Part one of a two part series. Part two can be found here.


Across the country, political engagement is at a high-water mark that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.

In the 2018 midterm elections, 50.1 percent of registered voters cast ballots according to the United States Elections Project. That was the highest midterm voter turnout number since 1914, according to Vox.

A lot of that participation can be credited to the presidency of Donald Trump, who has motivated a relatively vast amount of the U.S. populous to engage in American civic activity to a level that has rarely been seen in recent history.

Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland Sociologist, told NPR in 2017 that the election of Trump lead to a level of progressive activism the country has never seen.

On the other side of the aisle, Trump’s candidacy motivated traditionally dormant voters to make an appearance at the polls and check the box next to his name, leading to conversations about the silent majority and the importance of rural voters.

In a moment in history where voting and politics ranks near the top of the American conscious, what does that mean for Tazewell County? 

To find out, the Daily Times conducted interviews with the two chairpeople of the local branches of both political parties: Brittany Miller of the Tazewell County Democrats and Jim Rule of the Tazewell County Republicans.

Both Miller and Rule agreed on a few things — the national discourse is affecting politics at a local level, and that discourse can often be toxic — but had varying opinions on what the important issues are to their respective voters in the county.

Part one features Brittany Miller in discussion with reporter Montana Samuels. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


MS:: What have been your thoughts on the Democratic debates so far?

BM: In terms of the debate viewing parties, I was excited to see so many people interested to hear what the candidates had to say. In terms of the content of the debates, a primary is what it is. You will hear varying perspectives on similar ideas. I hope we maintain a tone where we can respectfully talk about those different perspectives while remembering that we all have the same end goal in mind.


MS: Do you think that the topics discussed in the debates — climate change, border issues, health care — are things voters view in this area as the most important?

BM: I think it varies, certainly health care is front and center on everybody’s mind, that impacts everybody. But the way we get to talk about it is a little bit skewed by the moderators, the networks — I was frustrated, particularly by this last round of events, the pitting of candidate against candidate without simply asking about plans and issues. Then, I think, the issue gets lost immediately in the tone of the conversation.

I think here in Tazewell County we need to hear about these different health-care plans and give the candidates an opportunity to talk about why they think their approach, whether it be Medicare for all or whether it has an option in it, we need to be able to hear that. Unfortunately, when it’s posed as ‘this person said this about your plan,’ what do you say to them, it’s not really the context that the voter wants. 


MS: With Tazewell County being predominantly Republican historically, how much of the goal with events like the watch parties is to try to highlight candidates for president in 2020 and how much of it is to organize local democrats and create a consistent presence here? 

BM: I think a big part of any event we have is just letting voters know there’s an alternative, and we exist. Even if you’re not ready to say ‘I sign on to this platform 100%’ but you want to hear some ideas, some alternatives, some options, we’re here, we exist and we want to tell you more.


MS: Within the scope of the current political moment, have you seen in Tazewell County people being more interested in the idea of coming and hearing what your side of the ticket has to say at these events?

BM: We’re hopeful. It’s really early on, but we have certainly seen that there are people who are tired of the tone of political discourse across the board. So we feel like offering simple policy facts and platform details rather than getting into the mud and muck of what people consider politics is appealing to a certain group of voters right now.


MS: So from your perspective, if as an organization the focus is policy and civility it could attract new voters?

BM: If we stick to our policies and our values, which truly are to do the most good for the most citizens, then that’s something that will be appealing to voters.


MS: Do you think currently your outreach and presence is wide enough in Tazewell County to attract those potential new voters?

BM: That’s definitely something we’re working on. I think we’re developing there and have room to grow. 


MS: And how do you do that?

BM: Increasing our social media presence, spreading out throughout the county. You have population centers and you have some very rural areas, and it’s important for us to reach all corners. We have many townships that make up this county, and it’s important to us — even if it’s just one person wanting information — that we’re accessible in whatever way they receive their information. 

Every county is unique, and I think the rural voter is a voter that often gets categorized and talked about by people who maybe have never even met a rural voter.


MS: I think you’re right, sometimes ‘rural’ seems more like a talking point than an actuality in the political conversation. How do the distinctions differentiate themselves in Tazewell County town to town in what you’ve seen?

BM: As parties and candidates, it’s on us to go to that voter and not just make presumptions about them. Rural voters are just as diverse as suburban or population center voters. 

Each town is unique and made up of unique people. I grew up in a rural town, and it’s frustrating to me to hear that (stereotype) without any insight into the people.


MS: What do you see as the path forward for the local brand of the party, whether that be in 2020 or for the next couple of election cycles?

BM: I think our path forward is simply showing up and building relationships and having conversations that let people know that we’re here and we’re an option. I would say our goal is to build that grassroots network because that’s what shapes the party, ultimately, and that’s what elects candidates from the top of the ticket to the bottom.


MS: During the outreach that you’ve done in the area, what are the areas that people in the area are looking for change in when they turn to politics?

BM: I do think health care is at the front of everyone’s mind. Job security or maybe just employment, having a job and keeping a job, and is that job going to be consistent. I think that the tone and civility or lack thereof in politics is really disgusting a lot of people, and I think they would like to see candidates step away from that.


MS: Do you think the incivility hurts the Democrats at all? Because the position you find yourself in is trying to get people to go over to the other side of the ticket, which requires a consistent participation in politics. With people so turned off by some of the things in politics, do you think that puts you in a tougher place when asking non-Democratic voters to consider the party?

BM: I do, because we need to be able to present our case and so quickly, people don’t want to hear it, especially from a party, because it has become a line in the sand. You’re this or you’re this, almost like a sporting event. So I do think that hinders us in a traditionally red county, because we’re trying to have a conversation and people are just turned off by the topic to begin with.

So that’s on us, we have to learn to lead with just conversation, not judgement.


MS: I think currently, people think about politics at the national level prior to getting involved at the local level. The Democratic Party nationally is at a turning point with the more progressive side of the party and the more moderate side. In Tazewell County, given that you’re trying to convert Republican voters, do you think some of the policy points from the progressive side of the party getting a lot of publicity at the moment are having an effect on candidate electability locally?

BM: I do think that the labels and the soundbites that get thrown around in the national discourse hinder having a meaningful conversation and making progress at the local level. That national conversation has all of these buzzwords and all of these soundbites and all of these labels that we all try to enter in to this face-to-face conversation and they get in the way.


MS: What do you think about the job Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is doing in getting the issues people care about in Tazewell County discussed at the national level?

BM: She’s an excellent example of the accessibility and responsiveness that we need from elected officials, in terms of representing her district.