by: Dien Judge
John Edwards has an ace up his sleeve in the fight to win the support of rural Iowans.
Edwards’ political adviser Dave “Mudcat” Saunders has a record of turning red counties blue in Virginia, and is now working his mojo on Iowa’s rural Democratic caucus-goers.
Saunders, who co-authored the book “Foxes in the Henhouse — How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ‘Em Out,” spoke with Iowa Independent on Wednesday and discussed Edwards’ strategy to win rural Iowa in the 2008 caucuses.
Saunders talks in a slow, southern Appalachian drawl and freely uses blunt language. His basic theory is that if Democrats would stop ignoring rural voters and work hard for the rural vote, it would pay off on Election Day.
“Inside every rural Republican is a Democrat trying to get out,” said Saunders. “But they’re not going to come with us if we don’t invite them. Iowa, and the rest of the heartland in presidential campaigns, it’s much like the South. When John Kerry ran for president and conceded 227 electoral votes before Election Day, that’s a strategy of fools. And I think John Edwards is the only candidate that doesn’t have to go with that 20- or 21-state strategy to win the thing. If John Edwards is the nominee, in my state of Virginia, we’ll win it. We’ll win in North Carolina. We will win Iowa. And you’re going to see a bunch of red states turn blue. And it’s time.”
A native of Roanoke, Va. who has dabbled in real estate development and sports writing, Saunders’ first major victory as a political consultant was with the 2001 Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Mark Warner. He explained that the Warner campaign didn’t just use the traditional Democratic urban campaign strategy. By hammering away on economic issues in rural areas, rural voters came to Warner’s side. “We had to win rural Virginia in that particular race, and we ended up taking our message to rural Virginia concerning economic fairness or the lack thereof,” he said. “And we ended up getting something like 51.7 percent of the rural vote in Virginia, just by going out and talking to people. And understanding the culture and the power of the culture.”
Warner was the first Democrat to win a majority of the Virginia rural vote in a generation. “People ask me all the time, How’d y’all do that?” It’s all about understanding and respecting the rural culture. The same strategy can apply to Iowa, he said. “There’s not 50 cents difference between a Bubba in rural Iowa and a Bubba in rural Virginia. I mean, Bubba is Bubba.”
Saunders drives straight to the point on economic fairness as the centerpiece of a rural strategy, and he rails against the corporate powers that have squeezed family farms out of business. He said that John Edwards’ passion for fighting for economic fairness is what brought him to the campaign. And the big-business influence is not only controlling the Republicans, but also many Democrats. “One of our opponents, obviously, has very close ties with Tyson,” said Saunders. “And to me, it’s disingenuous for this candidate to come out to rural America anywhere. Obviously, I’m talking about Hillary. You know, it’s common knowledge inside the beltway, everybody knows it, that if the Clintons would have gone to bat for universal health care like they did for the trade treaties, we’d now have universal health care.”
Asked if he believes that the Edwards campaign can defeat a candidate with the strength of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he replied, “Oh, they’re strong. They got corporate America behind ’em. I mean, look at Fortune Magazine. When Fortune Magazine puts her on the cover and says she’s Wall Street’s choice, that oughta tell Iowa caucus-goers something.”
Saunders has been crisscrossing Iowa over the last three weeks, organizing caucus supporters for Edwards, and he says he is surprised at what he’s seen in Iowa’s rural areas.
“I thought that we were getting screwed in the southern Appalachians, with our loss of textiles and furniture jobs. You know, with these ridiculous trade treaties. But as I look at rural Iowa, I’ve never seen people screwed like these people have been screwed out here. For instance, in 1978 there were 60,000 family hog farms in Iowa. Today there’s less than 9,000. And we all know the reason for that, it’s because of corporate control of Washington. The family farmer has just flat been run out of business, and that’s the bottom line. And with the family farmer goes the American dream for his kids, local economies are wrecked, like our local economies are wrecked in the southern Appalachians. Like many of the local economies in rural Iowa are wrecked by this vertical integration in the agricultural industry. And John Edwards is going to stop it. And you know, that’s why I’m with him. He’s already called for the moratorium on CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and we’re for a packer ban (on ownership of livestock). That’s what we’re for. And I think, you know, the ethanol push on corn is wonderful, and you know it’s going to be a great boon for Iowa, and I think that’s great, but there’s still the food considerations. And the lifestyle considerations of the family farm. And our culture is going away, the culture of rural America, because our kids are leaving. And the Pied Piper of greed is the one who’s calling them. And that’s why I’m with Edwards, cause we’re gonna fight these guys.”
Washington lobbyists and the influence of money in politics is a particular sore spot for Saunders. “We’ve got to get money out of Washington,” he said. “My candidate, John Edwards, supports publicly financed campaigns. When I first went to Washington and went to work for John Edwards in December of 2001, I think there were something like 13 or 14,000 federal lobbyists. Today there’s over 35,000. And I can promise rural Iowans, nobody’s up there lobbying for them. And we’ve got to stop it. And the only way to stop it is to get these bastards out of government. And the only way to do it is to go with publicly financed campaigns.”
Edwards is still running strong in the polls in Iowa, but he trails Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in nationwide polls. But Saunders said that the Edwards campaign will get its message out, and its the message and the issues that will win the nomination.
“If we get the word out properly and start talking about economic fairness in the terms which we’re doing, in which the average person can understand, we’ll win,” he said. “Rural Americans are proud people. You can talk about poverty. And John understands this better than anybody. Think of a guy whose farm has just been foreclosed on and he’s lost his health insurance and his wife’s lost her job. He’s sick, and both his kids have left home because they couldn’t find a job. Now you ask him if he’s living in poverty, and he’ll say ‘hell, no, you know, I’m having some rough times, but I’m not living in poverty.’ But you ask him if he’s getting screwed, he’s gonna say, ‘hell, yeah.’ Basically what we’re gonna tell them is the truth. Those people that’ve been screwing you, we’re gonna screw them. That’s our message, we’re gonna get after ’em. John Edwards is right where Mudcat is. He’s plum fed up with this stuff. He’s going to go all across the state and this thing’s going to heat up until caucus night, whether it’s Jan. 7 or the Monday night after next. Until that point in time, we’re going to be spreading that message.”