I recently wrote that Democrats need to stanch the bleeding in rural North Carolina. The party brand has been tarnished to the point that most rural residents see Democrats as a threat to their way of life. Reversing that trend will take decades, not a few election cycles, but addressing some of their most pressing concerns is a good start. Attorney General Josh Stein is making an effort and Democrats should watch him.

Stein joined a group of attorneys general in suing the pharmaceutical companies and distributors over the opioid crisis. Since last summer, he announced a series of settlements totaling in the billions of dollars. This week, he announced he wants to set up a Fentanyl  Control Unit within the Department of Justice. That’s both good policy and good politics. 

Also this week, an Axios-Ipsos poll shows that Americans consider opioids the number one health threat. The numbers are skewed by partisanship, like everything else in the country. More than a third of Republicans, 37%, say that opioids are the greatest threat, while only 17% Democrats say they are the greatest threat. 

Opioids have disproportionately hit the rural areas where Republicans live. They’re seeing the damage on daily basis and many people know victims of overdoses or addiction. By aggressively addressing the problem, Stein is sending a signal that he hears their concerns. As I said, that’s good policy and good politics. 

Democrats have been able to hold the Governor’s Mansion for most of the last 50 years by running candidates from rural areas. Roy Cooper is from Rocky Mount. Bev Perdue lived in New Bern. Mike Easley was a district attorney from Southport. Jim Hunt grew up on a farm in Wilson County. Their connection to these areas made them sympathetic to needs of rural communities. They could speak the language. 

Assuming he wins his primary, Stein will be the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee from an urban area in decades. He was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Chapel Hill. He needs to show the people from small towns and rural counties that he understands the issues most important to them. Listening to their concerns and acting on them is a good beginning. 

Stein won’t win most of the rural counties in the state, but he can keep them from seeing him as the enemy. The conservative-leaning swing voters in these areas might even choose him over an unacceptable GOP nominee. Even some non-MAGA Republicans might sit out a Governor’s race between a Democrat who tries and Republican candidate who is unqualified and divisive. A no-vote is better than a vote against. 

Democrats would be wise to follow Stein’s example. They should spend more time hearing the concerns of rural North Carolinians and take them seriously. Another place they should pay attention is crime. According to one study, seven of the ten most dangerous cities or towns in the state are outside urban areas. The opioid epidemic probably plays a role here, too, but keeping criminals off of the streets is a priority for many residents of small towns. As attorney general, Stein is also in a position to address these concerns.

Democrats won’t win rural North Carolina but they can stop hemorrhaging votes. Republicans have been rapidly increasing their vote-share in our smaller counties since Trump’s election. Stopping that trend is essential for Democrats to stay competitive in the state. In a presidential year, the party should get the turnout they want. In rural North Carolina, they just need to lose by less.  


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