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Obama's Rural Appeal Started with Downstate Illinois Road Trip

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With the presidential election less than 90 days away, there continues to be a lot of speculation about rural voters. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama has shown some surprising glimmers of success in rural areas-and polls show he’s coming on strong in some Republican strongholds like Montana and North Dakota. Well, as it turns out, Obama’s courtship of rural voters has a very specific beginning-and can actually be traced to a single road trip more than a decade ago.

Obama’s rural appeal didn’t just start with one trip-it started with one guy-a guy who didn’t even want to work for him.

SHOMON: I got a call from my boss and he said ‘I want you to staff Obama.’

In 1997, Dan Shomon was working for Emil Jones-who was, and still is, the top Democrat in the Illinois State Senate. Barack Obama was a newly-elected State Senator.

SHOMON: I said, I don’t even want to deal with Obama. Obama is trying to change the world and he’s got all this stuff going on. I am very busy. I have five senators I need to take care of. I said I don’t have time to deal with this guy.

Shomon caved. And pretty soon, he was out for dinner with his new boss.

SHOMON: I said, have you ever been south of Springfield? And he said no. I said, ‘So you’ve never been to southern Illinois.’ He said no. In fact, he’d never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line. So I said, ‘Obama, I’m going to take you to southern Illinois, and we’re going to play some golf and we’re going to meet some people.’

Shomon scheduled week-long trip for Obama around the southern third of the state-and he built it around golf outing at the Rend Lake golf course 300 miles south of Chicago.

The outing was a fundraiser for a State Senator named Jim Rae.

RAE: This is the 18th hole, and hole one is just over here to the right.

Rae had hit it off with Obama in Springfield, and had become one of his early promoters downstate—even though that wasn’t always popular.

RAE: Well, sometimes, it wasn’t too comfortable in some of those settings, you know...
CALHOUN: When you say uncomfortable, what do you mean?
RAE: Well, I could tell the way that people acted whenever you’d bring up his name-and sometimes they’d shun away from you at certain political gatherings.

Obama was up against a classic split in Illinois politics—between Chicago Democrats and downstate Democrats.

Those two groups are often separated by the same issues that split rural and urban politics across the county, like abortion and guns.

There’s also the fact that a lot of southern Illinois is culturally and physically closer to Nashville than Chicago.

For Obama, the challenge was obviously even steeper.

RAE: Race is part of it for some people, certainly.

Rae says at the golf outing-and on the trip in general, Obama’s task was to make political contacts-but it was more than that.

He also had to test his ability to connect with people over some deep cultural divides.

SCATES: The farm stretches from here to this county here sits on top of it.

Steve Scates, Kappy Scates and their family operate one of the largest family farms in Illinois-a farm so big it stretches over two counties at the south tip of the state.

Obama first met the Scates in Chicago, and told Dan Shomon he wanted to visit their farm on the trip.

On a recent hot sunny afternoon, the couple was kind enough to take me on a tour-climbing into their SUV, firing up the air conditioning heading out onto the gravel roads that they took Obama down in 1997.

CALHOUN: I’m wondering what you think he learned on that trip?
SCATES: He learned that Illinois is a lot longer than he thought it was.

The Scates have vast political and personal connections—and their roots in southern Illinois go back more than a century.

SCATES: That’s where my grandfather lived, and my brother lives there now. This house here is where I live. And it’s where I was born, it’s where I grew up, and this here is the one room school that I went to through grade school.

Obama’s time with the Scates grew closer and closer after his visit.

And Dan Shomon says it was connections like that that convinced Obama could win rural votes-and that might help him win a statewide race.

In fact, many of the people Obama visited on that trip, like the Scates, became key supporters for Obama.

Something that helped him when he ran for senate, and later running for president in Iowa and Indiana. But even today, in southern Illinois—Kappy Scates knows first hand that Obama still has serious challenges with rural voters.

SCATES: I have heard people tell me that they’ve read on the internet that he’s as Muslim. I’ve pretty much decided if anyone still believes that as many times as they’ve been told, they must want to believe it.

In his second book, Obama writes that the 1997 trip convinced him of his common bonds with people in rural areas.

But the Illinois presidential primary results drive home some sober realities.

Barack Obama lost only 14 counties in Illinois, and every single one of those was in the southern half of the state, in exactly the same area he visited with Dan Shomon.

SHOMON: I was disappointed that people didn’t vote for their native son, their senator.

Obama’s supporters downstate are usually reluctant to say Obama’s race hurts him rural areas—but they say it in a way that reveals their concern about it.

When I asked Dan Shomon about that, he said it would be a mistake to say Obama’s challenges wity rural voters boil down to a single issue like race.

What Shomon does say, after working with Obama for about a decade, is that Obama’s success in places like southern Illinois will depend on a single factor—and that’s time.

SHOMON: I mean, how much time can Obama spend in Appalachia and Ohio?How much time can he spend in southern Indiana?These are the areas that will decide the election.

Shomon says with enough time, Obama could make the same kind of personal connections in other places that he did on his trip to southern Illinois in 1997.

Although, time is obviously something Obama is quickly running out of.

I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio.

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