In the past few presidential elections, rural voters have been shifting ever closer to Republicans. And in many of those areas, the GOP dominates local politics, too. Upstate New York is no different, outside of urban areas like Rochester and college towns like Ithaca, which tend to vote Democratic.
Democratic activists in rural areas around the county are wondering how to make inroads where they live.
For Leslie Danks Burke, the answer - for any candidate taking on a political establishment - is grassroots organizing.
Danks Burke, a former State Senate candidate, is still hitting the road, months after her race last year in the largely rural 58th district. "We were running for class president in about 72 different high schools at the same time," she said. "And that's a different kind of race. That's much more like a local race. It's like a collection of a whole [lot of] local races.
She lost, as did many Democrats in rural New York. As she looked ahead, Danks Burke thought the real problem is that incumbents of both parties aren’t accountable enough to voters. She wanted to change that, starting with local races (county level and below).
She founded a political action committee (or PAC) called Trailblazers. It’ll help fund -- and recruit -- candidates who disclose all their donors and focus on grassroots organizing and fundraising. A key area of attention is getting candidates to raise small dollar donations from inside their districts.
It’s not a partisan group, but in rural New York, Republicans already have a well-established pipeline for local candidates. Danks Burke is a well-known Democrat and so far, it’s mostly liberals who are reaching out to her.
Danks Burke said she’s been overwhelmed at the amount of money Trailblazers has been able to raise so far. she wouldn't disclose exact numbers. but the goal this year is $100,000. The money goes towards operating expenses and on campaigns of candidates the PAC endorses.
Finding local candidates
On a sunny day in mid-February, Danks Burke visited Faith Tyler. Tyler is running for mayor of Groton, a village in Tompkins County of less than 3,000 people. Tyler would like an endorsement from Trailblazers.
The two had a little "getting to know you" chat, then sat down to eat tofu and talk turkey: campaign expenditures, fundraising, and plans for door-to-door campaigning.
Tyler's village is dominated by Republicans, and she's a Democrat. Her campaign platform is lower speed limits and better sidewalks. And she has passion. But Danks Burke pushed her to be a more systematic campaigner.
"Day by day, work backwards from election day," she told Tyler. "Which doors you're gonna hit, when."
Tyler was pretty far along in her candidacy - she's already on the ballot and election day is soon (March 21st).
Many other potential candidates who reach out to Danks Burke are new to politics and have a lot of questions. She listed them off: "'Can I win? Can I even run? Will I look foolish if I run and lose? What's the process? How do I even get started?'"
Candidates might also be worried about people finding out about their interest. "So what?" Danks Burke tells them. "It gets your name out there earlier. You're going to have to own it sooner or later; let's go with sooner."
Expanding your base
Any Democrats her group endorses are likely to meet a lot of conservative voters like Allen Swift from Steuben County. Swift said he’d consider voting for a Democrat but feels no affinity for the party on a couple of issues.
"As far as the Second Amendment, the Democrats have been totally against gun rights. And I totally disagree with Obama's health care."
Danks Burke thinks Democrats have to work harder to listen to voters like Swift. She said that during her State Senate campaign, she didn’t find one-issue voters, even at rod and gun clubs.
"I always made sure to start out by saying, ‘I’m here. And there’s going to be things that we agree on and going to be things that we disagree on. But at least I’m here, and I promise I will stay here for as long as it takes to get all of your questions answered. And then, I’ll come back,'" she said. "We have to start with that."
By starting small, Danks Burke believes she can get a few more competitive races in the region. Meeting by meeting, and mile by mile.