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Rural Candidates Reckon with Mainstream Messaging

November 29, 2021 by Reece Nations
Rural Candidates Reckon with Mainstream Messaging
Terlingua, Texas. (Photo by Mick Haupt via Unsplash)

SAN ANTONIO — Although much of the state’s social and political fabric has changed since the last Texas Democrat won a statewide office in 1994, the party has repeatedly failed to capitalize through its messaging on Republicans’ miscues.

Now, with new opportunities on the horizon, rural candidates are making their mark in down-ballot contests in competitive elections throughout the state. Despite not being officially affiliated with the state Democratic party, Texas’ 134 PAC is taking action to reshape rural voters’ conception of what Democratic candidates represent.

The political action committee encompasses the ideals of voters in the 134 counties between El Paso and the Interstate-35 corridor and strategizes with candidates in rural counties to flesh out the full political spectrum in the broad region. Stuart Williams, executive director of The 134 PAC and former Lubbock County Democratic Party chair, told The Well News that rural candidates are turning to alternative messaging to the mainstream Democratic party in their appeal to voters.

From working to expand early voting hours in the state, establishing a Democratic presence in the 39 counties in the region that lack a county chair for the party or organizing campaigns for county-level offices and beyond, the 134 PAC is making strides for equal representation on the ballot throughout the west Texas countryside. One may assume the vast, rural stretches west of I-35 are sparsely populated, but it’s actually home to nearly 3 million people and 1.8 million voting-age residents.

In his campaign announcement, Beto O’Rourke was quick to hone in on Texas’ permitless carry law championed by conservatives under Gov. Greg Abbott — describing it as an “extremist” policy that only serves to further divide residents. However, Williams said that high-profile candidates like O’Rourke miss the mark by vowing to take firearms away, even if the principles supporting that kind of policy are well-founded.

“I think one of the things that I’d like to see [O’Rourke] and some of these other folks in the party talk about is maybe not so much coming in and taking things away, but talking about what the Republicans have done,” Williams told The Well News. 

“I think the more important thing is Republicans have been at the head of the Texas government for 20 years, and if there is a problem then they’re the ones whose feet that problem lays at. And, more importantly, I don’t hear anyone talking about how the governor went against police associations and police unions in his state when he signed that permitless carry bill. No one wanted it, no one needed it, except a few people in his party.”

That kind of messaging applies to issues beyond just the intersection of gun control reform and gun owners’ rights, he said. While there’s no topic too nuanced or contentious for the candidates to spend time on the campaign trail hashing out, it’s crucial that these candidates do so in intimate settings where the voters can be heard one-on-one — rather than through megaphones or loudspeakers at crowded rallies.

Overall, Williams said he’s encouraged by O’Rourke and Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Mike Collier for taking the fight to Republicans on hot-button issues, such as Medicaid expansion and rural broadband rollout. In June, Abbott vetoed a bill that would have provided funding assistance for rural telecom companies to provide residents with voice over internet protocol, or VoIP services.

Abbott justified the move by saying millions of Texans would have been charged a new fee and other bills he signed significantly expanded broadband access in rural areas. Jon Mark Hogg, founder of The 134 PAC, told The Well News that Republicans often talk big on providing rural support without delivering on those promises.

“The Republican Party has abandoned a lot of principles, which are truly democratic values as well, such as local control,” Hogg said. “You know, that’s what this whole state government [was] founded on … making decisions at the local level. There are unique opportunities for Democrats to have a message on things like that. And the thing you also find is Democrats tend to get too involved in the weeds on the policy issues.”

Assuming that rural voters pick their favorite candidates based on the best policy proposals is incorrect, he said. Rather, rural voters typically prefer to pick candidates they personally relate to or who satisfy certain “tribal” qualities. Democrats may make lofty pledges on delivering broadband or health care, but that becomes meaningless if they don’t present themselves in an identifiable way, Hogg said.

“We’re not worried about 2022, whatever is going to happen in 2022 is going to happen,” Hogg told The Well News. “There’s nothing we can do to change that appreciably, but what we’re interested in is 2032 and 2042. And that’s where I think the [Democratic] party is missing the boat.” 

Reece can be reached at reece@thewellnews.com.

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