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Democrats need a boost. Could they find it in rural America?


President Biden's slumping approval ratings, worries about next year's midterm elections, along with the recent loss of the governor's race in Virginia have Democrats on edge as the year winds down. Voters, even many who supported Biden, express frustration with the state of the country right now, from the economy to COVID to inflation and more.

Here's one such voter who voted Republican in last month's Virginia governor's race. His name is Brian (ph), and he joined a recent focus group assembled by the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump conservative group.

BRIAN: I honestly think in the country, that things are going terrible. I think the government right now is too far-reaching. They're trying to accommodate too many groups, lobbyists, whatever. Trying to do everything for everybody, and it can't happen that way.

GONYEA: Steve Bullock is the former governor of Montana and a Democrat. He hears such comments and sees it as a wake-up call for his party. He joins us now. Governor Bullock, welcome.

STEVE BULLOCK: It's wonderful to be with you, Don.

GONYEA: One issue you've pointed to is climate change and how Democrats have to be careful about how they talk about that issue in rural America. Explain.

BULLOCK: Make no mistake, we have to address climate. But as we see, this is the biggest issue facing our country and our world, or this is a crisis. If you don't know how you're going to make it to the end of the month, you're not thinking about the end of the planet.

GONYEA: The Democratic Party is a party that has many points of view on it - right? - and many approaches to an issue like climate change. On top of that, it's a party that's always had infighting. And we see the frustration within the party, maybe with Senator Joe Manchin on one hand and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on the other.

BULLOCK: Yeah, I think as - what Mo Udall, when he ran for president, said - when Democrats organize a firing squad, we usually do it in a circle (laughter).

GONYEA: But how does the fact that Democrats and Republicans these days seem to approach elections and politics in such different ways - how does that affect all of this? I mean, Donald Trump dominates the GOP by relentlessly driving home the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. It's taken hold.

Let me play another piece of tape from that focus group. This is a Biden voter who voted Republican this year in the Virginia governor's race. He switched. Here he is.

UNIDENTIFIED VOTER: Democrats are much worse at politics right now - not even the issues, but just, like, getting their message out there and being organized and everything. I don't know if they're fighting among themselves or they're - I don't know why. If you were going to take - place a bet on one team, it's not even close.

BULLOCK: Look, in some respects, Democrats do end up playing by different rules. Like, we want to have some degree of truth in what we're saying.

GONYEA: There are historic trends that are always at play in a midterm election after we elect a new president, and it's usually bad for the president's party. Democrats are very worried about that next year. There are early signs that it could be rough. What can your party do now that perhaps could mitigate some of that for 2022, or is this really a long-term rebuilding and reaching out that you're talking?

BULLOCK: No, I think what the party can do to mitigate that in 2022 and maybe even see some wins is first, let's get the social spending package done. Let's get the Build Back Better done. And between the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better, there are incredible things to be out there speaking to that matter to people's lives. And that was brought to you by Joe Biden and the Democrats.

GONYEA: There were some Republican votes for the infrastructure bill that the president signed, but you're anticipating no Republican votes for the Build Back Better legislation?

BULLOCK: Hey, I would love, when you're talking about the need for quality pre-K or investing in apprenticeships or providing more affordable housing, if the Republicans would have an awakening and actually join in this next bill. But I'm anticipating that they'll deadlock against it. And at the end of the day then, if that's where the Republican Party's going to be, the Democratic Party ought to be telling people that this was delivered by Joe Biden and the Democrats.

GONYEA: Steve Bullock is a former two-term Democratic governor of Montana. He's now a co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century. Governor, thank you.

BULLOCK: Thank you so much, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.