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Iowa Republicans rose from ruins. Can Iowa Democrats do the same?
Feb. 5, 2023 6:00 am
A week and a day ago, the Iowa Democratic Party gathered — over Zoom, because apparently they hate themselves — to conduct party business, which included the election of new officers to lead the party. Two hours into that meeting, which began a little after 9 a.m., members of the State Central Committee were still bickering over the agenda, and whether or not members from two newly-created constituency caucuses should have the right to vote for party officers. By the time the four officers were all elected, it was almost 6 p.m. What a day.
I couldn’t bring myself join the Zoom call. (I engaged in my own method of torture by watching a painful Cyclone game.) But I did follow along with the updates from a couple of reporters who live-tweeted the event, and on more than one occasion I had to put my smartphone down and laugh.
I don’t laugh out of disdain for Iowa Democrats. National Democrats already have more than enough of that. I laugh out of empathy, because my people (evil Republicans) have had their own party crises in the not-so-distant past. Having experienced so much of it on my own side, I find a bit of comfort — and humor -in knowing that in many ways, Republicans and Democrats are so, so similar.
Obviously, the similarities don’t apply to policy positions. But that and certain structural details aside, state Democrats and Republicans are quite alike in that they both have their scandals and squabbles and factions of membership with dramatically different points of view, whose arguments can become personal and whose conflicts become bitter. Both have gone through periods of repeated turnover in leadership at some point over the last 12 years, usually timed after some kind of spectacular failure. And at some point during that same time frame, both have seen their fundraising slow to a trickle.
Sure, the current focus is on Democrats because of their recent election losses and organizational failures. But Republicans? We’ve been there. We’ve done that. It may be hard to picture the current Republican Party of Iowa as anything but strong — and, dare I say, united — under the leadership of its titan, Jeff Kaufmann, who recently began his fifth full term as chairman. But when Kaufmann was first elected only months before the 2014 election, the state party was clawing back from a multitude of failures during the 2012 cycle.
Kaufmann’s election in June 2014 came on the heels of a no-confidence vote against outgoing chairman Danny Carroll. Carroll had served for less than three months after succeeding AJ Spiker, who was elected in early 2012 to fill the vacancy left by Matt Strawn. Strawn resigned the Iowa GOP chairmanship four weeks after the 2012 caucuses,when missing paperwork and other counting errors in the presidential poll dominated media headlines and complicated the determination of a winner.
Most see the totaling error as the only blow that left a bruise on the Iowa GOP in 2012. Longtime party activists also describe the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses as the night that Liberty Republicans, a faction of supporters of 2012 presidential candidate Ron Paul, organized to take over the state party by assembling delegates to attend the spring conventions and elect Paul-aligned representatives to the GOP State Central Committee. Liberty Republicans (or “Paulsheviks,” as they were called by disgruntled party activists,) were better at mobilizing delegates than they were at mobilizing voters. After breaking a Democrat trifecta in state government only two years earlier, Iowa Republicans would perform dismally in the 2012 elections, failing to pick up any seats in the Iowa Senate and losing several in the Iowa House.
With Spiker at the helm, Liberty Republicans drove the party into the ground, alienating many activists and donors alike and causing fundraising to dry up. Nursing a grudge over what was done to their party, longtime activists struck back at the 2014 conventions and ousted the Liberty faction from leadership. No longer flanked by loyalists, Spiker resigned as party chair in March 2014. He was replaced by Carroll, whose 3-month tenure bore no real effort to unite the party or restore fundraising. On June 28, 2014, the newly-seated GOP State Central Committee ousted Carroll in favor of Kaufmann. When Kaufmann took the reins, the party had a paltry $11,000 cash on hand — not even enough to make payroll.
So, let’s review: A caucus crisis, rapid turnover in leadership, a starving piggy bank and angry activists. Does that sound familiar to Iowa Democrats? If so, you’ve made my point: Republicans and Democrats are alike in so many ways. And with new leadership now firmly in place for the Democrats, the question becomes: Will they be alike in their rebuilding?
While no one enjoyed the parliamentary quarreling at last Saturday’s meeting, I submit that the measure of a strong political party isn’t necessarily a harmonious tone of meetings. (I write that having sat through some of the most godawful Republican meetings a person could ever experience.) Nor is the measure of a strong party their positions or their ideas.
The measure of a strong party is their ability to win. A good indicator of the ability to win is the ability to raise money. Kaufmann understood right away in 2014 that even with a heavily favored gubernatorial candidate and nationwide momentum favoring Republicans, the state GOP would need cash to compete. He set an ambitious fundraising goal of $300,000 in 3 months to get his party back on track — and met it.
Rita Hart also understands the role money plays in party wins, as well as its absence in party losses. Hart, a former state senator, candidate for Lieutenant Governor and Congress, was elected as the new chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party during that miserably long Saturday meeting, where she committed to building the fundraising infrastructure necessary to future Democratic Party victories.
But while strong new leadership should provide a similar boost to Iowa Democrats as it did for Iowa Republicans, the difference in the fundraising landscape cannot be understated. The timing of Republicans’ rebuilding was rather fortuitous. They did so while big-name national politicians looking to test the waters in our first-in-the-nation caucus state came to stump for Iowa GOP candidates. With President Joe Biden signaling that he intends to run as the incumbent for re-election, Iowa Democrats will not have presidential wannabes running all over the state enticing Democrat voters to help rebuild their state party organization.
Even without an incumbent for President in 2024, a boost to the IDP from national Democratic candidates looks unlikely. As I write this, the DNC is gathering for its winter meetings. Although my deadline is the day before the DNC is expected to ratify proposed changes to their presidential nominating order, I feel safe assuming that by the time you read this column, the DNC will have officially stripped Iowa of its first-in-the-nation spot and established punitive measures to scare many prospective presidential candidates away from visiting Iowa and bolstering state party fundraising efforts.
So, Democrats and Republicans are alike in many ways. But they’re not identical. Neither are the challenges they face. Iowa Democrats should prepare for a long and arduous rebuilding process, amid circumstances that, at the moment, seem pretty bleak. But the one good thing about starting from the bottom is that there’s nowhere to go but up.
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