Rural Voters Helped Put Democrats in Charge In key House races across the country, rural voters played a critical role in the Democrats' election success. They've been reliably Republican voters in past elections. But the issues of Iraq and the economy pushed them toward the Democrats.

Rural Voters Helped Put Democrats in Charge

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Some of the nation's smallest places had the biggest impact Election Day. Democratic Congressional candidates won far more support from rural voters than they did four years ago in the last midterm election. Rural voters had been reliably Republican, and it's possible they will be again, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Monday night in Jeffersonville, Indiana, Republican Congressman Mike Sodrel stood among volunteers phoning voters, confident the rural portions of his district would deliver a winning margin at the polls.

Representative MIKE SODREL (Republican, Indiana): These are people that still value the Second Amendment. They're people that believe in the sanctity of life. They are people that believe that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman than. I don't sense that there's been a big sea change in that attitude. But I guess we will all find out tomorrow night.

BERKES: And on Tuesday, some of the people leaving rural polling places in Sodrel's district seemed to agree, including Norma Willem(ph), a real estate agent in Versailles, Indiana.

Ms. NORMA WILLEM (Indiana Voter): The issues that drove my decisions are abortion, the moral issues, gay marriage. I'm opposed to all of those and I won't vote for anyone that's going to promote that.

BERKES: But most of the rural voters we approached had other issues on their minds, including the war in Iraq. Jenny Hoyt(ph) voted near the tanning salon she owns in North Vernon, Indiana.

Ms. JENNY HOYT (Indiana Voter): I'm just not sure if I feel that, you know, we should be there. Stay on track or whatever they say is - I don't feel like we're getting the job done, that I had hoped we would have done by now. And so that is a big issue for me, you know.

BERKES: Network television exit polls show that the war in Iraq and the economy overshadowed the values issues that made rural voters overwhelmingly Republican. Four years ago, Republican congressional candidates dominated rural areas by 12 percentage points. But on Tuesday, Democrats came within three points, winning enough rural votes to take 18 Republican House districts with significant rural populations. Indiana's Mike Sodrel was ousted from one of them. Those results prompted these questions from political scientist Seth McKee of the University of South Florida.

Mr. SETH MCKEE (University of South Florida): Is that an election-specific phenomenon because we had a very unpopular war? Can we take something away from this midterm that's going to translate into 2008? It's difficult to make that call, given the conditions that we see right now and what we could see two years from now.

BERKES: Still, Tuesday's results provide lessons and opportunities for Democrats. Brian Mann is the author of Welcome to the Homeland, a book that explores the political and cultural climate in rural America.

Mr. BRIAN MANN (Author, Welcome to the Homeland): One of the things that the Democrats clearly did remarkably well this year is they recruited candidates who could be viable in rural America. They found people who rural conservatives could at least look at, and in cases where other factors kicked in like scandals or the unpopularity of the Iraq war, that meant that Democrats at least had a chance.

BERKES: One such Democrat is Sheriff Brad Ellsworth, a gun toting, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage candidate in another Indiana Congressional district. He beat a six-term Republican incumbent by 24 points. Anna Greenberg is a pollster for Democrats.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): I think this election says to Democrats that you can speak to the concerns of rural voters. You can be heard. You have to address their real significant economic concerns, which are different and more severe than everybody else in the country. It is very clear that there are still big questions in the minds of rural voters about the so-called values issues and Democrats, and making a real effort to reassure or answer some of those question will be critical to being heard on the economic issues.

BERKES: The biggest challenge for rural Democrats may be making that leap without sounding like Republicans, and defending the liberal stronghold in the Democratic base.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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