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In Virginia, Signs The Democratic Party Is Still Struggling To Reach Rural Voters

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After Donald Trump won the White House, Democrats said they wanted to reconnect with rural voters. But Virginia's Governor's race suggests the party is still having a hard time. Reporter Jessie Knadler has more.

JESSIE KNADLER, BYLINE: As he's campaigned for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam has talked a lot about his rural upbringing. He used a medical analogy to describe re-energizing small towns during the final debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie.

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RALPH NORTHAM: You know, as a doctor, I have a plan to resuscitate rural Virginia. It's time to get the paddles out and shock rural Virginia back to life starting with universal access to broadband and cell coverage.

KNADLER: In small-town Virginia, that message sounded awkward to Susan Lawrence.

SUSAN LAWRENCE: Rural Virginia is not dead.

KNADLER: She's running as an independent for a Board of Supervisors seat in Republican-heavy Rockbridge County in southwest Virginia.

LAWRENCE: We're here. We have Wi-Fi. We have television. We talk. We read.

KNADLER: It's not the only time people in the Virginia countryside have felt dismissed this year. When a newspaper in the region asked both candidates to put forward specific plans to boost the area's economy, Gillespie turned over a generic proposal. Northam didn't even respond. The newspaper decided not to endorse either candidate. And Northam skipped a Labor Day parade in the Shenandoah Valley that's traditionally a big campaign event for state politicians. Melissa Hennis, who describes herself as a moderate Republican, was there.

MELISSA HENNIS: They could have taken an hour out of their day to march in the parade and wave and shake hands and hand out candy to the kids. But instead, they wanted to go to these other areas where they knew that they would get more bang for their buck.

KNADLER: While the bulk of the state's population live around Richmond, the D.C. suburbs and the Virginia Beach area, Democrats also need rural voters to turn out if they are to gain any ground in the heavily Republican legislature. Jay Clarke is the Democratic Party chair of Rockbridge County. He got so fed up with the state party over unanswered emails and poor organization that he temporarily resigned.

JAY CLARKE: You know, frankly, that's kind of insulting, that we're not considered important enough even to be paid attention to.

KNADLER: Northam then did visit the county, and Clarke says communication has improved. Many Democrats realize it's a long-term project to make up with rural voters. Sam Rasoul, a lawmaker who represents Roanoke, has launched a program to connect constituents in need with volunteers and even government services.

SAM RASOUL: And the best way to rebuild those relationships is by going into these communities and helping folks one person at a time.

KNADLER: It's an almost old-fashioned approach to politics. The first real test for Democrats is in about two and a half weeks when Virginia voters go to the polls.

For NPR News, I'm Jessie Knadler in Lexington, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.