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Have Democrats abandoned rural American voters?

Marty Olsen • Aug 13, 2019 at 8:00 AM

East Tennessee has a history of national leadership. The Watauga Association, formed in Elizabethton, was the first independent democratic government in America. Jonesborough, the first town in Tennessee, was also the site of the first abolitionist newspaper in America. Greeneville has the only monument honoring both Confederate and Union armies. Country music was born in Bristol.

The recent 2018 US Congressional election in Tennessee District 1 provides us guidance to predict future election results throughout rural America. I was the Democratic candidate. Now that the dust has cleared and the country is gearing up for the 2020 election, I am ready to publicly talk about what it was like to be a candidate. Thus far, this has been the hardest column for me to write for the Community Voices series. I deeply appreciate the support I received from local East Tennessee Democrats, but I also feel I owe all citizens a truthful report of my experience.

I ran against Congressman Phil Roe, also a doctor, and whom I consider a friend. I ran as a moderate, recalling many elections in the past where, if I liked the Republican candidate or agenda better, I voted for the Republican candidate, and if I thought the Democratic agenda or candidate was better, then I voted for the Democrat. It used to be that moderates decided many elections, so both parties competed for their votes.

I learned things are not that way anymore. Now, parties work to fire up their bases in order to win elections.

My campaign was designed to appeal to voters who might want to change elements of our healthcare system, better fight the opioid epidemic, or improve components of our educational system. I thought that finding a middle ground where areas of agreement could be found was key toward moving forward. I didn't want to fire up a base; I appealed for responsible change. I thought that two parties competing for rural votes would result in better service to the citizens.

A campaign event in Shady Valley made me think about the fact Democrats were once strong advocates for rural America. But now, rather than seeing rural America as an opportunity for gaining new votes, many Democratic party leaders have decided to ignore it.

When I campaigned at Shady Valley’s Cranberry Festival, the citizens were pleased to see me. I heard, “Wow, I’ve never met a Democratic candidate before,” many times. There was good-natured teasing about a Democratic nominee in this predominantly Republican community, but mostly I felt appreciation from voters that a candidate cared enough to visit.

The Cranberry Festival supports Shady Valley’s local school, a beautiful historic building constructed from native stone. The school, built in an era when wood was cheaper than plaster, had interior walls of board lumber. The boards had numerous tiny holes showing their native chestnut origin. Over the building’s main door was engraved, “Works Progress Administration.”

This school building was constructed through a Depression-era Democratic government program. Consider that government program — it hired local construction workers, purchased local stone and lumber, and built a school that students still attend three generations later. A Democratic government program once positively and strongly reached out to this community where people now have never even met a Democratic candidate.

The national Democrats ignored my campaign. I never even received a “Thanks for running,” email. Of course I recognize that limited resources mean that dollars are sent to where they have the most impact, and the national Democrats didn’t believe that was in East Tennessee. That is their right. Some state Democratic leaders, however, went much further — they actively obstructed my campaign. The statewide “coordinated campaign” refused to let volunteers pass out my campaign literature. I was made aware of donors who were contacted and told not to contribute to my campaign.

This experience showed me that conservative Democratic candidates who might appeal to rural voters are not welcome in today’s Democratic Party. I think this is unfortunate since the divide between urban America and rural America will only widen as each party appeals to its base. Interestingly, projected population changes for the next 20 years reveal that, in the election of 2040, rural voters will be will be less than one third of the population overall, but will elect two-thirds of the senators. The Democratic Party appears to have shifted even further left than it was in 2018; they appear to have conceded the U.S. Senate for decades.

My experience as a Democratic candidate was not unique. I spoke to five of my predecessor Democratic nominees for TN 01 during the campaign; only one was glad he ran. Another one is now a Republican. None were ever active in politics again.

Put me down for another who is glad that he ran. I learned much about myself in addition to learning much about my neighbors. I appreciate the hundreds of people who supported my campaign and the 47,138 people who voted for me. My campaign team and I did not win, but we did help the region begin new dialogues on issues such as opioid addiction.

I plan to continue confronting opioid addiction and other serious issues in my work and in public outreach. But I can’t be a credible messenger as a member of a party which ignores rural America; I’ll need to separate myself from the Democratic Party. My brief and unspectacular career as a Democrat is over, but I look forward to using the skills I gained to promote progress here in East Tennessee.

Dr. Marty Olsen is an obstetrics and gynecology physician in Johnson City. He has interests in international medicine and in confronting the opioid epidemic.

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