This week on The Brief, hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld continued the conversation around the aftermath of the recent bombshell leak of the draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade and explored how Democrats can improve their brand and use the conversation around abortion rights as a catalyst ahead of November.

They welcomed guests Matt Hildreth, executive director of RuralOrganizing.org, and Washington Sen. Emily Randall, who represents the state’s 26th district—a rural area—and won a very tight race in 2018, defeating the Republican candidate by just over 100 votes. Across Washington (and in Randall’s district) many people proudly do not identify with either major party, making persuasion of voters all the more crucial.

Moulitsas framed the episode’s conversation around abortion rights messaging and whether it would resonate with rural voters. “If abortion rights is our core message heading into November, how does that play with rural voters, and can we use that message to chip away at that sort of Republican monolith in rural America?” he asked.

Eleveld, who has been looking at polling numbers, noted that support for abortion rights has reached an all time high—to 63% support for protecting the Roe v. Wade decision—after the leak of the draft Supreme Court ruling. Turning to Randall, Eleveld asked how she has seen things shift after the draft leak.

In Randall’s experience, back in March, when she went door knocking, most people she encountered wanted to talk about “kitchen table” issues: gas prices, food prices, housing prices, inflation, and community safety issues. Describing the difference as “night and day,” Randall explained that she felt a shift the day after the leaked [draft] opinion: “All folks wanted to talk about was Roe … it definitely has come up way more often.” She added that people seem to have a deeper understanding of the rationale behind the leaked draft and what is at stake if Roe falls—namely, that Brown v. Board, Obergefell v. Hodges, and other decisions could be at risk next.

Moulitsas then asked Hildreth about how he thinks the messaging around abortion rights is being received in rural areas, especially ahead of November, as Hildreth believes that Democrats do not need to water down their message to be more competitive in tough rural districts. “Nobody is talking about winning them for the Democrats, but about eating into those margins that allow Republicans to offset Democratic urban—and increasingly suburban—districts. How do you see this abortion issue playing in some of those rural districts that you’re so passionate about?” Moulitsas asked.

Hildreth has been doorknocking with Randall and noted that it has been fascinating to see the response. In his experience, constituents tended to be very aware of the issues and what is happening with the leaked draft decision:

The phrase that people kept using was ‘slippery slope.’ You know, as a person with a communications background, I always sort of listen for what’s breaking through … Anecdotally, it does feel like there’s a potential for a gamechanger. With an organizing background, people have been exhausted. The Trump years were absolutely exhausting … you could just tell, since last year, people just burned out. This was, I think, a real reminder of the legacy of Trump. That’s one of the reasons we’re so focused on rural voters—because they just have such an [outsized] impact on the Senate, which obviously has an [outsized] impact on the Supreme Court.

Our polling has always shown that, you know, Democrats are getting about 35% of the rural vote, but when you ask whether or not Roe should be overturned, you’re looking at 57% of battleground voters who say Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Those margins—if we get to high forties, low fifties with rural voters, I am ecstatic. Whether you’re talking about Roe, or you’re talking about the threat of violent white supremacists, rural people are so much closer to that 50/50 than where the Republican position is at. So I think we have a lot of space in the margins. I think that if you just look at the energy that is coming from the grassroots organizing as a result of the overreach from Republicans, there is, I think a lot of ground to be gained in this space.

Eleveld, digging further into the issue, followed up by asking, “Do you think people understand that this is happening because of Republicans? Do you think rural voters are making that leap, or not?”

“Sometimes, rural voters think Democrats are hyperbolic, and they say, ‘Oh, that will never happen,’” Hildreth replied, recalling how RuralOrganizing.org and other Democratic organization’s warnings about how the election of Trump to office would mean the end of Roe v. Wade went unheeded. “I think one of the biggest things that I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is the wakeup call of like, ‘Oh no, when they say [our rights are at risk], they’re serious.’ And I do think that changes the dynamic.”

Moulitsas once again highlighted the fact that Democrats often struggle with their branding, something that is fueled by disinformation coming from the Republican Party and Fox News. “I question whether there’s literally anything that can pierce that bubble. Now, of course there’s the 5% that is unpierceable, but we’re still talking another 45% that voted for this Republican in [Randall’s] district four years ago in a good Democratic year—let’s not forget, 2018 was a good Democratic year.” He followed up by asking Hildreth, “Is abortion the magic bullet, or anything else, that can pierce that anti-Democratic brand to give people a second look at an option that’s not a Republican?”

Hildreth acknowledged that Democrats have a lot of work to do around their perception:

If you put a D next to a candidate’s name, you lose 35 points in rural battleground communities. So it is a major challenge. I actually have started looking at it another way and taking lessons from the undocumented or immigrant youth community, and the gay community, that one of the biggest factors is, ‘Do you know a Democrat?’ There is a lot of persuasion that comes with knowing people who have been demonized in the press. And I think that in a lot of these rural communities, Democrats and progressives are just told to blend in. And in a lot of ways, that can hurt us more than anything. Because once you know a Democrat, you actually understand what they stand for—you can get this sort of long list of priorities. But also, you can just know what it means to be a person. I think in my own family, I think when I started kind of being a more proud, progressive Democrat, I brought family members with me that wouldn’t have come with some sort of argument from some abstract position.

On core issues and messaging, Hildreth added that he didn’t think there could be a less popular thing Republicans could try to do than to overturn Roe v. Wade: “[It’s] the worst thing they could do, and I think we will pick up from that. And I think it is also that, and on-the-ground organizing—getting the visible progressive Democrats out there, getting people [at] the doors, introducing themselves. I think that’s how you overcome the demonization that’s coming from the media.

Randall thinks that messaging around healthcare remains crucial as well:

I would say healthcare is definitely [an issue] that folks trust Democrats more on. You know, I don’t lead with ‘I’m a Democrat’ when I knock on people’s doors. I’m there to hear about what issues are important to them, and find where we have common ground. But when people ask me, you know, what [my] party is, or why I’m a Democrat, I say because when my sister was born with special needs when I was a little girl, and it was Democrats in the Washington state legislature that expanded Medicare and made sure that Olivia could get the healthcare she needed. And meanwhile, the other side of the aisle is trying to roll back healthcare protections, and, you know, we all live in human bodies, and we all need healthcare, and I’m for the party that’s going to expand it to more people and make sure that we can afford to get the care that we need. And that, certainly, is true now, when we talk about abortion protections. Ensuring that folks have lifesaving, life-changing healthcare when they need it. I think that resonates with people—because we’ve all been sick, we’ve all seen high medical bills, especially folks in low-income communities who are facing those challenges, and I think that’s a unifying issue.

Hildreth added that Democrats’ watering down of progressive policies is hurting us on both fronts. “They actually like our policies, but they don’t see Democrats taking any action on those policies,” he explained.

All of this information can help Democrats “eat into Republican margins in rural districts,” as Moulitsas put it, and in closing, Hildreth emphasized the importance of supporting strong local candidates.

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