the country.
And as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports now, the few rural Democrats left will face another tough election in 2012.
BRIAN MANN: Since 1976, Ike Skelton has managed to win every two years in his rural corner of Missouri, relying on his deep local roots and his ability to bring home federal dollars. But this year, the Democrat found himself making the speech he'd always dreaded.
Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri): I am instructing my staff to cooperate fully to make the transition smooth.
MANN: According to one of Skelton's big supporters, Attorney Larry McMullen, the makeup of the district didn't change, but the mood did.
Mr. LARRY McMULLEN (Attorney): Of course, this is a Republican district. And over the years, Republicans have crossed over to support Ike. And now the Republicans, smelling blood in the water, are rising up and saying, well, let's just throw everybody out.
MANN: That uprising wasn't limited to the Midwest or the South.
Scott Murphy, a businessman from the Hudson River Valley in New York, won his rural seat in a special election just last year. He thought he could hang on by focusing on local issues: dairy farms and the district's troubled horse-racing industry.
Representative SCOTT MURPHY (Democrat, New York): Right now, we've got too much partisan bickering. We need people who are problem solvers that aren't worried about political ideology or whose idea it was.
MANN: But Murphy also voted for the health care law and other parts of the Democratic agenda.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.
MANN: Chris Callahan from Waterford, New York, joined an anti-Murphy rally the day before the election.
Mr. CHRIS CALLAHAN: Murphy is just aligned with Obama. It's the wrong way to go. It's been tried, it hasn't worked.
MANN: Murphy wound up losing by 11 points.
Bill Bishop is a journalist who writes about small-town politics for a blog called the Daily Yonder. He says Democrats are now an endangered species in House districts dominated by small towns.
Mr. BILL BISHOP (Journalist, Daily Yonder): They just pretty much disappeared from a lot of rural America - from the Dakotas across Minnesota and Michigan and Wisconsin to the territory of New York and Pennsylvania. And then all of New Hampshire switched.
MANN: Rural America has long been associated with conservatism. Small towns tend to be older and whiter, and they often have more military veterans. Those are all groups that lean Republican.
The surprising thing, according to Bishop's analysis, is that Democrats were still managing to win and hold a lot of rural seats, often by distancing themselves from the national party and downplaying the Democratic brand.
Bishop says Democrats have to do that because people in small towns see their party being defined by urban politicians.
Mr. BISHOP: When Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are mentioned in these advertisements, they're described as someone other than us. And politics now is about tribes.
Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont and chaired the Democratic National Committee. He is seen as one of his party's experts on rural politics. He agrees that out beyond the suburbs, the Democratic brand is seen increasingly as something alien and unwelcome.
Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Democratic Governor, Vermont): You have to understand what's happened in this country. The election of Barack Obama was an election that was won by people who are under 35 years old, who are multicultural. That doesn't describe rural America.
MANN: Dean is convinced that small towns have taken the brunt of the recession. And he thinks better economic policies will bring some of those voters back. But he says many rural people just won't feel comfortable supporting the modern Democratic Party.
Mr. DEAN: They now have a new generation that's taking over this country, a diverse generation that doesn't look like them.
MANN: This year, those older rural voters pushed back hard, throwing dozens of Democrats out of office and shifting the balance of power in Washington. They might very well keep right on pushing in 2012.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York.