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"The Biden administration has only appointed 22 state directors for the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency and Rural Development branch, out of more than 100 open spots, a major delay compared to the Trump administration," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "At this point in the Trump administration,

nearly every state position was announced

."


The jobs, which are political appointments that don't require Senate confirmation but do call for political consultation, are mostly being filled by acting directors, including in some of the nation's most rural states. Only nine states have both roles filled, Bustillo reports. The appointment process also went slowly during Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's first term in the job, under Barack Obama in 2009.

"Some rural advocates consider the lack of appointees as a missed opportunity for the Biden administration to get people on the ground in each state, communicating changes and taking credit for Biden’s agenda," Bustillo reports. The appointees "play key leadership roles in making sure funds for programs such as rural broadband and other infrastructure projects get into local hands. That means the absence of state directors could hamper Democrats’ ability to claim credit in rural areas for their biggest policy achievements, like the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Biden signed last month."

USDA is dealing with lower staffing levels overall, which Vilsack has blamed on Trump administration hiring freezes and funding cuts, Bustillo reports.

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Screenshot of interactive plotter graphs shows how a higher vote for Donald Trump in 2020 correlates with a lower Covid-19 vaccination rate (left) and a higher Covid-19 death rate. In this example, Jackson County, Kentucky, which went 89% for Trump, follows trendlines created by the averages. For a larger image, click on it; for the interactive database, click here.

"Since May 2021, people living in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump during the last presidential election have been nearly three times as likely to die from Covid-19 as those who live in areas that went for now-President Biden," Daniel Wood and Geoff Brumfiel report for NPR

Overall Covid-19 death rates were 2.7 times higher in counties where at least 60% of the votes went for Trump, and the higher the vote share for Trump, the higher the Covid death count. Recently, Covid-related deaths in the reddest counties were 5.5 times higher than the bluest counties, Wood and Brumfiel report. The data start in May since that's when vaccinations became widely available. 

"The trend was robust, even when controlling for age, which is the primary demographic risk," NPR reports. "The data also reveal a major contributing factor to the death-rate difference: The higher the vote share for Trump, the lower the vaccination rate. The analysis only looked at the geographic location of Covid-19 deaths. The exact political views of each person taken by the disease remains unknowable. But the strength of the association, combined with polling information about vaccination, strongly suggests that Republicans are being disproportionately affected."


Republicans are the largest demographic group of unvaccinated Americans, and Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows that they're highly likely to mistrust official information sources and be exposed to misinformation. Foundation Vice President Liz Hamel said political affiliation is now the strongest indicator of vaccination: "If I wanted to guess if somebody was vaccinated or not and I could only know one thing about them, I would probably ask what their party affiliation is."

"It was not always this way," NPR reports. "Earlier in the pandemic, many different groups expressed hesitancy toward getting vaccinated. African Americans, younger Americans and rural Americans all had significant portions of their demographic that resisted vaccination. But over time, the vaccination rates in those demographics have risen, while the rate of Republican vaccination . . . has flatlined at just 59%, according to the latest numbers from Kaiser . . . 91% of Democrats are vaccinated."

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Last week's election, the first since Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, highlighted the party's weakness in rural areas. Much has been made of the results in Virginia, where high turnout among rural voters helped Republican Glenn Youngkin defeat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018. But Democrats' concerns are national.

NBC News chart compares races for governor.
In Virginia, not only did more rural voters show up, but more of them voted Republican. They were 16 percent of the state's voters in 2020, 19% this year. And though President Biden lost rural Virginia by about 6 points, McAuliffe lost by 27—a much more difficult margin to make up in the 2022 midterms through increased suburban and urban turnout, Dante Chinni writes for NBC News.

Some Democrats believed their rural vote "had already bottomed out, especially during the Trump era, when Republicans had run up the numbers of white voters in rural areas to dizzying new heights. Virginia, however, is proof it can get worse," Astead Herndon and Shane Goldmacher write for The New York Times. "In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70% or more . . . Youngkin was above 70% in 45 counties, and he surpassed 80% in 15."


Democrats were hurt in Virginia by McAuliffe's gaffe about parents and schools, and frustrations over school closures in the pandemic, as well as Republican arguments about "taxes and anti-racist school curriculums they claim have gone too far," Dan Balz of The Washington Post reports. But Youngkin's win went beyond specific policies. As Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Balz: "What the Democrats have a hard time understanding is that politics are cultural and not logical."

Elsewhere, Democrats said the Virginia result was indicative of broader problems the party has with rural voters. "The twin results raise a foreboding possibility for Democrats: that the party had simply leased the suburbs in the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even more of rural America," the Times reports. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a rural Democrat from North Dakota who lost her seat in 2018, told The Hill, the bottom line for Democrats is that "You can't be a majority party in this country without doing better in rural America."

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois who led the House Democratic campaign arm in 2020 and isn't seeking re-election, told the Times, “It’s not sustainable for our party to continue to tank in small-town America. . . . We’ve got a branding problem as Democrats in way too many parts of our country.” Herndon and Goldmacher, reporting from Hot Springs, Va., conclude, "Some Democrats urge the party to just show up more. Some believe liberal ideas can gain traction, such as universal health care and free community college. Others urge a refocus on kitchen-table economics like jobs programs and rural broadband to improve connectivity. But it is not clear how open voters are to even listening."

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Red shift: Chart of Virginia counties and independent cities' vote by The Washington Post; click on it to enlarge.

Rural voters' voices were plainly heard in statewide elections Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey.

"Rural America roars again," read a subhead on a Politico story that gave rural voters' strong turnout part of the credit for Republican Glenn Youngkin's 2.5-percentage-point defeat of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race. "In counties throughout rural Virginia, Youngkin ran even with or, often, ahead" of Donald Trump's performance last year, Steven Shepard and David Siders report.

The standout example of that was Bedford County, between Roanoke and Lynchburg, where Youngkin got 79 percent of the vote, 6 points better than Trump. "Moreover, turnout in many of these counties easily surpassed the last governor’s race four years ago, a sign that Trump’s base was motivated to turn out without Trump on the ticket himself, or even an in-person Trump rally," Politico reports. "The other side of that coin: Democratic candidates continue to sink to new lows in rural areas, especially among white voters. According to exit polls, Youngkin won white voters without a college degree — who are overrepresented in rural areas — by a 3-to-1 margin, 76 percent to 24 percent." Trump's 2020 edge among them was 62-38..

Anecdotal evidence showed voters punished McAuliffe for saying "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," but the result -- and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's narrow escape in a race that wasn't rated as close -- sparked analysis and recriminations.

"I don't think Democrats are comfortable campaigning in rural America, and they don't go, and it becomes self-fulfilling," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd told House Democratic Whip James Clyburn on "MTP Daily."

Clyburn told Todd that the key for Democrats to regain rural traction is to do something for them, such as the $65 billion for broadband in the House spending bill: "If people knew they had this coming, and felt comfortable with it, we would have a better message to deliver in rural America."

Rural Voices USA, a network that says it is "working to advocate, communicate, and hold policy makers accountable for rural issues," said likewise: “The disconnect between rural America and Washington, D.C. only continues to widen. The divide is evident in one-sided election results in rural counites that are increasingly frustrated they are not being heard and that lawmakers are not delivering on their priorities. . . . After passing those key pieces of legislation, lawmakers must get out into rural communities and actually talk about what those bills do. We need meaningful engagement on how universal preschool will create opportunities for rural parents and kids, how construction projects will create good jobs locally, how broadband will expand in their communities and more. The only way smart rural policy beats cynicism about government and far-right-wing talking points is if rural folks can feel and see it in their everyday lives.”

But longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield wrote for Politico that Youngkin won on the school issue, and the "real lesson for Republicans on Tuesday" is that "One of their most powerful political assets is alive and well: the power of cultural issues over policies."

In a similar vein, Clyburn also said his party is perceived as too cosmopolitan, and Democratic strategist James Carville said that much more strongly on PBS NewsHour. He said Youngkin never mentioned Biden, and voters are reacting to "left-wing nonsense" by "woke" progressives. "What went wrong is this stupid wokeness," Carville said. "Some of these people need to go to a woke detox center or something. . . . They're suppressing our vote."

Former U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican, agreed, saying rural and suburban women liked the optimistic Youngkin better than Trump, "the surly sore loser who hopefully is in the rear-view mirror now." She might be accused of wishful thinking.

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Bloomberg graph, adapted by The Rural Blog

Burning coal for energy in the United States has rebounded under President Biden in a way it never did under Donald Trump, who promised to revive the industry, Will Wade of Bloomberg

reports

.

"U.S. power plants are on track to burn 23% more coal this year, the first increase since 2013, despite Biden’s ambitious plan to eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid. The rebound comes after consumption by utilities plunged 36% under Trump, who slashed environmental regulations in an

unsuccessful

effort to boost the fuel," Wade reports.


"The boom is being driven by surging natural gas prices and a global energy crisis that’s forcing countries to burn dirtier fuels to keep up with demand. It’s also a stark reminder that government policy can steer energy markets, but it can’t control them. . . . As the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, reopening economies are driving a huge rebound for power demand. But natural gas is in short supply, creating shortfalls at a time when wind and hydro have been unreliable in some regions."

Central Appalachia, the major coal region that has been hurt most by the decade of downturn under Trump and Barack Obama, the most anti-coal president ever, has benefited most from the rebound. Coal prices there have risen 39% since Jan. 1 to $75.50 a ton, the highest since May 2019, Wade reports: "Prices in other regions are lower, but also on the rise."

Coal is a boom-and-bust business, but the trend is expected to continue, due to market forces and forecasts of a colder-than-usual winter. "Demand for coal will likely remain strong into next year, said Ernie Thrasher, CEO of Xcoal Energy & Resources, the biggest U.S. exporter of the fuel," Wade reports. "Supply is already constrained, and Thrasher said he’s hearing some utilities express concern that they may face fuel shortages over the next several months as colder weather pushes energy demand higher to heat homes."

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"President Biden announced sweeping new coronavirus vaccine mandates Thursday designed to affect tens of millions of Americans, ordering all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing," The Washington Post

reports

. "Biden also said that he would require most health-care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to vaccinate their employees, which the White House believes will cover 50,000 locations." That includes outpatient facilities like dialysis clinics and home health agencies.


Biden will also require vaccinations—with no exceptions for regular testing among the unvaccinated—for employees of Head Start programs, Defense Department contractors, and federally operated Native American schools. "The White House estimates that the policy will affect about 80 million workers, or two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Businesses that ignore the mandate could face up to $14,000 per violation," the Post reports.

The new mandates will likely have a large impact in rural America, especially among large rural employers such as manufacturers, meatpackers, and Walmart, and hospitals. Rural health-care facilities are more likely to rely on Medicare and Medicaid for reimbursement, and many are already on the brink of bankruptcy. The new mandate will affect about one in three workers in Maine, the most rural state by population.

The announcement drew immediate criticism from many, including some Republican governors, The Associated Press reports. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon has asked his attorney general to fight the mandate when it is put into effect, and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is considering a special legislative session to challenge the mandate. Biden called such governors "cavalier" with the health of children and of their communities for resisting the mandates.

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President Biden has made remarks "that haven't always squared with the facts" in defending how he has handled withdrawal of U.S. forces and citizens from Afghanistan, FactCheck.org

reports

.

Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that his decision to withdraw completely went against the advice of top military advisers, who wanted him to keep about 2,500 troops. "It was split," Biden said. "That wasn’t true." Stephanopoulos asked, "They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?" and Biden replied, "No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that." Stephanopoulos pressed the case, and Biden denied that he could not recall anyone telling him that 2,500 troops should remain.

"We don’t know what exactly Biden’s top military advisors may have told him in private conversations, or whether their recommendations may have changed over time," Fact Check reports, but says Biden’s account is contradicted by reporting from 

The New York Times

The Washington Post

 and 

The Wall Street Journal

, and a public 

Feb. 3 report

 from the Afghanistan Study Group created by Congress recommended against troop withdrawal unless the Taliban met conditions set in a 

withdrawal agreement

 the Trump administration reached with the Taliban in February 2020.

Biden asked at one point, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” but there's lots of evidence show that al Qaeda isn't gone, FactCheck notes: "A February report by the Defense Department inspector general's office said 'members of al-Qaeda were integrated into the Taliban’s leadership and command structure.' And in May, U.N. sanctions monitors reported that al Qaeda 'is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions.'"

Biden claimed that the concept of “nation building” in Afghanistan “never made any sense” to him, but he publicly favored it in the early 2000s, FactCheck notes: "In a 2001 interview, he was asked if the U.S. should “be in the business of nation building” in Afghanistan 'if and when the Taliban falls.' Biden replied, 'Absolutely, along with the rest of the world.'"

Biden's handling of the withdrawal, and Thursday's suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and 60 Afghans, has drawn attacks from Republicans, and some were outrageous, Chuck Todd and crew at NBC News say in today's "First Read" newsletter: "It wasn’t too long ago when, after a devastating attack, the United States united around its president, grieved, vowed retribution and saved the political finger-pointing for later. But that didn’t happen yesterday."

First Read cited Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn's tweet that “Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and General Milley should all resign or face impeachment and removal,” North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn's request that the Cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Biden, and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley's demand that Biden resign. The barrage "only served to polarize an already polarized country," First Read says. "It cheapened the legitimate criticism that Biden has gotten (and will continue to get) for his handling of the U.S. withdrawal; and it’s not serious at all. Do Blackburn, Hawley and Cawthorn really want Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi as president?"

"I dug out my Rand McNally and looked. Thirty-one states have Washington counties. I found 19 states that have cities called Washington, not counting Washington, D.C."

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"People are frustrated right now. They are frustrated with not feeling like they are being listened to. ... I think one of the biggest causes of all the frustrations is lack of trust."

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What's in store for the cattle industry under the Biden administration? NCBA's CEO says: "It is going to be OK."

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