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Does Iowa Still Matter to Democrats?

Democrats in Iowa and other rural states worry the national party will abandon them

Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton speaks during the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 30. (Charlie Neibergal/AP file photo)
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton speaks during the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 30. (Charlie Neibergal/AP file photo)

DES MOINES, Iowa — As Democrats try to find a way to win back the White House and control of Congress, party members in Iowa and other rural states are worried about being abandoned by the national party.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price was in Las Vegas last week for the Democratic National Committee’s fall meeting and said Democrats cannot take Midwestern states like Iowa for granted.

“There’s those folks that say the party should focus where they are strongest,” Price said. “That’s a recipe for disaster. We lost what has been that blue wall that the party believed existed.” 

Iowa state Sen. Matt McCoy said it was important not to write off voters and to get back to speaking to rural voters’ top concerns.

“We lost that economic message,” he said. “We’ve got to talk about the things that people care about and get off this identity politics and this stratification of voters.”


Changing politics

Before President Donald Trump won Iowa by nearly 10 points last year, the Hawkeye State had voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1988, with the exception of 2004, when it broke for President George W. Bush.

It was also responsible for elevating then-Sen. Barack Obama’s insurgent Democratic campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2008, when he won the Iowa caucus and then carried the state in the fall by 10 points.

That same year, Democrats won three of the state’s five congressional districts and Democrat Tom Harkin was re-elected for what would be his fifth and final Senate term.

Even in the 2010 Republican wave election, when Republican Terry E. Branstad regained the Iowa governorship by unseating Democratic incumbent Chet Culver, and GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley was elected to his sixth term, that margin held for the delegation.

Obama won Iowa again in 2012, but by a slimmer 6-point margin.

The state lost a House seat after the 2010 census and thrown together in the same district two years later, Republican Rep. Tom Latham came out on top over Democratic Rep. Leonard L. Boswell.

In 2014, GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst beat Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for Harkin’s Senate seat, Republican Rod Blum won Braley’s open seat, and GOP Rep. David Young succeeded Latham after his retirement.

Since then, the sole Democratic member of Iowa’s congressional delegation has been Rep. Dave Loebsack, whose 2nd District voted for Trump. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his re-election race Solid Democratic.

Heartland worries



Pat Rynard, a former Democratic staffer who now runs the website Iowa Starting Line, said Iowa could be a great place for Democrats to try new messaging.

“Some people want to write Iowa off. I think it serves up a perfect opportunity for us to test out, during the [2020] caucus, messages to win back the Midwest,” he said.

Price, nevertheless, said much of the concern about the party ignoring rural areas is overblown.

“I have not seen or felt that from the national committee,” he said. 

Price pointed to the help the state party received from national Democrats to hold on to a swing state House seat in a special election in August. Trump had carried the district last fall.

But some Democrats are worried the party will drift away from states like Iowa and focus solely on more reliable Democratic voting blocs such as minorities and voters in urban areas.

That is a concern for Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of heartland engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Trump carried her northwest Illinois district last year. 

“It’s like a knife to my heart that there are some in the Democratic Party who just want to write off districts like mine and forget about states like Iowa and say that it’s just too darn hard to elect Democrats in rural America,” she said at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry here last month.

As part of her focus on Iowa, Bustos hosted her first “Build the Bench” event outside her home state before the steak fry. The program helps train candidates looking to run for local office.

Not enough

In rural districts that Trump carried, being anti-Trump is not a winning strategy and Democrats will need to offer a positive alternative.

At her training event, Bustos didn’t even mention the president. One of the only times his name came up was when Emily Parcell, the congresswoman’s direct mail consultant, spoke about slogans.

“I always talk about ‘Make America Great Again.’ It’s an amazing tagline because it’s about America,” Parcell told trainees. “That is something that is generic enough that voters can ascribe anything they want.”

Some Democrats are worried that the party hasn’t learned its lessons from 2016.

Matt Barron, a longtime Democratic strategist based in rural Massachusetts, became so frustrated with the party that he quit.

“There’s no rural electoral infrastructure,” said Barron, who did work for Harkin in the 1980s. “The time for the talk is over.”

He said he is disappointed that despite the fundraising prowess of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, they have failed to put resources into rural areas. 

But a Democratic aide pointed to August’s successful state House special election in Iowa, to which national Democrats contributed through the DNC’s “Resistance Summer” and “Every ZIP Code counts program. The committee also gives $10,000 a month to each state party.

“They know how best to allocate their resources,” the aide said of state parties. “The DNC is trying to be as helpful as possible.”

2020 no-shows

Bustos was joined at the steak fry by Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, both seen as possible 2020 contenders.

Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who is so far the only major Democrat to declare for president, has visited Iowa, as has Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

But many of the other top-tier candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination —  such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — have not yet visited the state this year.

Similarly, at the state party’s upcoming fall fundraising banquet, formerly the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, which helped Obama and Jimmy Carter raise their profiles in the state, will not feature a marquee keynote political speaker. Instead, actor Alec Baldwin, who has gained notoriety recently for portraying Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” will give the keynote address.

“They are ultra paranoid about coming to Iowa,” McCoy said of the potential presidential candidates. “They don’t want to get things started too soon. I think we will hear from heavy hitters very soon.” 

But Price, the state party chairman, said Iowa Democrats’ focus isn’t on presidential candidates.

“When we have national folks coming in, I tell them, ‘Thank you for being here,’” he said, before adding, “We’re focused on 2018. That’s our only concern.”

Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, recently launched a new group called New Democracy. It held an event here in Des Moines earlier this month to urge Democrats to be competitive in Midwestern states.

“Democrats stopped talking to rural and small town voters and when we do talk to them, we talk down,” he said. 

“It has to be a strategic priority to rebuild the party and broaden its base, meeting them on their own ground,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t mean pandering to them, it means engaging.”

Rynard of Iowa Starting Line said giving up on the Midwest would be a major concession of political territory.

“And for one, it’s just short-sighted and stupid,” he said. “The Deep South is already a complete Republican stronghold. You don’t want to let another big region of the country turn into a Republican stronghold without a fight.”

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