The party shouldn’t give up on NASCAR voters, says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.
By Mason Adams – Politico
On a balmy summer afternoon, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders sits in the shade of his porch in Roanoke, Va., with a tall cup of iced tea, a highlighter and a copy of I Heard My Country Calling. That’s the new book by former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, a Reagan Democrat whose 2006 upset over one-time GOP star George Allen in Virginia represents the last time Mudcat could claim victory for his “Bubba Strategy.”
Since fallen into disuse, the Bubba Strategy might be the only proven way of getting rural-minded residents of very red states or regions to vote Democratic. It was first road-tested in the state in 2001, when in his landmark run for Virginia governor, Democrat Mark Warner sponsored a truck operated by southwest Virginia’s Wood Brothers Racing team in a NASCAR race, appeared with bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley and slathered the deeply working-class region in “Sportsmen for Warner” signs signaling his support by and for gun owners. Similar tactics were subsequently used by Blue Dog Democrats and other candidates who sought to win rural areas.
Little more than a decade later, the Bubba Strategy almost feels quaint. Shifting demographics have transformed Virginia into a blue-leaning swing state over the last two presidential election cycles. With fresh numbers of Democratic voters, candidates now believe they only need to get voters to turn out rather than persuade people in red districts. Hence freshman Sen. Tim Kaine, in his successful 2012 race, felt free to ignore Bubba; instead Kaine only had to run up huge margins in the urban crescent around Washington, D.C., without worrying as much about the parts west of Richmond. For similar reasons, President Obama paid even less heed to the rural parts of the state in 2012 than he did in the 2008 campaign.
Saunders, nonetheless, insists that finding a way to identify with the “bubbas”—Southern slang for people of limited means and less education—is not only useful but essential to the Democratic Party’s future throughout the South and rural areas of the country. If the party wants to hold the Senate this year, let alone retake the House of Representatives any time soon, it must travel again down many a country road, at least philosophically, Saunders says.
That’s especially true because the issue of income inequality is emerging as a fundamental Democratic talking point for both 2014 and 2016. Candidates need an effective way to communicate their empathy for the downtrodden without sounding condescending or disingenuous about it—as Hillary Clinton recently found when she made her much-mocked comment about being “dead broke” upon leaving the White House as first lady. “The greatest problem in America is the disintegration of the middle class,” Saunders says, and “unless you’re super-rich, you probably feel like you’re getting screwed. That feeling transcends geography.”
The lines between urban and rural are blurring physically as well. “There’s too much emphasis paid on geography, on class,” Saunders says. “The pied piper of greed has moved everybody to the big cities. America’s become more concentrated. There are as many rednecks—or let me say it like this, rural-thinking people—on Route 1 in Alexandria as there are in all five coal-producing counties of Virginia.” If the growth of cities is fueled by new residents who bring their rural culture along with them, then the new conventional wisdom that these demographic trends favor Democrats doesn’t necessarily hold. In fact, the rise of the exurbs and the expansion of ever-larger metropolitan areas into the countryside have contributed to a blending of cultures, rendering voter patterns less predictable.
It thus stands to reason that speaking the language of the new American underclass—which sometimes seems to include just about everyone but the super-rich—requires understanding and respecting rural culture. Even if Democratic candidates support policies that would benefit people facing hard times, they may not get their votes if they don’t make an authentic effort to identify with them. It is a tactic that Warner, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur from northern Virginia, mastered in winning his Senate seat—and which has also made him a perennial mention for higher office. “Mark Warner was not from the culture,” says Saunders. “You don’t have to be from the culture. But Mark enjoyed the culture and he respected the culture. That’s the deal. You can’t be disingenuous about it.” Saunders once took Warner turkey hunting, and when they came out of the woods the media was waiting for them. “They asked me how Mark did, and I said, ‘Hell, he sounded like an elephant going through the woods.’ But he had a great time and immediately said he wanted to do that again.”
Steve Jarding, Warner’s former campaign manager and Saunders’ old partner in politics, says that even if Warner didn’t know all that much about the favorite pursuits of bubbas, his interest showed that he respected them. “When the Republican critics said, ‘Warner doesn’t go to races, doesn’t listen to bluegrass, doesn’t hunt, our response was, ‘He doesn’t, but you do—and he wants to be governor of all the people, not just the Northern Virginians and military folks but all of Virginia,” says Jarding. “He wants to show you he respects it and he’s not going to dismiss it.”
Having the right candidate matters, though. Unlike her folksy, Arkansas-bred husband, Hillary Clinton’s probably never going to convince anybody she’s a good ol’ boy, just as the French-speaking, windsurfing John Kerry didn’t in 2004. “It’s just too easy to say if you go out to the culture you’ll get them. Democrats have to understand the culture,” says Saunders. “They have to understand what people go through.”
Though he’s been on the wrong end of election outcomes for the last eight years, Saunders still swaggers with the confidence of someone who knows the way forward—and who believes that he can be the party’s bubba whisperer in coming elections. Saunders cracks the same, nearly decade-old line about how he’s writing “The Half-Assed Christian’s Guide to Living,” and sets up his key points by drawling, “Let me tell you something…” He’s only a wee bit defensive when it comes to the fact that fewer Democrats are using his game plan these days. “The reason a rural or cultural strategy doesn’t work is because it’s not deployed,” he insists.
Most Democrats who incorporated the strategy—former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former Tennessee Rep. Lincoln Davis, North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler—have either stepped down or been turned out of office. And most political pundits believe that, at best, the Bubba Strategy can play a role only in cutting margins or building a coalition in most elections. Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics says that rapidly changing demographics, along with Democratic incumbents who already have defined themselves, mean the strategy won’t be all that useful to incumbent senators such as Virginia’s Warner or Kay Hagan of North Carolina. There’s more potential, he says, in Arkansas, where incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor already has developed a following among evangelical Christians, and in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn, the daughter of longtime former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, is running for the seat left open by the retirement of Republican Saxby Chambliss. Nunn has a revered last name in Georgia, and a history of helping young working-class people, but she will need broad rural appeal in a red state to defeat the winner of the July 22 Republican runoff between former Dollar General CEO David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah.
Kondik also says that while Arkansas and Georgia have steadily voted Republican in presidential elections since 2000, a good Democratic candidate could possibly win by appealing to bubbas. “It’s the best playbook they have to use there,” he says. Saunders himself is hardly sitting still—he’s forever modulating the Bubba Strategy, tweaking it to be more inclusive of more and more voters outside of the traditional rural South.
In many ways the evolution of Saunders’ political philosophy reflects the often rocky course of his own life.
Mudcat Saunders grew up just outside Roanoke, just a couple of miles from his current cabin along Back Creek. He picked up his nickname partly because his friends knew that one of his heroes was Major League baseball pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant, and partly because of his time spent fishing for catfish in the Roanoke River. He went to Virginia Tech for college, starting out in forestry and wildlife before he said he discovered “sex, dope and alcohol, all the same day” and switched to marketing education.
Saunders lied his way into a freelance job covering sports for newspapers in Roanoke and then Newport News. That’s where the oft-repeated story originated about Saunders asking Johnny Unitas in a press scrum, “Why do you dry your balls before your head?” Unitas got upset and Saunders was asked to leave the locker room.
By the mid-1970s Saunders left newspapers for real estate, and his boozing had turned into a serious problem. After one of Mudcat’s many stints in jail, Vinton lawyer and politician Richard Cranwell helped chart a new life course by putting him to work on his campaign. Cranwell was a giant of late 20th century Virginia politics. He served 30 years in the Virginia House of Delegates until Republicans drew him out of his district in 2001. During his 11-year run as Democratic floor leader, Cranwell drove Republicans crazy with shrewd gamesmanship, a comprehensive knowledge of floor rules and an acerbic wit.
“I watched him,” Saunders says. ‘I watched how he did stuff. Everything he did, I took in. He taught me something that has been very, very valuable to me in politics: You can get a hell of a lot more votes with a good story than you can with the issues.”
Saunders started out stapling campaign signs before moving up to hand out fliers at high school football games and eventually consulting with Cranwell on strategy. “Politics, particularly retail politics, is a purely personal endeavor. There’s really no substitute for it,” Cranwell told me in an interview. “I think Mudcat understands that. He can reach people culturally. He can reach them personally.”
Cranwell brought Saunders to the Warner campaign in late 2000 to help it build excitement and compete in rural Virginia. What Saunders and Jarding did, to great success—Warner won southwest Virginia, Southside and came close in the Shenandoah Valley—is still remembered as the quintessential “Bubba” campaign. The campaign mixed a healthy dose of vaudeville with its politics, appealing to a voter demographic alternatively described as rednecks and blue-collar whites through its love of hunting, racing and old-time bluegrass music.
“After it was over, people were saying it was cutting edge,” Saunders says. “The truth of the matter was it wasn’t new at all. It was a take-off on the old Jimmy Davis campaign down in Louisiana. Barnstorm. Have a big time. Build huge crowds.” Davis, a gospel and country singer whose best-known song was “You Are My Sunshine,” won election to two terms as Louisiana governor in the ‘40s and ‘60s.
For Warner’s race, Saunders and the Bluegrass Brothers adapted the bluegrass song “Dooley” by Rodney Dillard and Mitch Jayne of the Dillards into a campaign theme by adding Warner-related lyrics. The chorus goes, “Warner – for public education/ Warner – what a reputation/Warner – vote in this election/ To keep our children home.”
The Warner campaign also leveraged hunting and fishing—and, by extension, gun culture—by creating an expansive “Sportsmen for Warner” campaign. The “Sportsmen for…” campaign has since become a cliché, but at the time it actually worked, as evidenced by the fact the National Rifle Association stayed out of the race until its final days. “Every community with a gun shop, Warner walked in,” Jarding said. “His position was simple: ‘We have enough gun laws, let’s enforce the ones we have.’”
Chris Lacivita, a Republican strategist who managed Warner’s opponent’s campaign, gives some credit to Saunders and Jarding: “Dave and Steve had this understanding that you can’t blow off entire cultures or geographic regions of any given state to maximize the votes somewhere else.” But not too much: “I love Mud but I think he always gives himself a little too much credit,” Lacivita says. “Warner went up and down the [Interstate] 81 corridor years in advance courting the business community and setting up small businesses, investing money here and investing money there.”
Nevertheless, Warner’s win put Saunders in high demand. He worked on Bob Graham’s presidential campaign in 2003 and attracted a series of colorful profiles. Perhaps the most famous was Matt Labash’s 2005 story for the Weekly Standard in which he described Saunders tasting deer droppings to tell whether it was a buck or doe; it turns out later he’d set up the stunt with a pile of Raisinets.
But the capstone of Saunders’ career was Jim Webb’s surprisingly effective Senate run against George Allen. Again, the candidate was just right for the strategy: Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, was a Vietnam War hero, which gave him automatic street-cred in bubba-land. Saunders and Webb, who campaigned in his son Jimmy’s combat boots while the latter fought in Iraq, broadened the Bubba Strategy to include the issue of economic fairness, appealing to black voters and blue-collar whites alike. Webb stunned incumbent Allen in a race decided by fewer than 10,000 votes.
The same year, Touchstone published Saunders’ and Jarding’s book, Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ‘em Out. It was a good time for Democrats generally, even in conservative districts. With a Republican president and unpopular war, Democrats picked up six U.S. Senate seats and 31 House seats in 2006.
That, as it turned out, was the high point—both for the Democrats and for Saunders personally. In 2008, Saunders joined the John Edwards presidential campaign, his highest-profile gig yet. But Edwards dropped out after the South Carolina and Florida primaries, and his campaign ultimately was tarnished by revelations about his extramarital affair with a campaign worker.
And Edwards wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to Mudcat that year. In July his close friend and protégé, Fred Hutchins, a 26-year-old Webb aide who had worked with Cranwell, Saunders and Virginia Democrats since his early teens, was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot along a major road north of Roanoke. Hutchins wasn’t just a close friend: He was sharp, smart and the most likely torchbearer for the Bubba Strategy’s future.
Now the question going forward is whether Saunders and other like-minded advocates can alter the conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party—that most successful Democratic candidates in the future aren’t going to need Bubba. “When you look at the last two Democratic presidents, both of them won non-Southern Electoral College majorities,” says Tom Schaller, who authored Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. “They both had 270 votes outside the South. Their coalitions were a little different in terms of Southern support. Clinton got more ‘bubba’ support in Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. Obama didn’t win any of those states except for Florida but he won Virginia twice and North Carolina once.” Even those Southern wins, however, came about because of the large non-southern migrants into those states, says Schaller. “Those states have very high, among the three or four highest, populations of non-Southern people … Democrats are winning in the South but not with native Southerners.”
But Democrats cannot simply write off an entire section of the country, hoping for demographic changes well into the future, Saunders counters. A decade ago, 22 state legislatures in the South were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. With the surprise resignation of Virginia Sen. Phillip Puckett in June — ostensibly to help his daughter secure a state judgeship and to take a job the Virginia Tobacco Commission (amid backlash from his resignation, Puckett since has said he won’t take the job after all), Republicans now control all of them. Democrats had four southern governors in 2004; now they have just one.
In Appalachia, the partisan shift has been nearly as dramatic. In the 428 counties tracked by the Appalachian Regional Commission, an area that does include some places most people wouldn’t define as “Appalachia,” Republicans hold 52 of 62 House districts. Environmental issues in coal-producing regions will likely hurt Democrats for multiple cycles, if not longer.
This year’s election will thus be a partial test for whether the Bubba Strategy can make a comeback—mainly by helping Democrats cling to control of the Senate. As the two parties vie for control, the South will serve as the backdrop for a handful of competitive races, especially in states like Georgia and Arkansas. In a particularly polarized environment, Obama-era political strategy leans toward a mobilization model, identifying supporters and turning them out. The Bubba Strategy tacks instead toward persuasion, finding squishy voters on the fence.
The smartest candidates will employ elements of both strategies. Ironically, however, it is the candidate who best defined the Bubba Strategy’s success in the past who may need it least this cycle: Mark Warner, who is running for re-election against Republican Ed Gillespie, another Northern Virginian denizen of the Washington beltway. Warner is already a known quantity to voters in rural parts of the state, and Virginia’s demographics have turned the state far bluer than when he first ran. “In Webb’s  race, just five years after Mark’s governor’s race, there were 200,000 more Democrats in Northern Virginia,” Jarding says. “When you have superior numbers, you don’t have to persuade. You just have to turn out.”
On the national scene, the question is whether Obama’s departure from the White House after 2016 will leave the door open for a national Bubba Democrat. That phrase, of course, brings to mind Bill Clinton, if not his Midwestern-born wife. But if Hillary runs, she’ll need to find a way to connect with ordinary people better than she’s done in recent weeks. Cue the Bubba whisperers.
Oddly enough, that’s one race Mudcat Saunders wants no part of. “The global trade policies of the Clintons inflicted just incredible damage on rural people,” Saunders says. “I can understand if someone turned on the spigot a little ways, as far as building global trade, but it was devastating policy for rural America when they knocked the top off the fire hydrant.”
Now a healthy 65, Saunders says he’s not done with politics yet, but he won’t commit to a presidential campaign in 2016 until his favorite, Jim Webb, definitively rules out a run. “I’ve got one more great campaign left in me,” Saunders says. “I’m gonna save it.”
Mason Adams is a freelance journalist based in Floyd County, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @MasonAdamsVA.