Mudcat crashes the Party (Roanoke Times)

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders has co-written a Democratic playbook for taking back the White House.

By Beth Macy

Saunders (at home next to Roanoke County’s Crystal Creek) says Democrats need to talk about what rural Americans really worry about.

Can a guy who sleeps under a Confederate-flag bedspread really be the answer to the Democrats taking back the White House?

Can someone who says the only people he hates more than Republicans are opera-listening Northeastern Democrats persuade country folks to vote for Hillary Clinton?

Time will tell, but New York publisher Simon & Schuster certainly thinks so, having bet the farm and a six-figure marketing budget on a soon-to-be-released book co-authored by none other than Roanoke County developer Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.

Saunders, 57, teamed up with longtime consulting partner and Harvard professor Steve Jarding to write “Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out” ($24), available in bookstores March 28.

“Steve wrote the book; I added the cuss words,” Saunders jokes.

This is the same Mudcat who, as a young sportswriter, asked NFL quarterback great Johnny Unitas why he dried his privates before his face after a post-game shower.

The same Mudcat who, once he decided to stop killing himself with booze, made and lost millions selling real estate and helped Northern Virginia Democrat Mark Warner get elected governor of a red state by, among several other vintage Mudcat ideas, penning a bluegrass campaign song.

The same Mudcat who got his tanned and balding mug featured in The New York Times magazine and on the cover of The Weekly Standard, becoming the go-to guy for national reporters searching out freewheeling, in-your-face quotes — kind of a James Carville meets Dale Earnhardt meets Barney Fife.

Reporters in his home state may cringe and cry that Saunders is more hat than cowboy when they see him on TV’s “The Situation,” telling host Tucker Carlson that, when you get right down to it, the only reason people think they don’t like Hillary Clinton is “… They say she’s got big ankles.”

In “Foxes in the Henhouse,” Saunders and co-writer Steve Jarding Dave “Mudcat” Saunders have co-written a Democratic playbook for taking back the White House.
Saunders concedes to being a Rodney Dangerfield in his hometown: Maybe people are jealous of his rising profile, or maybe it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. He says he doesn’t go out much in Roanoke and might move to Nashville, Tenn., where some of his bluegrass-musician buddies live.

“I can get The New York Times to return my calls before The Roanoke Times,” he says.

And: “George [expletive] Bush would return my call before Darlene Burcham would!”

The ideas in “Foxes in the Henhouse” may not all be original. But the tone of the book is pure Mudcat: a breath of cow-pattied, countrified air.

Goin’ to the races

Jarding and Saunders’ prescription for the comeback of the Democratic party:

Lose “the wuss factor” and bone up on the culture of country people — even if it means forgetting about the women’s studies professors and the gay-rights activists. (They’ll vote for Democrats regardless, the authors argue.)

Instead, concentrate on broadening the base: Show rural people in the South and the heartland that, while you may not personally play the banjo, hunt deer or go to NASCAR races, you appreciate that they do.

If urban areas tend to go Democrat and suburban/exurban areas go Republican, “The swing vote is what’s left, and it lives in rural America,” Saunders says. “These people have been voting Republican, but they’re not really Republicans, and we need to show ’em why.”

Democrats need to reframe the debate and start talking about what rural Americans really worry about, he says.

“It’s unbelievable that Democrats can’t figure out that what we’re really worried about is health care and jobs, that Mama’s got to get a second job and how we’re getting Junior to the dentist.

“To me, as far as gays are concerned, … what’s two queer guys gettin’ married got to do with me losing my job?”

One of a slew of other political books being released on the same topic, “Foxes in the Henhouse” begins with a review of what Democratic presidents have done to improve the lives of rural and poor Americans, from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and how recent Republic administrations, the authors contend, have rolled back those social and economic gains.

‘A dog that’ll hunt’

Though many in their own party don’t agree that rural voters are the key to success, Jarding and Saunders point to their work on the Warner gubernatorial campaign — how they got the Northern Virginia cellphone magnate to convince voters in Henry County, for instance, that he cared about job losses and, oh by the way, that he appreciated their music, hunting and racing too.

“They told me it’d be $1.6 million [for Warner] to sponsor a NASCAR cup, and I said, ‘That doesn’t work.’ … And Mudcat delivered,” recalls Jarding in a phone interview from his home in Alexandria. Saunders was able to use his NASCAR buddies and contacts to negotiate a better price, spinning it all to the media in his drawling, expletive-peppered way. As The Weekly Standard described it: Jarding rolled out the message, and Saunders gave it street cred.

After the book deal was brokered — with five publishers fighting over the story rights — Saunders and Jarding hired Roanoke writer Roland Lazenby to spend hours listening to their ideas and then organize it all into outline form.

Though Mudcat wrote the section on rural culture, Jarding wrote most of the rest. Some of his Kennedy School of Government students at Harvard — “the Dukes of Harvard,” Saunders dubbed them — helped with the research.

A Washingtonian magazine reviewer called the final chapter “masterful” but said the book lost direction when it veered off its rural focus and into anti-Republican screed. Written by Jarding, the final chapter is entitled “Lie 4: Republicans are the party for hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.” It argues that the real threat to the 13 million hunters in America isn’t that the government might take away their guns but that the Bush administration has already allowed their public hunting grounds to be privatized, polluted and plundered.

“Mudcat’s not the first guy to point out that you have to win back white men to the Democratic party,” explains conservative MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson in a phone interview. “But he’s one of the few that has taken the idea seriously.”

More importantly, Carlson adds, Mudcat doesn’t speak like he’s leading an IBM management seminar: “Most consultants have a hard time convincing you to care; Mudcat doesn’t.”

But are Hillary and company willing to listen? Carlson argues that the smart ones already are.

“People follow people with balls; that’s the bottom line,” Carlson adds. “Besides, the Democrats don’t have anything else. I mean, what is plan B exactly?”

Roland Lazenby agrees: Saunders and Jarding might be out of step with the Democratic power brokers, who “remind me of NBA coaches: guys who lose and lose and yet keep getting better jobs. … But voters are looking for real and gutsy leaders.”

As Saunders puts it, “They want a dog that’ll hunt.”

Pushing the left to center

Saunders knows he’s not the easiest guy in the world to work with. Top among the ADD symptoms that aggravate Jarding, New York editors and consultant types — “the guy can barely finish tying his shoe before he’s distracted by something else,” one friend says — is his cellphone.

Over the course of a two-hour interview at The Roanoker Restaurant, it rang constantly: musician friends from Nashville, hunting buddies, a political science student wanting to help him work on his Jim Webb for Senate campaign. At an hourlong photo shoot on the front porch of his Crystal Creek cabin — “a cinder block sheepherder shack,” he calls it — the phone rang eight times.

He and Jarding are now trying to help Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and secretary of the navy under Reagan, win the Democratic nomination to run against Virginia Sen. George Allen. “The guy is Secretariat,” Saunders says of Webb.

On his recent work in Virginia’s 9th District for lawyer Eric Ferguson, Saunders coached Ferguson to take the controversial (for a Democrat) stance of fiercely attacking illegal immigration, later criticizing longtime incumbent Del. Allen Dudley for renting to illegal immigrants.

“We’ve got to stop illegals from coming into this country,” Saunders says. “It’s creating indentured servitude again in this country, and it’s a g—— shame.” It’s a position some Democratic centrists are beginning to adopt, Hillary Clinton included, but one that strikes many party traditionalists as xenophobic and exclusive.

Dudley held onto his seat in the House of Delegates, but the margin was narrower than expected.

Saunders makes no bones about supporting Hillary Clinton if she runs for president, saying she’s already proved she can court “Bubba up in upstate New York.”

And: “No one should discount the fact that her last name’s Clinton.”

Taking a wire brush to the Dems

Mainstream Democrats also bristle at Saunders’ take on the Confederate flag — he says it’s possible to promote the Confederate flag and racial equality at the same time — although that was a battle he ultimately lost with his editor at Simon & Schuster, who omitted the flag chapter from the book.

“The Simon & Schuster folks weren’t sure how to deal with it, and Jarding was somewhat uncomfortable too,” says Lazenby, who was paid by Saunders to edit his drafts.

“You can have those policy wonks in the party complain that Mudcat’s out of line on immigration and the flag, but he’s trying to talk about what he genuinely thinks the voters in the South care about.”

Saunders says he just wants to get “black Democrats and Southern Bubbas together to talk about how to get this race thing behind us and quit letting the Republicans put this wedge between us.”

While he’s about to set off on a publicity tour — look for Mudcat-in-the-media appearances on everything from Air America radio to Fox News — he’s most excited about a recent invitation to address the U.S. Senate Democratic Caucus in late April. It’s a closed-to-the-media retreat in which Saunders, poet Wendell Berry and Texas populist Jim Hightower will offer advice on the upcoming elections.

“I told ’em when they called, I’d consider it an honor to take a wire brush to them [expletives],” he said.


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