Dave Tunnell has lived the entirety of his 76 years as a Democrat in rural, Republican strongholds. He cares deeply about his party, even when he’s acting as a proverbial punching bag for voters and candidates alike who aren’t satisfied with Democratic performance.
But he’s also disappointed with statewide Democratic candidates who have historically neglected rural communities in favor of urban centers.
And he’s picked up some colorful ways to say the same thing about those who pretend otherwise.
“That guy is all hat and no cattle.”
“You’re all carrot and no stick.”
Translation: You’ve got no substance, guy.
He’s done the math for local elections. Mohave County is decidedly Republican. No Democratic presidential nominee has carried the county since Lyndon Johnson, ironically against Barry Goldwater in 1964, and even then his victory was decided by fewer than 200 votes.
And for the statewide candidates, he’s heard the argument that there are more votes to capture in the cities than there are residents in some of Arizona’s most rural counties.
But Tunnell said he believes rural Democrats, and rural voters in general, could be the difference in a close statewide election.
The problem is that the divide between rural and urban Democrats can be even greater than the partisan divide. And as far as rural voters like Tunnell can tell, few candidates have made the effort to better understand the state’s most far flung communities, leaving votes unharvested.
Tunnell is a military man. He took a job with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after his service, and he’s been retired since moving to Mohave County 18 years ago. He said he’s old-fashioned and believes in candidates who meet him face to face.
“I maintain that if you want to switch somebody, there’s nothing better than looking them in the eye,” he said. “And if you can’t look them in the eye, at least be listening to their voice.”
He recalled a statewide candidate he did not name who lamented how few Mohave Democrats showed up at the polls in 2014, how few the party’s county representatives had been able to produce for the statewide ticket.
The unsuccessful candidate wondered aloud – with more than a hint of rancor as Tunnell recalled – why the voters had let him down.
Tunnell was honest with him: “They felt abandoned,” he said. “The simple fact of the matter is we never saw a single statewide candidate after the primary [in 2014].”
Arizona Democratic Party Political Director Quiana Dickenson said rural areas have not been prioritized by the party for years. But she said that’s changing as candidates realize they have to reach voters in their homes if they want a lasting connection.
Dickenson said rural voters in particular remember the candidates who put in the effort, and the party should remember the voters who do the same.
“We can almost always count on our urban areas to be more plugged in,” she said. “Let’s go further out first and bring them in. Those are the people who are truly committed because they’re willing to get in the car and drive three or four hours for a protest in the heat.”
Rural Democrats are just as energized as their urban counterparts, she said – they’re just looking for candidates who can capitalize on that in a meaningful way.
This isn’t rocket science or some new-found trend among voters. The rural-urban divide has been around for generations.
Nonetheless, Democratic consultant Chad Campbell said it continues to go unappreciated because the reality of that divide has some harsh arithmetic to compete with — the majority of voters and the majority of campaign contributions still come from urban areas.
Campbell said part of the problem is candidates from urban areas have a tendency to oversimplify rural voters and the issues they care about.
Water and property rights, for example, weigh heavily on rural voters’ minds – issues that are neither strictly Democratic nor Republican.
“Putting on a pair of boots and throwing on a cowboy hat and then going out there, that’s not connecting with rural Arizona,” Campbell said.
He noted both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of that. But he couldn’t name a single statewide Democrat in this cycle who has done an especially good job of trying to change the status quo. They’ve relied on other strategies, he said.
For example, gubernatorial candidate David Garcia went all in on a higher turnout model that banked on increased Democratic enthusiasm, Campbell said.
Whether that will pay off for other candidates is yet to be seen, but Gov. Doug Ducey is poised to win over Garcia.
Campbell, a former state legislator, has learned from experience.
He said he’s always been a proponent of the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, an effort to conserve and reintroduce the subspecies.
He recalled a trip he took, while in office, with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to the reintroduction area where he met with business owners and ranchers, and left with a far better understanding of the opposition.
“It was so much more than just cattle versus wolf,” Campbell said. “It was a really complex situation with federal government interaction and state and local [interests] that had been going on for decades and decades up there.”
The trip didn’t change his position, but he said it gave him an appreciation for the complexity of the issue and the importance of mitigating the negative consequences of the program.
That’s just a microcosm of the rural-urban divide, but he said it demonstrated to him the importance of familiarizing himself with rural worldviews. Seeing those people work on their lands and build their businesses stuck with him for years.
Campbell said candidates have to get to know rural Arizona. That doesn’t mean assimilating with them, leaving your desk job to run a ranch far from the urban sprawl. But it does mean being genuine and taking the time to listen.
Tunnell, the Mohave County retiree, said rural voters can tell the difference. They know when a candidate wants to represent them and when a candidate just wants their votes.
“Politics is about reaching out to people and giving them reasons to vote for you, being ready to make deals that will help all constituents,” Tunnell said.
Nowadays, he said, they want it to be enough that they fit some label.
And that’s if candidates make it out to those communities at all.
Campbell said statewide candidates from urban areas too often forget that Phoenix is not the center of the universe.
“Phoenix is the economic engine for the state in a lot of ways,” Campbell said. “But Phoenix doesn’t make Arizona.”
He said Phoenix is just part of something much bigger in a state with a long, storied history that doesn’t tie itself strictly to the city.
Tunnell doesn’t have the magic solution for Democrats to do better in rural Arizona. But he knows where they should start. A conversation can go a long way when voters like him share that with a neighbor, and that neighbor shares it with another neighbor and so on.
He’s holding out hope for an energetic Democrat who can break through the partisan noise and show his Republican friends that progressive values can be rural values, too. Someone who will invert the traditional statewide strategy, using more resources to unite the rural areas first and circling in on Maricopa County.
He doesn’t know who exactly could do that successfully. But he does know one thing for sure: No one from Phoenix could pull it off.