By Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery
Republicans won the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday largely by winning districts with high proportions of rural voters.
Two-thirds of the 60 House seats switching from Democrat to Republican in this election were in the congressional districts with the most rural voters.
Before the election almost half (61) of the 125 most rural districts were held by Democrats. By the end of the day Tuesday, the number of rural Democrats had been cut to just 22. Just 18 percent of the most rural House districts are now represented by Democrats
This map tells the story. It shows the 125 House districts where more than 33 percent of voters live in rural communities. (The average for all 435 House districts is 21 percent rural.)
Blue districts on the map were Democratic before Tuesday’s election and Democratic at day’s end. There are 22 rural Democrats who survived the 2010 election to serve another term. Light red districts are Republican districts that didn’t change with the election. There are 64 solidly Republican districts out of the most rural 125 districts.
The dark red rural districts began the day with Democratic representatives but ended the evening with freshly-elected Republican members of Congress.
There are 39 rural districts that switched from Democratic representation to Republican. These account for 65 percent of the 60 seats Republicans captured from Democrats on Tuesday.
How many Republican rural districts flipped Democratic? Not one.
Stories about Tuesday’s election refer to the strong Republican rural vote. But they tend to mix up Southern and rural.
“In a bloodbath of a night for Democrats, the most gruesome returns came in from rural America,” write Politico’s Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin. “They lost the overwhelming number of gubernatorial and Senate races in the South, Midwest and interior West. Even more striking, House Democrats lost seats in every one of the 11 states of the old Confederacy.”
But look at the map. Most of the seats lost by the Democrats were well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, many in the Upper Midwest and New England.
Yes, Democrats lost three of their seats in rural Tennessee. But they also lost three in rural New York.
Democrats lost two rural seats in both Arkansas and Virginia. But they also lost two seats each in rural Michigan, rural Pennsylvania and rural Ohio.
And before Tuesday, both of New Hampshire’s representatives were Democrats. Now they will be Republicans. Will liberals now ask, “What’s the matter with New Hampshire?”
Tuesday’s vote will have consequences in federal rural policy. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a press release Wednesday claiming credit for helping to defeat four rural Democrats. The NCBA spent money to defeat the Democrats after they refused to oppose rules proposed by the Obama Agriculture Department that would regulate livestock markets.
The four are Reps. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.), Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), and John Boccieri (D-Ohio).
“Rural America spoke up and gave the boot to candidates putting big government before innovative cattlemen who manage to feed a growing population, stimulate the economy and create jobs without government handouts,” said NCBA President Steve Foglesong. “I hope the election results serve as a clue to the Obama Administration that it needs to pull this proposed rule. We do not need big government telling us how to market our cattle.”
NCBA is being opportunistic, however. There seems to be no relationship between opposition to the livestock rules and defeat on Tuesday.
Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missourian who was chair of the powerful Armed Services Committee, voted against the Obama health care law AND supported NCBA on the livestock regulations. He lost, too.
Republicans won by running against Washington, D.C., and the federal government. Skelton’s opponent, Tea Party-backed Vicky Hartzler, repeated that the Democrat voted 95 percent of the time with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and that was enough to topple a politician who was first elected in 1976.
Scott Tipton, a Republican businessman supported by the Tea Party, beat Democrat John Salazar in western Colorado. Salazar is the older brother of Ken Salazar, Obama’s Secretary of Interior, and is what one reporter described as a “cowboy of Colorado” type. He was supported editorially by many of the papers in the region and had a reputation for being willing “to sit down with both his supporters and his opponents in the district and explain his point of view.”
Cowboy garb and a willingness to compromise, however, did little good in this election. Salazar voted for the health care bill and the stimulus plan, saying both were needed in his district, which has some of the highest poverty rates in Colorado. Tipton used both votes against him.
Seniority did little good for Democrats either. Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar had served 18 terms and was chair of the House Transportation Committee. He lost. Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas had served 20 years in the House. He lost.
The split between rural and urban voters has been growing since the 1970s. Throughout that time, however, moderate Democrats have been able to hang on and represent close to half of the districts in rural America. Those numbers were cut by two-thirds Tuesday and there is very little left of the Democratic Party in the nation’s most rural congressional districts.