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Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and federal agriculture secretary, speaks at a news conference in Des Moines on Thursday. Vilsack was joined by Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price and former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge to talk about the federal ethanol mandate.

It appears Democrats got the message about needing to reconnect with rural voters, according to a couple of Iowa Democrats who have been pushing for their party’s candidates to get out of the cities and suburbs.

Tom Vilsack, a former two-term Iowa governor and eight-year U.S. agriculture secretary, and Patty Judge, a former state ag secretary and Chet Culver’s lieutenant governor, said this week that thus far they are encouraged by how the roughly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates are approaching rural voters in Iowa.

Vilsack and Judge spoke this week at a news conference co-hosted by the political advocacy group Focus on Rural America. Both in recent months have said Democrats must do more to re-engage with voters in rural areas of Iowa and the Midwest, areas that have shifted heavily toward Republicans in recent elections.

Asked whether the Democrats running for president appear to have received that message, Vilsack and Judge essentially said, “So far, so good.”

“The advice I’ve been giving folks is, you’ve got to show up. And I think they have been showing up. And I think that’s the first step,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack won 68 of Iowa’s 99 counties in his 2002 re-election victory. Democratic President Barack Obama won 53 Iowa counties in 2008 and 38 in 2012.

In 2016, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won only six counties. And in the state’s past three gubernatorial elections, the Democratic candidate has won nine, one and 11 counties.

Democrats have taken notice, and Vilsack and Judge have been advocating for candidates to make more of an effort with rural voters.

Judge said she also thinks “most” of the Democratic presidential candidates are traveling outside the state’s biggest cities to meet rural voters near their homes.

“Most of the candidates are out in rural communities, they’re stopping in the coffee shop, they’re having conversations,” Judge said.

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The candidates also need to have a message for rural voters, something that has been lacking in the past, Vilsack and Judge said.

“In the last presidential election, many people in rural America believe that they got left behind,” Judge said. “The (economic) boom that we talk about, and the good times and what we see going on in Waukee and Ankeny and so forth, does not necessarily translate to Albia and Mount Pleasant.

“And people were not happy. They felt like (Democrats) weren’t listening to them and we did not have solutions. But I think our candidates now are offering solid solutions.”

Vilsack said those solutions should also start showing up in the form of policy proposals for rural residents. He said with the Iowa State Fair roughly a month away, the coming weeks are a ripe time for a rural policy drop.

“I think this summer we’re liable to see, as they’re rolling out policy initiatives, I would be willing to bet that a number of these candidates will roll out a specific rural agenda. I’m certainly hopeful they’ll do that,” Vilsack said. “And if they do, I think they’ll find a receptive audience, one that will be very interested to see how comprehensive, how extensive their program is, how visionary it is, and is it just the same old same old or does it have aspects of it that are a little bit different, a little more comprehensive, a little bit innovative.”

After Republican Donald Trump won Iowa by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, many national forecasters have written off Iowa as a battleground state.

Whether Democrats can put Iowa’s six electoral votes in play once again depends largely on whether their candidate can recover a good chunk of the voters the party has lost in the state’s rural counties.

Judge said she thinks the party is headed in the right direction.

“To me, anyway, there’s a different feel than there was four years ago,” Judge said.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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