Can political consultants Dave “Mudcat” Saunders and Steve Jarding win rural voters back to the Democratic party?
by Matt Labash
Roanoke, Virginia – “YOU’RE SLOWER than cream rising on s–. Haul ass down here so we can get this piece knocked out, Brotha!” As I barrel down I-81 in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders is growling on the other end of the line. He first entered my consciousness in the summer of 2003, like some force of nature sent my way by the Color Gods of Feature Writing.
Back then, I was one of a group of short-straw reporters assigned to cover Bob Graham’s “family vacation,” a Winnebago caravan across Iowa that, in a lucky break for the Graham grandchildren, coincided with presidential campaign season. Stuck on a chaser pontoon on the Mississippi River for a fishing photo-op, we watched Graham, on the lead boat, do what he did best throughout the campaign: aimlessly drift.
Mudcat (a childhood nickname earned by tireless bottom-fishing of the Roanoke River) was serving as Graham’s “Bubba Coordinator.” A couple of years earlier, Mudcat and his mentor, Steve Jarding, had become a hot ticket: They’d masterminded Mark Warner’s ride to the governor’s mansion in Virginia by figuring out how he could pick off the rural vote, a feat Democrats hadn’t accomplished in the state in nearly a generation. Subsequently, the two formalized their partnership and hung out a shingle, calling the firm “Rural Renaissance.” After a brief stint with John Edwards, whose campaign they fled over philosophical differences with other staffers, the pair signed on with Graham, who himself had entered the race so late that his poll numbers never stopped resembling those of Dennis Kucinich.
That morning on the Mississippi, Graham hands had imported Mudcat to give good quote, attempting to distract us from the candidate’s inadequacies. But Mudcat too had to suffer the indignities of a tanking campaign. His hotel room had mistakenly been given away the night before, so he’d been forced to sleep at a truck stop, where he’d taken a $3 shower. He showed up on our pontoon boat Ivory-fresh and full of vinegar. He explained away Graham’s lack of success as a fisherman by highlighting the candidate’s unique catch-and-release system: “He releases them before he catches them.” He told us that he suspected the Potomac River was the holiest in the world, since “you can take the dumbest sonofabitch and put him on the other side of that river and all of a sudden it becomes Good Will Hunting.” When querulous reporters tried to kick his man’s slats in, he didn’t get nervous or defensive. Instead, he threatened to “Bobby Knight y’all’s ass.”
All told, it was a bravura performance. After a few captive hours under Mudcat’s spell, listening to him spin how Graham could take the South, how he was knowledgeable enough to discuss “the gestation period of the Antarctic kiwi,” how he could make the blind see and the lame walk, even the most hard-bitten among us thought Graham would last longer than another month and a half, which is actually all he had left. I also remember imagining that Mudcat would be even livelier without the encumbrance of a dead-weight candidate. I imagined right.
I decided to renew the acquaintance upon reading that he and Jarding had just signed with Simon & Schuster to do a book for mid-six-figures, not bad for two campaign strategists whose candidate had finished way out of the money. Just try to conceive of anyone reading the political musings of John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, let alone paying for the privilege.
Foxes in the Henhouse is due to be released next spring. It is probably the first pox-on-both-parties manifesto to come with a companion CD. Mudcat, 56, is a bluegrass fiend who hopes to get many of his friends in the music world to contribute to the disc. Bluegrass royalty like the Del McCoury clan and Ralph Stanley Jr. (who he simply calls “Two”) are his compadres. He’s already working out the title song for the CD with bluegrass virtuoso Ronnie Bowman, who’s cowritten, along with Music Row Democrats cofounder Don Cook, Brooks & Dunn’s current chart-topping single. Mudcat guards the Foxes lyrics as if they were his daughter’s chastity (though he’s pretty generous in sharing his other verse via email, including a favorite break-up poem he sent a girl, elegantly titled “F–you”: I’m glad that you treated me rotten / I’m glad that you made me cry / Cause it’s much, much easier to say ‘F–you’ / Than it is to say ‘Good-bye’).
The book itself, as Mudcat describes it, will “take a wire brush to Republicans” for peeling off traditional Democrats in southern and rural areas under false pretenses, first through Nixon’s race-tinged Southern Strategy, then by suckering Reagan Democrats after preaching the gospel of limited government and heartland values while selling their jobs out to big business and socking the country with runaway deficits. But the screed is not only a prescription for how to bring those Democrats home on issues such as gays and guns. It’s a stink-bomb lobbed at fellow Democrats–or as Mudcat often calls them, “f–in’ Democrats,” the northeastern liberals who he feels have contempt for his culture, and whom he dislikes more than he dislikes Republicans. (While the “foxes” in their tale are Republicans, Democratic leaders aren’t so much hens as they are “possums–the ones who roll over and play dead.”)
By now, it should be clear that Mudcat has a foul-language problem. It is the rare utterance that goes by without some similar indelicacy. But he doesn’t curse for shock value so much as for percussion, working the blue words like a kick-drum to help his sentences get off on time. “My vocabulary is less than 200 words,” he says by way of apology, asking at one point, as a favor to his aged mother, that I not quote him saying he no longer goes to “goddamn church.” I accede. (What he actually said was “f–ing church.”)
Which is not to say the lifelong Baptist isn’t big on Jesus. As a kid, he preached a youth service in which two congregants got saved. Unlike most political types, particularly of the Democratic persuasion, he is unabashed about his faith, to the point that he calls it “blasphemy” to employ it for political ends. He thinks the pulpit is no place for politics, and vice versa. It’s part of the reason he quit attending.
“I got sick of preachers telling me how great Reagan was.” (He voted for Reagan in 1980, though he now claims, “I was drunk.”) “Jesus don’t give endorsements,” Mudcat thunders. “He don’t give a damn about partisan politics. G-O-P, God’s Only Party–that’s bool-sheet. And it’s bool-sheet that He’s a Democrat–they’ll tell you to doomsday about Him healing the sick and clothing the nekkid, as if that’s proof. He’s too big to get involved in partisan politics. I know this, because when I’m in politics, and pray about it, I don’t get any answers. But when I pray about my heart, I get an answer right now.”
AFTER I CHECK INTO the Hotel Roanoke, Mudcat picks me up in his SUV, wearing the usual: shorts, MotorCraft “Wood Brothers” ballcap, and a slack, all-purpose smile that could equally be saying “Welcome to Roanoke!” or “What the hell are you looking at?” He smokes like a Rustbelt factory. His dashboard features a pack of Winstons, his round-the-clock cigarette, as well as unfiltered Camels, which he uses to mainline nicotine when some restaurant or other nanny-state nuisance is about to make him go without.
As we drive off, he is already under the full sway of the religious tunes blaring from his stereo. He DJs furiously, as he will throughout my visit, both at home and in the car. During interviews, conversation halts and important points are lost as he leans over and says, “Listen to this, Brotha,” then strives with all his might to hit the high, lonesome notes. He plays his preselected “funeral song,” Junior Sisk’s version of “Purple Robe” (which Junior has already agreed to show up and sing, assuming Mudcat goes first).
He also blares the Bluegrass Brothers’ version of “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire.” In between croaking the chorus (If you don’t from sin retire / He will set your fields on fire), he tells me about fulfilling his duties as Bubba Coordinator for various candidates.
For Graham, Mudcat tapped his contacts in the worlds of stock car racing, bluegrass, and Bubba-land generally, to turn out Dr. Ralph Stanley, Daytona champ Ward Burton, and Ben “Cooter” Jones from The Dukes of Hazzard for a single event. Scoff if you will, but in some pockets of rural Virginia, this lineup is tantamount to producing the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
When working with Mark Warner, he actually enlisted the Bluegrass Brothers to record Warner’s campaign song. Mudcat had written the words in the shower, setting them to the music of “Dooley,” which was originally sung by the Dillards of The Andy Griffith Show. This, on top of getting Jon Wood of the Wood Brothers racing dynasty to drive a “Mark Warner” emblazoned Ford F-150 in NASCAR’s Craftsman truck series.
With Mudcat overseeing the pyrotechnics and Jarding rolling out Warner’s pro-rural policy initiatives, to give his message both substance and street-cred, the pair pulled off a victory all the more eye-popping in that their candidate was far from the best on paper to execute the Bubba strat-egy. Their maneuvers (Mudcat describes himself as a sergeant to Jarding’s general) helped Warner–a Connecticut-raised, Harvard Law-educated telecom millionaire–get over with southwestern Virginia voters, to the tune of picking up 101,000 votes. These came from the very same voters who’d given Democrats spankings for years, and who just 12 months before had rejected Democrat Chuck Robb against Republican George Allen for the Senate by roughly the same margin.
Even Republicans have to give the pair their due, sort of. While Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, speculates that Mudcat and Jarding will “probably be ignored” by their party, he calls their line “one-third true, two-thirds hokum. It’s a Carville-lite act with a NASCAR twist, aimed mostly at neurotic urban liberal reporters who love the southern fried two-fisted-damn-Democrat’n’proud-of-it noble savage shtick.” Murphy adds that they “need to win a few more races before I (or Graham or Edwards) grant any big genius kudos. That said, I like Mudcat, and they do understand how to win governor’s races in the South.”
Considering that two southern governors are the only Democrats who’ve won the presidency in the last 35 years, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Neither is Mudcat and Jarding’s feel for southern white males, particularly rural ones, who used to be Democrats’ most reliable constituency and now can’t leave the party fast enough. These voters helped George W. Bush clean-sweep the South twice–the first time against Al Gore, a southern white Protestant. Even Bill Clinton, a southern white Protestant with more persuasive Bubba credentials, managed to carry only four southern states in each of his two victories. (By contrast, John Kennedy, a northeastern Catholic, garnered six.)
One of Mudcat’s myriad cris de coeur (besides the lament that Democrats “have no testosterone” and are unable to “get through the culture” of the South) is that his party can’t count. “Politics is about addition, that’s all it is. It’s not difficult,” he says, giving me a primer on Mudcat math. “If I go get a white male,” he asks, “how many votes do I get?” One, I reply. “No,” he says impatiently, “I get two. Because I just took one away from Republicans.”
It is the most elegantly simple precept, he says, one that could end the Democratic drought, and yet they don’t see it because they think targeting Bubba males alienates their base and smacks of racism. “No it doesn’t,” he says. “My African-American friends want to win as much as I do. . . . Democrats are insane. They say Republicans are insane, but they win. I don’t see anything insane about winning.”
Time after time, Mudcat says, he butts up against the intellectual condescension of the northeastern ruling elite in his party, who dismiss a counteroffensive out of hand.
When he and Jarding approached the Democratic National Committee about sponsoring a NASCAR truck decked out with fire-snorting donkey nostrils–as they’d done successfully with Warner, and as everyone from the NRA to the U.S. Navy has also done, as a way to start cracking the culture–he says they were rebuffed. “It wasn’t the demographic they were going for.” I ask what they were going for. “Fat women from New England,” he snaps.
Or take John Kerry, he says, a prototypical modern Democrat, who when it comes to the South alternates between not trying at all and looking like he’s trying too hard. At one campaign stop, Kerry forsook his classical guitar to break into some Johnny Cash. “I’ll tell anyone who will listen how much I enjoy playing ‘Ring of Fire,'” Kerry dorkishly told Newsweek.
Mudcat says that on the trail once, Kerry took him aside and told him that after the nomination was locked up, the campaign was headed south and Mudcat could “be there for the ride.” A few weeks later, back home in New England, at Dartmouth, Kerry told an audience, “Everybody always makes the mistake of looking south,” pointing out that Al Gore nearly became president without winning one southern state. “Now did you see Bush concede any state?” Mudcat asks rhetorically. “Hell no. The Democrats are a bunch of dumb-asses, is what they are.” The way Mudcat sees it, Kerry telegraphed contempt for southerners, and in one fell swoop shot the bird to one-fourth of the country. “I’m not going to call him phony,” says Mudcat, “But I am going to say he sprayed down my leg and told me it was raining.”
MUDCAT’S HOUSE smacks up against the Blue Ridge foothills, with Back Creek snaking through a front lawn that is littered with deer feed and bow-hunting buck targets on which he scores lung shots, yawning, from 50 yards away. A moralist at heart, he won’t shoot actual deer in his own yard.
It’s an appropriate abode for a guy who’s gotten so much mileage out of being a specialist in NASCAR Dads, though the term itself elicits an eruption of expletives. To his credit, he hates it. It has the ring of an election-year neologism (Security Moms, Office Park Dads, Duplicate Bridge Club Aunts) hatched by political consultants eager to keep up their chat-show bookings by conning producers into thinking they’ve figured out a new wrinkle.
Mudcat prefers to call them “white males” or just “Bubbas,” not only because it annoys the elites in his own party, but because NASCAR fandom itself is grossly misunderstood. Forty percent of the followers of stock car racing are women, and only 38 percent live in the South (a new track is opening in Staten Island). The advantages of slapping a candidate’s name on a car, silly as it seems to some, are obvious, Mudcat says. NASCAR fans are fiercely loyal, and they are three times more likely than the average consumer to buy products advertised on their favorite driver’s car. For a candidate who does this, it’s just one weapon in his arsenal, he says. It won’t win you a political race, but it can get you a hearing with voters who would otherwise be indifferent. “It’s branding, Brotha, just like Downy and Budweiser.”
He jokes that I’ll have him wearing a coonskin cap by the time I write the piece. But that would only be a slight exaggeration. Mudcat has made a nice chunk as a local real-estate developer (politics largely being a hobbyhorse). He and his real-estate partner, a regional publishing magnate named Richard Wells, are partly responsible for revitalizing downtown Roanoke. But his house is a modest converted migrant worker’s shack with low ceilings and heart-pine floors. Twice-divorced with two daughters who don’t live with him, he inhabits a monument to southern bachelorhood and legal violence.
The big-screen in his living room features a constant loop of NASCAR races and hunting shows. The decor is Davy Crockett as told by Ted Nugent. A bobcat that met its end by Mudcat’s hand serves as a valance over his living-room window. Antlers protrude on every side, and turkey beards and feet, used to make hat-bands, junk up his refrigerator. In his study, where Mudcat’s knocking out his section of the book (Jarding’s doing most of the heavy lifting), nine monster buck heads, mounted but not hung, sit on the floor in a semicircle around his computer stand, as if they were trying to spy a glance at what their liquidator is writing. Even his cat, named Kitty, is a stone-cold killer, preying on everything from rabbits to bats, and regularly leaving gut-piles on Mudcat’s porch.
When Howard Dean stepped in it, during the run-up to primary season 2004, by suggesting that his party needed to appeal to guys who have Confederate-flag decals on their pickup trucks, Mudcat was his target demographic. Mudcat’s bedspread is a large Confederate flag, which he pedantically insists is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. The rest of the Confederacy appropriated it, he says, because it was Virginians like J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson who “did most of the ass-kicking.”
Since his own great-grandfather got his shoulder blown out by a yankee at Seven Pines, Mudcat is a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But he wants it made absolutely clear that his celebration of heritage doesn’t mean he’s some racist–a common misconception, he says, which is why his fellow Democrats reacted to Dean as though he’d advocated electrocuting puppies.
Many of Mudcat’s hunting buddies are black, and he points out that he hasn’t shot any of them. In fact, he regularly pronounces against the racists who have tarnished his culture. He keeps a loaded shotgun set against a wall in his dining room, not only to “blast varmints,” but also to warn any racists who’ve heard his taunts and want to stop by for an unfriendly debate. “I’d shoot one of them, and not feel a thing,” he says.
Standing around his kitchen, he offers me a beer. I ask if he has anything stronger, and he looks at me like I’m in for it now. Rummaging through his freezer, past the bear slabs and deer burgers, rainbow trout and frog-legs (much of which he will send home with me in a Styrofoam cooler), he pulls out a mason jar of purple stuff, a damson plum bobbing in it like a cork.
His house sits near the Franklin County line, which is the moonshine capital of the world. Everyone around here, a friend of his later tells me, has “either made it once, hauled it twice, or drank it a lot.” Mudcat commands me to “hit some of this.” I take a polite swallow and hand it back. Once a ferocious alcoholic, Mudcat hasn’t had a drink in 22 years. He calls his sobriety “a gift from God.” But he mocks my baby sip, saying, “Take a damn drink of likker, Boy.”
I take five successive gulps, and am amazed by its smooth, fruity finish. This is followed by a 200-proof mule-kick to the head, like drinking two double bourbons through a straw, fast. “There you go,” he says, approvingly. He screws the top back on, then hands me the jar. “Give some of this to Bill Kristol,” he says, “I like him. Tell him I can make a run if he needs some pint bottles to give to his friends at Christmas.”
“He’s Jewish,” I say.
“Well then tell him Happy Hanukkah from Mudcat,” he responds.
Our revelry is interrupted by a rap at the door. One of Mudcat’s neighbors has come over with a friend who wants to meet him. Seeing I’m a reporter, the neighbor introduces himself as Cravin Moorehead, a name I use all evening. Not until later when I’m transcribing my tapes, and sound out the name real slow, do I realize I’ve been had. His friend is Bobby the Eye Doctor. They are both deep into vodka tonics, which they’ve brought with them in plastic cups. They are celebrating Cravin’s first kill of turkey season, which ends in only two days. “I’ve got the monkey off my back,” Cravin says, after going 27 straight mornings without pulling the trigger.
When Cravin tells Bobby I’m profiling Mudcat, Bobby asks if I work for a hunting magazine. He has no idea of Mudcat’s political involvements. Bobby just wanted to meet him, because Mudcat is something of a legendary hunter in the area. The winner of numerous “big-buck” contests, Mudcat likes to spend every day of deer season up on the mountain, one of the reasons he says he honestly doesn’t care if he ever touches another campaign. And he’s known to scout the terrain months before the season opens. “Rednecks drink beer and watch their big-screens,” says Mudcat. “Bubba scouts.”
We adjourn to the porch, and talk hunting for what seems like several hours, while Mudcat encourages the boys to finish off the damson, “cause after this story comes out, I can’t have this s–in the house.” After hearing about my magazine, Bobby identifies himself as a “f–in’ die-hard Republican. I love W. He’s the man!” Mudcat settles in with his iced tea, and goes to work on Bobby’s head. He drills him over the Contract With America, not because Mudcat disagrees with it, but because he says power-drunk, decadent Republicans have largely forsaken their principles and quit acting like Republicans.
Bobby takes strong issue, saying you can’t blame Republicans for the deficit, since the economy is partly responsible. “Well they write the goddamned budget!” says Mudcat. “And the president is a Republican–who else do I blame?” Mudcat tells Bobby he may be a Democrat, but he’s a fiscal conservative who believes in the sanctity of the Constitution and has a poor opinion of the Patriot Act. Furthermore, he tells Bobby that “there ain’t 50 cents difference in you and I politically.” Sure, Bobby’s a good Baptist who thinks gays have no right to get married, while Mudcat thinks it’s a states-rights issue, and takes a more laissez faire attitude toward homosexuals, as long as he’s not the object of their attentions.
But much as he did during the Warner campaign, when he and Jarding neutralized the NRA by forming their own pro-gun sportsmen’s committees, Mudcat sings the glories of gun rights, and tells Bobby that as a sportsman he should be grievously offended that Bush relaxed standards on coal-fired generators. “They’re throwing 3.2 percent more acid rain in our streams,” he emphasizes. “They’re killin’ our f–in’ brook trout. They’re gone!”
Bobby, who earlier said he didn’t want to talk politics, by now is nodding furiously. Hitting an array of other cultural issues–mostly Democratic planks formulated in Bubba English–Mudcat’s about ready to draw the net. He says that to keep their rural children home, they need to give them a reason to stay, through investment and better education. “We need to keep our culture,” says Mudcat.
“Yeah,” amens Bobby, and “what’s the bulls–with the ban on Sunday hunting?”
“You’re not a redneck,” says Mudcat. “You’re the spirit of Bubba, son. Just like Cravin sitting over there.” He tells them that inside every rural Republican is a Democrat trying to get out. If a Democrat “would give you a reason to vote for him, you’d vote for him,” promises Mudcat. “But they don’t know how to shoot at Bubba.”
He brings up Sportsmen for Kerry as an example, saying that the group’s number one initiative was fully funding national parks. “Why the f–do we want to fully fund parks we can’t hunt?” screams Mudcat. Even Cravin, who’s gone completely mellow in his vodka-tonic stupor, but who periodically interrupts with outbursts in which he refers to himself in the third person, interjects, “Cravin Moorehead says that don’t make any sense!”
By now, Mudcat is feeding off his audience. “I can take you down the road to Damascus in about four hours,” he tells the boys.
“C’mon, Paul,” says Bobby, “Bring it!”
“I can’t make you vote for a Democrat,” Mudcat continues, “But I can make you look at one.” By the time we all take the fraternal leak in Mudcat’s yard, Bobby the Eye Doctor, the former die-hard Republican, is ready to look, assuring Mudcat, “You know what? I vote for the person, not the party.”
After hours of listening to Mudcat talk about how he hates foreign interventions but supports a robust military, about how he detests high taxes and profligate spending, about how he can’t stand demonizing all rich people as greedheads, and how he’s fervently pro-Second Amendment, I tell him he sounds an awful lot like an old-school Republican. Why not save some time and just become one? “Because since the beginning of time, the big sonofabitch has kicked the little sonofabitch’s ass,” he says. “Republicans are the big sonsofbitches. And I happen to like the little sonsofbitches. They’re my people.”
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Mudcat offers a crash course on “The Culture.” He takes me to one of his many hunt clubs in the mountains, to pull rainbow trout out of a stocked pond. He wheels me over to Franklin County’s Callaway USA, a legendary outlaw racetrack run by his good friend Whitey Taylor.
Whitey is a promotions genius who features attractions from schoolbus races to tracks hosed down with water on final laps for a little slip’n’slide. Amateurs are encouraged to push their junkers to the limit, though Whitey gets mad when they hit the wall and catch fire. His fire extinguishers cost more than many of the cars. His philosophy: “Let it burn. It’s part of the show, man.”
The only things Whitey says you need at his track are a “seatbelt, a helmet, and no brains–nobody’s been disqualified for the latter yet.” When we pull up to the track, Mudcat doesn’t stop in the parking lot, or even drive over to the infield. Instead, he guns it right onto the track proper, opening up his brand new Jeep Cherokee. He nearly flips us on the steep embankment of the first turn, while feathering us out of the high groove on the second. As I white-knuckle it, he lets out a rebel yell: “I’ll show you a NASCAR Dad, Brotha!” (We later found out he ruined his tires, but Whitey called to say we made the house record book for logging the fastest lap done by a late model SUV “without us having to empty out your britches.”)
Our best excursion, however, is a predawn turkey hunt on Bent Mountain. He’s carrying heavy gear and I just a notebook, yet he seems to walk twice as fast as I can on the five-mile trek over hill and hollow. Mudcat moves through the brush like a shadow, while branches whack me in the face as I lag. “Sorry,” he says, “didn’t mean to Three-Stooges you.”
Boasting of his hunter’s skill at bird calls, he says he can summon “a turkey egg up a hill.” But despite his best efforts using a wooden Lynch Box, then a turkey diaphragm, a little rubber piece that he pops into his mouth (and which he says can also be used for contraception with “wild hillbilly women”), the turkeys seem to have gone into hiding. So instead we’re left identifying animal droppings. “That’s bear,” he says, pointing to a pile that looks like a Wendy’s double-cheeseburger without the cheese. “And that’s coyote, you can tell because of the hair in it.” I’m impressed by his breadth of knowledge. He says, “Mudcat knows his s–.”
He explains that deer droppings are vital to the expert hunter. If you pop a few in your mouth, you can tell if it’s a buck or a doe that you’re tracking. The buck’s is bitter, the doe’s sweeter because of her mammary glands. As we encounter some, I challenge him to chow down. “Not fresh enough to tell,” he says.
The downtime allows me to get his biographical particulars. After college at Virginia Tech, he became a local sportswriter. Instead of going to the games as instructed by his editor, however, he’d often listen to the play-by-play on the radio at the Coffee Pot, a raucous roadhouse that featured the likes of Root Boy Slim, who used to vomit on stage after playing “Boogie Til You Puke.”
Working at a paper in Newport News, Mudcat was briefly assigned to the Baltimore Colts, and relished all the free Schaefer’s beer and crabcakes in the press box. But he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. In the lockerroom one day, Mudcat noticed Johnny Unitas’s shower habits and asked him why he dried his nether regions before his head. He wasn’t invited back. It was probably just as well. Mudcat had tired of dealing with “the egos of big men in short pants,” and was ready for a change. After serial unemployment, and after developing an increasing problem with alcohol that resulted in lots of barfights (he says his career record is 0-67), he got into the real-estate game after cheating on the exam by buying old tests. “I didn’t know what a deed of trust was, but I knew it was ‘d’ on the multiple choice.”
He became one of the region’s top salesmen, but when the market took a downturn in the early ’80s, he nearly went bankrupt in every way, bottoming out with alcoholism and losing his family. He decided to blow his brains out on Sinking Creek Mountain. He rigged his rifle to make it look like a hunting accident, which would allow his relatives to collect some life insurance. But as he was about to pull the trigger, he stopped and prayed, saying, “God, if you’re there, help me.” He looked up and saw the bluest sky he’d ever seen. “I heard birds singing and s–,” he says. “I wasn’t like Oral Roberts. I didn’t see any 75-story Jesus. But to me, hearing birds tweeting and seeing blue sky, it was a miracle. I started thinking things might be all right.”
Afterwards, he gave up booze, and remastered the real-estate market. But he got itchy for some new action around 2001. His old DUI lawyer and friend Dickie Cranwell, then a powerhouse in the Virginia legislature, introduced him to the Warner campaign and Steve Jarding. Jarding had some unusual ideas about how to pick up rural voters, but needed someone with the contacts and touch to make it happen. The two were made for each other, and have been a team since. “He’s a political genius,” Mudcat says of his partner. “He’s the hammer, I’m just a nail.”
As we come off the mountain, we see a fresh, gleaming pile of deer droppings. “You gonna eat some?” he asks, since I had earlier promised to. “No chance,” I tell him, “I thought you were kidding.” He picks a few pellets up, and pops them in his mouth. After chewing them thoughtfully, he renders a verdict. “Buck,” he declares. “What does it taste like?” I ask, now in medical shock. “Like s–,” he says.
I MEET MUDCAT’S PARTNER at a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. It is where Steve Jarding lives when not teaching up at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a place that has provided the two with a pool of eager researchers for their book. They call the kids “The Dukes of Harvard” with gleeful irony, since Harvard is the very bastion of northeastern elitism they are decrying. “These kids haven’t been ruined yet,” says Mudcat.
Jarding is as reclusive as Mudcat is media-friendly. When I ask him to provide a photo because I’ve been unable to find one of him, he says, “Good. I hate photos.” A burly 47-year-old who wears a “Deny Everything” ballcap, Jarding grew up in small towns across South Dakota, and like Mudcat is an avid hunter. He is the youngest of eight children, whose father died when he was four months old. His mom was a Nixon Republican, but steadily grew more liberal, resenting the way Republicans soured voters against their government when, after all, it was the government that gave her a Social Security check to help make ends meet, and put all eight of her children through college when she had no money to send them.
Jarding is a purer partisan than Mudcat. In South Dakota, he was George McGovern’s paper boy, and his first political gig came at 10 years old, when he volunteered for Bobby Kennedy. On the morning after Kennedy was shot, his Hubert Humphrey-loving uncle broke the news. A gutfighter even then, Jarding says, “I was pissed. I asked him, ‘Why did they kill Kennedy and not Humphrey?'”
After a series of local and state Democratic party political jobs, he spent much of the ’90s attached to former Senator Bob Kerrey. When it became clear Kerrey wouldn’t run for president in 2000, Jarding took over Warner’s campaign, and, as was his custom, checked in with Mark Gersh, an electoral numbers whiz at the National Committee for an Effective Congress. When Jarding told him he was working Warner, Gersh told Jarding that was too bad, because Warner couldn’t win with just Virginia’s traditional Democratic base.
Jarding insisted there were legions of untapped rural persuadables, and “Gersh lit up like a lamp,” says Jarding. “He said, ‘Not only do I believe it, I’ll show you.'” Gersh told Jarding that all of his research indicated that there were more persuadable voters in rural areas than in the suburbs. The data suggested formerly Democratic rural voters were voting Republican out of habit, and largely on cultural issues, but they weren’t necessarily satisfied customers. Jarding says 25 years after the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, “they said they hadn’t gotten a damn thing for that vote. ‘Our infrastructure is falling apart, we don’t have any jobs here, we can’t make a living.’ According to Gersh’s research, they were pissed off. Gersh said, ‘They’re voting Republican, but they’re not Republican. You can get them back.’ I said, ‘How do I get them back?’ He said, ‘That’s your job, I’m just telling you they’re out there.'”
Jarding met Mudcat, launched their rural offensive, and the rest is election history. While Jarding is more of a traditional Democrat than Mudcat, he’s just as peevish when it comes to recent Democratic behavior toward rural and southern voters: “If you say to them, ‘You’re voting against your own economic interest,’ is that true? Damn right, it’s true. But it sounds belittling. It sounds like you’re saying, ‘You’re an idiot.’ No, Democrats, you’re the idiots. They’re voting on their values. They’re voting on something out there, because the other side gave them something to vote on. You’ve given them nothing, and while you’re doing that, suicide rates are up. Unemployment rates are up. Wages are down–it’s a terrible mess in rural America. And you’ve got the economic issues where you can go get ’em, but you’ve got to get through the culture and through to their values. Don’t act like they don’t exist. Democrats miss that point, and if they get that point, they’re going to win a helluva lot of races.”
When I ask Jarding why Democrats should necessarily concentrate on a demographic that’s been hostile to them, since there’s only a finite pie and limited resources, he grows increasingly animated: “I’d say let Republicans make that argument. Go to rural America and say, ‘You’re a finite pie, so screw you! All 21 percent of the country of you, all 60 million of you. You’re a finite pie!” Jarding, who nearly entered the priesthood before casting his lot in politics, says, “It’s a moral argument. How morally right is it for our Democratic nominee for president to tell 60 million people, ‘You don’t matter to me’?”
Jarding says it’s high time Democrats stopped worrying about appeasing the base, which isn’t big enough to win national elections, and started making inroads into the approximately 35 percent of the country–the South–that they’re ceding, by breaking it down into component pools.
He gives Louisiana as an example: Bush won the state last year by 283,413 votes. Using Mudcat math, that means the Dems would have to turn around 142,000 votes of the two million cast (pool one), while also courting the one million eligible voters who didn’t vote (pool two). After hitting the one million or so hunters and sportsmen (pool three), the one quarter of the rural voters living below the poverty line (pool four), and active and retired military personnel (pool five), tailoring a pitch to each, all of a sudden winning 142,000 new votes seems rather manageable. Democrats, however, have written off these regions altogether, which Jarding can’t understand. “This is not heavy math,” he says. “That is how we did it in Virginia and won.”
BACK IN MUDCAT’S ROANOKE LIVING ROOM, the hour is late, and the political handicapping is underway. Surprisingly, Mudcat is rather bullish on Hillary Clinton’s prospects, saying that while other Republicans and Democrats will “be banging on the left and right rails” throughout their primaries, it’s in her interest to run down the center all the way through, meaning she’d have a leg up on the general election.
I ask him if she could make inroads with the Bubbas, since her “Sooey!” calls at Razorback football games when she was first lady of Arkansas probably won’t cut much ice. Wouldn’t Bubba rather hit her with rotten fruit than see her name on a stock car?
“But why couldn’t she?” asks Mudcat. Bubba doesn’t need to know you’re one of him, he just needs to know you appreciate him. She already swung enough in upstate New York to become senator. And after all, he says, Bubbas aren’t just southerners. “What is Pennsylvania?” he asks. “It’s Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and it’s Alabama in the middle.”
It’s time to start looking at things differently, just as he wants me to, when he abruptly pops out of his chair, saying, “I almost forgot your keepsake.” He runs outside, then comes back in, flinging an empty box of Raisinets in my lap. Taped to the box on Waylon Jennings’s old stationery (given to him by Jennings’s widow Jessi Colter, a personal friend) is an inscription from Mudcat that says, “One box of Mudcat’s Deer S–.”
For half an hour or so, he glories in my humiliation. Then he turns things serious: “It’s one of the most frustrating things for me in my life. I can make you believe I ate deer s–. But I can’t get northeastern Democrats to believe they can get through the culture of the South.”
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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