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Democrats need rural voters to put Iowa in play in 2020

Party hopes to build on midterm gains, but hasn’t settled on the right approach

John Olsen from Des Moines, Iowa, wears a vest with presidential buttons as he listens to former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 8. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
John Olsen from Des Moines, Iowa, wears a vest with presidential buttons as he listens to former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 8. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

GREENFIELD, Iowa — The sunlight sparkled on Greenfield Lake on a hot Sunday in August as the Democrats passed around a paper bowl, tossing in a few dollars they had in their pockets.

It was a scene that could easily have taken place in a church earlier that day, when parishioners offer donations as baskets are passed through the pews.

These were the Democratic Party faithful, gathered in a park shelter, sitting at tables covered in red and blue tablecloths and offering monetary and moral support for their county party.

Three decades ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson anchored his presidential campaign in this small town of 1,800, a rural, white and Republican area in southwest Iowa that’s a one-hour drive from Des Moines.

Democrats believe engaging in places like Greenfield is how they can find success in Iowa again.

“We all want the same things … be happy, be healthy and make a living,” said Thaddeus Hawley, the chairman of the Adair County Democratic Committee.

At the party potluck, he donned a T-shirt with a clear message on the back: “Rural votes matter.”

On the surface, Iowa looks like a red state — Republicans control the state government and both U.S. Senate seats, and President Donald Trump won it by 9 points in 2016.

But Democrats found success here in 2018 and now hold three of the state’s four House seats.

“As has happened many times, Iowa is going to be the political ground zero in 2020. And it’s not just the caucuses,” said David Redlawsk, a political psychology professor at the University of Delaware and co-author of “Why Iowa?”

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Still swinging

Iowa may seem an unlikely candidate to be a swing state, but in 2020 it will be a key in deciding who controls the White House, the Senate and the House.

GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is running for a second term after winning 52 percent of the vote in 2014.

Democrats are defending their three House seats, all of which Trump won in 2016.

In the 4th District, Rep. Steve King could face the Democrat who almost beat him last fall — if King survives a Republican primary.

On the presidential level, the Hawkeye State has been a mixed political bag. For president, Iowans backed George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then Trump in 2016.


In 2018, GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds won a full term. But Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne flipped two GOP-held seats in the 1st and 3rd districts, respectively.

Data from the Iowa secretary of state’s office shows that turnout among Democratic voters and voters not registered with any party increased in 2018, compared with past midterms. “No party” voters are the largest share of voters in the state, with 36 percent of active voters not registered with any party.

Thirty-two percent of active voters are Republicans and 31 percent are Democrats.

Those in Iowa politics usually sum up the state this way: Iowans sent Republican Charles E. Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin to the Senate together for 30 years.

“He was conservative. I was liberal,” Harkin said at a recent event in West Des Moines. “How? I don’t think [voters] put us in those [partisan] boxes. They put us in boxes of: You work hard, you care about us.”

A purple state

Operatives in both parties say retail politics goes a long way in Iowa — being an early presidential state gets people used to seeing politicians up close and often.

Iowans also have a populist streak, born out of an agricultural tradition. That sensibility persists even though just one quarter of Iowans lived in rural parts of the state in 2016, according to the Iowa State University Small Towns Project.


Obama and Trump both vowed to fight for the average voter and shake up the status quo. Both parties think such a message will help them win other critical Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

“If you can win Iowa, you typically do pretty well across the country,” Iowa Democratic Chairman Troy Price said.

Some Democrats are concerned the party could forget about Iowa after the caucuses are over in February, focusing on states with increasing minority populations who may be more likely to support Democrats.

Iowa is 85 percent white; the country is 60 percent white, according to Census Bureau estimates. But Democrats aren’t ready to write off Iowa as a red state. After all, it wasn’t long ago that they were in charge of state government.


At the Iowa State Fair last month, Finkenauer recalled being a speaker’s page at that time in 2007. “We were actually one of the first states in the country to legalize same-sex marriage,” she said. “And it’s because of some of the work that happened on the ground.”

Standing near the state party’s booth at the fair, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez was bullish on the party’s prospects in the Hawkeye State.

Wearing a blue T-shirt with the words “Democrats have 20/20 vision” over his dress shirt, Perez said Democrats can compete in rural Iowa because voters there are struggling with health care, high prescription drug costs and trade.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 9: Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez speaks during an interview with the WHO radio station at the Iowa State Fair on Friday August 9, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez speaks during an interview with the WHO radio station at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 9. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who lost a challenge to Grassley in 2016, said Democrats have to engage rural areas to win statewide. She said the current Democratic presidential candidates seem more willing to visit rural areas than past ones.

Judge and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack formed “Focus on Rural America” after Democrats suffered heavy losses in rural parts of the state in 2016.

They have conducted focus groups of voters who backed Obama and then Trump, which showed that voters were looking for change.

Judge said the top issues for rural voters include health care, the economy and education.

Retiring Iowa Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack said Democrats looking to win over rural voters “better be for ethanol,” referencing the biofuel made with Iowa corn.

But Iowa Democrats don’t agree on the best candidate to take on Trump — a centrist or an unapologetic liberal.

“All the time, I hear how the Democratic Party has gone left, but there’s a lot of us moderates,” said Kathy Healy of Cedar Rapids, who held a yard sign for former Vice President Joe Biden and had a green sticker for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on her purse as she waited in line at the Wing Ding Democratic fundraiser in Clear Lake.

“Everything is not free,” added her daughter, Dana.

At the state fair, Mickey Maxwell, 43, of West Des Moines challenged her husband near the WHO-TV booth after he said a centrist would have a better chance. “I know I’ve heard you say that a million times, but sometimes I feel like that’s giving up,” she said after they participated in the “cast your kernel” poll, dropping their corn kernels into a glass jar for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “Trump didn’t go towards the middle and he still won, why do we have to?”

The Trump factor

Whether Iowa is competitive in November 2020 will depend on the Democratic nominee and whether he or she focuses part of the campaign on the state, Democratic operatives say.

Republicans are confident Trump will increase GOP turnout in 2020, particularly in rural Iowa.

Iowa political operatives consider the Des Moines Register poll the gold standard of Iowa surveys, and the most recent survey from February showed 42 percent of Iowans approved of the president.

One key question is whether farmers, who are struggling amid a trade war with China, will stick with Trump.

Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods prompted Beijing to retaliate with tariffs on corn, soybean and pork, top Iowa exports.

So far, many farmers who support Trump are standing by him.

At Ernst’s town hall in Parkersburg last month, Ted Junker encouraged the senator to support the president so China would come to the negotiating table.

Junker, a registered Republican and corn and soybean farmer, said the trade war is hurting his business, but he liked that Trump was taking action.

“China’s been cheating on it forever,” Junker said. “He’s trying to fix it.”

Ernst said in an interview that trade is often the most discussed issue at her town halls.

She has her own balancing act with the president as she runs for reelection, occasionally disagreeing with Trump while trying not to alienate the GOP base.

Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the state Republican Party, said Ernst could be an asset in areas where Trump is not popular.

Across the country, Republicans lost races in 2018 in the suburbs, where more affluent and highly educated voters rejected Trump.

Kaufmann is engaging his suburban chairs to learn more about why Republicans lost support, and how they can improve heading into 2020.

But for some Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere, supporting GOP candidates isn’t an option in the Trump era.

Chrissy Parkinson, a 35-year-old YMCA instructor from West Des Moines, changed her registration from Republican to Democrat in 2016, and supports Axne in her reelection bid.

At the fair, Parkinson wore a T-shirt supporting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She said decency, education and supporting the middle class are her top issues.

“The last election broke a lot of people,” she said. “And you can’t go back. I will never go back. Ever.”

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