A buzzy book from a Maine lawmaker offers a warning to national Democrats about neglecting rural voters. But it also received some pushback from Maine Democrats saying it ignores their successes.
Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, burst onto Maine’s political scene in 2018 when she flipped a conservative-leaning Maine House district in Lincoln County. Two years later, she unseated then-Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, in a mixed election for Democrats.
Maxmin and her former campaign manager, Canyon Woodward, chronicle those campaigns in their book, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends on It,” which was published this week. After a single Senate term, Maxmin is not seeking reelection with plans to go to law school and start a nonprofit.
Characterizing the opening section of the book as a “tough-love letter,” the pair argue the Democratic Party has abandoned rural communities and treated rural voters with disdain. Later chapters relay the strategies of Maxmin’s successful campaigns as examples of how Democrats can win back rural districts while spending more effort on organizing and less on consultants.
Its publication comes amid a time of high anxiety among Democrats here and nationally about the 2022 midterms. The book has attracted national attention, with excerpts published in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Nation, among other places.
It has also drawn some criticism from Maine Democrats, who have argued the focus on Maxmin’s campaign erases other party efforts to organize in rural communities and Democratic successes in more conservative districts.
The Bangor Daily News spoke with Maxmin and Woodward about the book and that criticism. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
BDN: Who is the intended audience for this book? What influence do you hope it will have?
Maxmin: Our audience was national mainstream Democratic institutions and also folks interested in progressive politics and how that intersects with rural communities. We wrote the book because we both really love and care about rural communities, and we also love and care about the Democratic Party and want to see Democrats elected up and down the ballot to fight for everything that’s required these days. And that requires more investment across the country and in rural areas.
Woodward: I’d add that it’s targeted towards young folks specifically. We were both 25 when we started on the first campaign in [House] District 88, so sharing that hopeful story. There is a place for young folks to move back to our rural communities.
BDN: Your district has more registered Democrats than Republicans and went for President Joe Biden in 2020. There are a lot of rural communities that are more conservative. Do you think the strategies you outline in the book can still be effective in places with more Republican voters?
Maxmin: District 13 is by far not the most conservative district out there, even though it did go for Trump in 2016. District 88 was quite conservative before redistricting.
Certainly our experiences that we bring to the book are based on those two races, which have been really tricky districts for Democrats, but also Canyon’s experience in North Carolina and my experience working on other campaigns. So we pull that all together to try and extract lessons that hopefully can be useful for other places.
BDN: Building on that theme, Maine has far fewer Democrats from rural areas than it used to, but there are still people who have repeatedly won tough districts like Troy Jackson, who you mention a few times in the book, or Jared Golden. Do you see your path as similar to theirs?
Maxmin: Yeah, totally. I mean, we’re not the only people doing this work and there are other incredible examples, not only in Maine, but across the country. You know, if we look at Beto [O’Rourke], or Stacey Abrams, or some of the incredible rural organizing that is happening in Utah and Arizona and Montana and North Carolina. It’s happening all around the country, and we need more of it.
BDN: You have been in front of some progressive causes in Augusta, like the recent Good Samaritan law. But you sometimes vote with Republicans as well, like last year on ending the COVID-19 state of emergency. Have you ever felt like your constituents’ interests on a particular vote are aligned differently than your values, and how do you navigate that?
Maxmin: I’ve had Coffee with Chloe almost every single month since I was elected in 2018, and constantly talking with and engaging with constituents has enabled me to have a pretty accurate sense of what folks are thinking and where people are at. I ran to represent my community in Nobleboro, and I oftentimes think that progressive work isn’t really that far away from where folks who are voting for Trump are located. The Good Samaritan work was actually just incredibly bipartisan, and I know that so many folks in my community from all parties are desperate for support and solutions around the opioid crisis.
BDN: A few passages from your book have gotten backlash from Maine Democrats. For example, Julia Brown, formerly of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, has written that your campaign required “economic privilege” and contested the idea that the party had told candidates not to talk with Republicans. Can you address those points?
Maxmin: The book is a critique of Democratic institutions and nothing about it is personal. You know, we’re two young folks in a new space who had some experiences that are really symbolic of what’s happening at the national level, and it’s work that we have to really talk about and focus on. We own in the book how we did make our lives fit around the campaign, and of course not everyone is able to do that. But every campaign has to have the flexibility to look the way that it needs to for its candidates and its staff and community.
Woodward: I was really sad to see that. On the point of Republicans, we expanded our reach several-fold. Chloe was talking to folks all of the time that had never been contacted by Democratic campaign in their voting history. So we were going in and reaching folks that had not been reached before, and that was really key to winning in both the House and the Senate districts. That’s just a fact.
BDN: Republicans discussed your book as well as an example of how even a Democrat would admit Democrats have abandoned rural America. For candidates who are running this year, how do you discuss these in a way that doesn’t reinforce that framing?
Woodward: Our message is that Democrats can win in rural districts and we need to do a whole lot more of that. It’s not a secret in any way that we are not getting the support that we ought to in rural communities and there’s a lot of room to grow. We are not new in saying that.
What we have found personally as young people doing this work and in rural communities is that when we really invest in grassroots organizing, building out these issue-driven campaigns and creating meaningful relationships with moderate and conservative voters, there is a ton of common ground to be found, and that we can win in places that we might not have been expected.
BDN: Do you have plans to return to electoral politics someday?
Maxmin: It’s about a whole movement of young progressives across the country that are fighting for our politics to be different and more representative of who lives in our country and has an existential stake in who gets elected. So we’re just going to be supporting folks to get elected and just doing everything that we can to fight alongside people.