(Bloomberg) -- The furor over the U.S. Postal Service imperils a vital lifeline for the Republican rural base and threatens to damage GOP lawmakers’ re-election bids, potentially even President Donald Trump’s campaign in critical battlegrounds.
Rural residents are especially dependent on the mail for medication and retail purchases, with private carriers like UPS and FedEx most likely to contract out the last leg of delivery to the post office in sparsely populated areas. More rural residents also are elderly or lack broadband service, making it harder for them to handle bills electronically. The letter carriers traversing country roads often have a personal connection with their customers.
That resonance may be one reason Postmaster General Louis DeJoy backpedaled in the face of an exploding outcry on changes he ordered. DeJoy has suspended removals of mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes until after the election. Democrats had argued the cuts were designed to hinder mail-in voting, but he defended them as overdue cost-cutting measures.
At a hearing Friday of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, DeJoy acknowledged complaints from Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers about mail delays. But, he said, given the losses piling up the Postal Service will have to make cuts and find more revenue.
“One thing that is not in the plan, is not doing anything after the election,” said DeJoy, who is set to face questions from the House Oversight Committee on Monday.
The House held a rare Saturday session to pass legislation that would roll back any changes made at the Postal Service since January and provide $25 billion in new funding. Twenty-six Republicans joined with the Democratic majority to approve the bill, which was opposed by Trump, but it’s unlikely to even get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Postal Service is “a really big issue,” said Betsy Huber, president of the 150,000-member National Grange, the nation’s oldest agricultural and rural public-interest organization. “Our members are very concerned. They’re contacting us: What are you doing to save the post office?”
Huber’s organization sent out a call to action Tuesday, urging members to contact their congressional representatives and senators. Within the first 24 hours, 600 members responded to say they had been in touch with lawmakers, Huber said.
Trump’s overwhelming backing in rural communities was critical to his 2016 election, especially in providing the razor-thin margins that allowed him to prevail in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and gain an Electoral College majority.
But Democrat Joe Biden has a lead over Trump in recent polls of those states and other battle grounds. Any weakening of Trump’s rural support could be devastating to his re-election, especially since Democrats have made inroads in suburban areas.
His standing in rural areas has already diminished as Covid 19 spreads beyond metropolitan areas, the economy weakens and China falls short on promised farm purchases. The president’s job approval among rural residents dropped to 53% in a Gallup poll taken July 30-Aug. 12 from 61% in a June 8-30 poll. His rural job approval had averaged 63% this year.
One dramatic way the postal slowdown has hit farmers is a breakdown in a century-old link in the supply chain for smaller poultry producers. Thousands of baby chicks shipped to New England farmers have arrived dead in recent months, a problem Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree has highlighted after many complaints from constituents in her rural Maine district. Newborn chicks can survive 72 hours without food or water and have been shipped by mail since 1918.
“In agricultural operations, it’s not at all uncommon to receive chicks through the mail, honeybees through the mail and even beneficial insects like ladybugs at organic farms,” said Pingree, who owns a small organic farm. “It’s also how you might get the part for your tractor when it breaks down and you need it the next day. I guarantee you its not a FedEx truck that’s pulling up at the farm at the end of a dirt road: It’s the mail truck.”
Democratic challengers have seized on postal problems to attack incumbent Republican senators in close races in heavily rural states where partisan control of the Senate will be determined this year, among them Alaska, Colorado, Montana and Maine. A Democratic political action committee is running an ad blaming Republican Senator Susan Collins for mail delays in her home state of Maine.
Ballots, Medicine, Checks
Post office service delays emerged as a big issue in Montana, where Republican Senator Steve Daines is facing a strong challenge from the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock.
“Ballots, medicine, unemployment checks, paychecks – Montananans rely on USPS for all of these critical items,” Bullock said amid reports that blue postal collection boxes had already disappeared from the streets of Bozeman and Lewiston.
Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper slammed Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner on Twitter and Facebook for failing to “stand up to Trump” for his “horrid” attacks on the postal service and the delayed shipments to veterans. Gardner earlier publicized his role in helping address problems at a local post office but has said little about the current controversy. His office declined to comment.
Collins, Daines, Gardner and Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska all have joined in backing legislation to give the postal service the full $25 billion its board of governors has requested. But the Senate is in recess and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not scheduled a vote on the bill.
Medication delivery is especially important to many people, particularly older people, who live in remote areas, because, Huber said, they often live far from a pharmacy. She added that even before the pandemic, rural residents also ordered many other goods delivered for the same reason.
Nationally, almost 1 in 5 Americans said they were expecting a mail delivery of medication during the last week. One quarter of them experienced a delay or no delivery, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll completed Aug. 17.
Likewise, while high-speed internet in now ubiquitous in metropolitan areas, 22% of rural residents still don’t have access to broadband over lines, according to a Federal Communications Commission report earlier this year.
“The post office is a high-ranking infrastructure concern of rural voters,” said former Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “I spent a lot of time working on postal issues because it is so important.”
‘Benign Aspect of Government’
Most rural lawmakers have long known that any effort to curtail postal services will turn their constituents “really grouchy” and often have involved themselves in campaigns to save a local facility, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies Congress.
“Post offices are almost as important as City Hall,” Baker said. “They kind of represent the most benign aspect of government. It’s a service that does things for people and asks for very little in return. It’s not like the military or the Internal Revenue Service.”
(Updates with House vote in seventh paragraph)
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