You may not have felt it, but last week, Appalachia experienced a political earthquake.

The epicenter is Huntsville, Alabama, where Democrat Marilyn Lands won a special election for the seat in Alabama House District 10. The seat was left open after  Republican David Cole resigned following his conviction for voter fraud. Not only did Lands triumph over her Republican challenger, Teddy Powell, but she did so by nearly 25 points, which accounts for a 17-point flip over her performance against Cole in 2022. 

It is worth contextualizing her victory before we go any further. As Brian Lyman writes in the Alabama Reflector, Madison County (where Huntsville is located) is home to almost 20% more residents over 25 with at least a four-year college degree than the rest of the state, and the median income is $20,000 higher.

“In short,” Lyman writes, “Madison County looks more like northern Virginia than the state as a whole. That’s good for local Democrats. But it also means voters in Madison County might have been more receptive to Lands’ message than they would be elsewhere in Alabama.”

I’m willing to concede this to a point. District 10 – which is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army’s Redstone Arsenal – is distinct enough from the rest of Yellowhammer State to bear mentioning. However, Donald Trump still won Madison County by 53% in 2020, and this specific seat in the House of Representatives has been held by Republicans since at least 2010. This is not a purple district; it’s magenta, at best.

But what exactly was Lands’ message? This is where it gets interesting. Lands didn’t run on some mealy-mouthed moderate message about working with Trumpists and appeasing the radical right. She ran on a solidly Democratic message of protecting reproductive freedoms and IVF. Following her victory, Lands – who shared the experience of her own abortion with voters while campaigning – proclaimed “Today, Alabama women and families sent a clear message… Our legislature must repeal Alabama’s no-exceptions abortion ban, fully restore access to I.V.F. and protect the right to contraception.”

Lands didn’t run away from abortion, once the third rail of American politics (especially in the South). She ran toward it, framing the issue not as one of personal morality but as one of personal freedom. Women, she argued, should have autonomy over these decisions. Families should be able to plan for themselves, not have the government restrict their ability to decide what’s best for them. She pointed to a tangible consequence of Republicans’ attempts to roll back more than half a century of expanded freedoms not just for herself, but for the voters she met. 

And the voters responded by electing her to protect those freedoms. 

A couple weeks back, I wrote in our newsletter about a young activist who, during a break in the drag show at the Appalachian Studies Association conference in Cullowhee, North Carolina, chastised the crowd in a bar for not listening to him as he discussed the importance of a local LGBTQ organization for which he was raising money. I didn’t record his impromptu speech, so I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

“Y’all need to shut up and listen! You have the money and resources to come to our community and are happy to take from us. You need to give to us, too. We are out here fighting for our lives! Our local leaders don’t want events like this happening! Stop talking and listen as we tell you what we’re going through!”

It was the kind of strident queer activism that reminds me of ACT-UP in the 1980s. Certainly, given who North Carolina Republicans have nominated for governor, he is right to ring the alarm. It’s a scary time in the Tar Heel State, just as it is across our nation.

Still, his invocation struck me as heavy-handed to the point it turned me off. For one, most people who attend an ASA conference are already politically progressive or at least LGBTQ-friendly. He was screaming at his allies. 

Yet, perhaps more importantly, not everyone who was in that bar was there for ASA, or even the drag show. Outside, I spoke to a woman in her 30s who was local to Cullowhee and had come with a friend. She didn’t know there would be a drag show, but she seemed open-minded even if she didn’t have the politically correct vocabulary. I enjoyed our chat over a cigarette. 

After that young man’s diatribe, though, I watched her and her friend leave in a huff. “What a missed opportunity,” I thought to myself. There was a chance to open a dialogue with someone who may well not have considered LGBTQ rights in any meaningful way. Instead, she was scolded and lectured along with the rest of the crowd. What a waste.

Did anyone leave that drag show feeling empowered, motivated, or encouraged? She didn’t, and neither did I. 

Yet – that young man is not wrong. We face the greatest challenge to American democracy since the Civil War. Donald Trump has publicly said he is running to be a dictator, to take vengeance on his political opponents, and has promised a “bloodbath” if he is not elected. As the events of January 6, 2021, illustrate, this is not mere bloviating. Trump should be taken at his word.

It’s not just Trump, either. Mark Robinson, the Republican nominee for North Carolina governor I mentioned earlier, is just as dangerous – wanting to go back to a time when women couldn’t vote, calling LGBTQ people filth, and bemoaning freedoms lost during the Civil Rights Movement (such as the freedom to discriminate against Black people – an opinion not made any better by the fact that Robinson himself is Black). 

The GOP has already taken away a woman’s right to choose and, in Alabama, the right to IVF. Which other freedoms and rights will they go after next? In my view, any and all that they can. We do need to sound the alarm. We mustn’t understate the stakes. 

Nobody likes to be scolded, though. Voters are not children and treating them like it is a surefire way to lose their attention, never mind their support. If it sounds like I’m “tone policing,” it’s because I am. Whether we like it or not, tone and optics both matter on the campaign trail. They matter in the conversations we have with our neighbors. “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Mamaw always says. Vinegar may kill E. coli, but it doesn’t win elections. 

Besides, the truth is that we on the left have a history of crying wolf. Iraq War protestors compared George W. Bush to Hitler. Mitt Romney was painted as the devil. We’ve raised too many false alarms before, and most Appalachians – most Americans – are not as politically engaged as activists and columnists. They just aren’t. So, they may not be aware of Mark Robinson’s comments, of Donald Trump’s threats, of Republicans’ goosestep towards fascism. And if they are, they may not understand just how different this is from the alarms we’ve raised in the past 20 years, chalking it up to just more election-year politicking.

It’s easier that way, I suppose. President Reagan convinced so many that we are the shining city on a hill that they don’t – they can’t – imagine we could ever be anything but. It is our job to make them see just how grave the threat is not just to you and I, not just to Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, women in need of an abortion, but to all individuals. 

Hell, not even just to individuals. We need to make voters see the threat to them. That Republicans are not just coming for their neighbors’ freedom, but for their freedom. We are not going to accomplish this by catastrophizing even though catastrophe is precisely what lies ahead should the Republicans win this November. We need to focus less on what Republicans might do, as downright frightening as that is, and instead remind voters of what they have already done – and what we can do to make it better.

Marilyn Lands did that in Northern Alabama. She made abortion and contraceptive access a cornerstone of her campaign, running towards and not from an issue Democrats have long felt works against them. “From what I heard from the voters at the polls I was at, [reproductive rights] was a really big factor,” Lands told the Washington Post following her victory. “And so many women came out. I had a woman with her young daughter wanting her to see history being made.”

I love this anecdote because it illustrates the stakes: Do we want our daughters and sons to have fewer freedoms than we have? Most Americans would say “no.” But, as Lands’ own campaign recognized, it is not enough to articulate what we might lose. We must present a vision of what we can gain by rejecting Trumpism.

She ran heavily on abortion and IVF, that is true, but she also ran on kitchen table issues which, while not as electrifying as personal freedom, have a profound effect on the quality of Alabamans’ lives: eliminating the regressive tax on groceries, growing the local economy, investing in roads and infrastructure, and funding and improving public schools rather than giving taxpayer money to wealthy students at private schools through a voucher scam. 

She did all of this with a smile on her face, with optimism in her heart, and with a promise to not just save what we have, but to make it so much better than it is – because let’s be honest, part of Trumpism’s populist appeal in Appalachia is that things aren’t so great these days. Voters are hurting. It is not enough to tell them what we might lose. We have to show them what they might lose, what they’ve already lost – and what they can gain.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is 100 Days in Appalachia’s Contributing Editor for Community Engagement. Support his work and our continued coverage of politics in the region by donating here.

Share your feedback and thoughts with Skylar directly at [email protected].