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Democratic debate: What can Midwest cities look for tonight?

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Although media coverage might have you believe that Iowans will caucus based on whatever food-impaled-on-a-stick presidential candidates might have consumed at the Iowa State Fair, the region is facing complex challenges when it comes to housing, transportation, and infrastructure. Before tonight’s debate, here’s a look at key national challenges that are endemic to the Midwest.

Although one in five U.S. residents lives in what’s defined as rural America, the Midwest’s rural communities are dotted by “micropolitans”—cities and towns of 10,000 to 50,000 residents that are being heralded as economic catalysts for the surrounding area. The region’s small- and mid-sized cities are seeing changes, too, as both employers and residents are coming to town in search of more affordable housing and better quality of life.

With two frontrunning presidential candidates who call the Midwest home, the remaining candidates must capitalize on this opportunity to establish how they’d best address the region’s needs. Here are some ways several of the candidates may seek to win over Heartland voters—both at tonight’s debate, and as the first wave of caucuses and primaries rolls into view.

Pete Buttigieg’s infrastructure plan

Last week, Pete Buttigieg unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that seemed fine-tuned to address specifically Midwestern issues like those the former South Bend, Indiana mayor faced in his own city. Among the investments Buttigieg would make include a public transit overhaul that’s specifically focused around his commitment to rural communities, like making sure federal “smart city” transportation grants also go to municipalities outside of cities, and upgrades to public services like water and internet that specifically address decades of racial inequality and federal disinvestment.

Andrew Yang’s freedom dividend

The looming threat of automation is a huge issue for industries like car manufacturing, which is almost all consolidated in the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. In fact, more than half of all U.S. industrial robots are in operation in the Midwestern region. Andrew Yang’s universal basic mobility plan, which would give every American $1,000 per month, is meant to offset the impacts of automation, and might play well with the country’s workers who are most worried about losing their jobs to robots.

Bernie Sanders’s climate justice

No candidate has a climate strategy more comprehensive than Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his $16 trillion Green New Deal plan is heavily focused on transitioning workers into new roles in the “just and equitable” economy. This is a big deal for the Midwest, where clean energy jobs are skyrocketing. Another huge component of Sanders’ plan centers on helping the country’s most marginalized communities recover from climate disasters, like the catastrophic flooding that devastated the Midwest last summer.

Elizabeth Warren’s rent relief

The affordable housing crisis is hitting small towns and rural areas hard, too. As part of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s already robust housing plan, new provisions for renters added in November focus on protecting renters’ rights, including a national small-dollar grant program that would prevent families from being evicted because of financial emergencies. One particular area of Warren’s plan that will resonate with renters is regulating corporate landlords, which have proliferated in many Midwestern communities still reeling from the foreclosure crisis.

Amy Klobuchar’s agricultural strategy

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the only candidate besides Buttigieg to hail from the Midwest, and accordingly has her own designated “plan from the Heartland.” In it, Klobuchar proposes changing how farm subsidies are managed, introducing new tax credits for manufacturing, and providing better disaster aid like crop insurance, all with the stated goal of helping the agriculture industry become less carbon-intensive and more environmentally resilient. She also highlights elements of her other plans, like high-speed rail and internet access, that would help boost farm-focused economies.

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