Former senators Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., lost their reelection races last year. Looking over the post-election data, Heitkamp told me in a phone interview that there was "a steady but persistent erosion" of support for Democratic candidates in the great swath of red America. "When you look at the numbers, it's hard to win the Senate or potentially the president without getting votes in rural America."

She stressed that Democrats need to expand their appeal. "It will be easier to govern," she said. Heitkamp warned that no party should have a lock in one geographic area; the result would be polarization and the party with monopoly strength taking voters for granted.

That was the genesis for Heitkamp and Donnelly's "One Country Project," which, its website says, "is dedicated to reopening the dialogue with rural communities, rebuilding trust and respect, and advancing an opportunity agenda for rural Americans." The project has three main purposes: building a data center "on rural opinion, voter makeup, demographics, turnout, long-term trends, and issue salience"; creating a network to engage rural voters; and developing policy aimed at rural America.

Heitkamp rejected the notion that her party has a "binary choice" between appealing to rural voters or to urban, blue-state voters. As she put it, the New York cabdriver has the same concerns people in her state do when it comes to "dwindling pay checks," health care and education. The particular solutions may be different - for example, in education, where long distances necessary to get to schools pose special challenges in rural America.

She also talked about loss of grocery stores and "food deserts" in rural America.

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What does she recommend Democrats do to attract rural voters? "You've got to show up, but you can't show up empty-handed," she said. Candidates better show up with policy ideas.

I asked her if President Donald Trump's supporters feel betrayed by the broken promises on health care and tariff wars. "I don't think they feel betrayed. The small manufacturing company has been facing cheap imports from China." Meanwhile, "farmers are incredibly aware of trade [issues]," she said, but they continue to think Trump will open up new markets and they'll be better off in the long run. Heitkamp said solemnly, "There no proof that is going to happen." The real concern should be that when you lose markets, they're usually gone for good. When overseas demand drops, prices plummet. "That's going to have ramifications for years to come," she said. As for trade assistance, farmers are skeptical that the current level of support will continue. Moreover, they'd rather be in business than "sitting at home getting a check."

On health care, Heitkamp identified two issues: access and workforce. Keeping rural facilities in place is critical and has everything to do with reimbursements. Medicaid expansion kept many rural health facilities in business; if that gets rolled back, these will disappear. She said that if you look at a map, the availability of rural health care services is highest where Medicaid expansion took place. When Trump's administration joins a lawsuit to destroy the Affordable Care Act, that will "reverberate throughout rural America," she said. The second problem is attracting a skilled workforce that can provide needed services. She pointed to the lack of mental health professionals. A school with a suicidal child may find there is a two-month wait for that child to see a mental health professional, Heitkamp said. "Rural health care is in crisis."

Heitkamp was known in the Senate as intensely practical and ready to work across the aisle on issues that affected her state. Her political strategy is similarly down to earth. "Democrats don't have to win in rural America, they just have to stop losing by so much," she said.

Democratic contenders should heed her advice. What they may not be able to duplicate, however, is Heitkamp's obvious love and concern for her rural neighbors. She cares intensely about their well being. And empathy is hard to fake, especially when you rarely show up or come empty-handed.

Finally, there is a great deal of talk about the need for diversity on the Democratic ticket. "Diversity" should also include geographic and professional diversity. If not at the top of the ticket, candidates from the "heartland" such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., should be in the mix. The so-called Republican lock on the electoral college and the Senate won't be a lock if Democrats can break the GOP's iron grip on states such as Iowa. Knowing a thing or two about rural broadband, soy bean prices and rural health care would sure help.

This article was written by Jennifer Rubin, a reporter from The Washington Post.