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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There were few bright spots for Iowa Democrats this Election Day.
Democratic state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, defeated Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, a top target of Democrats. And Democrats led in a pair of battleground House seats in Ankeny that still haven’t been called.
But, by and large, Tuesday night was a drubbing for Democrats in Iowa up and down the ballot.
Iowa Republicans now occupy all six seats in the state's congressional delegation, the governor's office, all statewide offices save perhaps for one — ousting two 40-year Democratic incumbents — and historically large majorities in the Legislature.
“Just another year of getting punched in the face. That’s what it feels like,” said J.D. Scholten, the Democrat who nearly unseated Republican former Iowa U.S. Rep. Steve King in 2018 in deeply conservative Western Iowa.
The former minor league baseball player from Sioux City, however, won his unopposed Iowa House District 1 race.
“We don’t put ourselves in a position to win,” said Scholten, who joined Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken’s unsuccessful campaign to oust longtime Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley as political director. “We play so much not to lose that it’s really disappointing. Because, playing not to lose, you’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion.”
Having suffered even more losses in yet another election cycle begs the question: Where do Iowa Democrats go from here?
Scholten put out a call on Twitter the day after the midterm elections: “Anyone interested in creating the next generation of the Democratic Party with me?”
Democratic former Iowa congressman Dave Loebsack posted the day before the election that if the party could not minimize losses and win seats in Iowa, “there needs to be a very serious reckoning after Tuesday.” Loebsack shared an Axios article citing a memo ahead of the midterm election from Third Way, a center-left think tank, stating Democrats need to make major changes to the party brand to avoid an uphill climb in 2024 and beyond.
“Despite a roster of GOP candidates who are extreme by any standard, voters see Democrats as just as extreme, as well as far less concerned about the issues that most worry them,” Third Way writes in the memo of its own preelection national poll.
According to the polling, Democrats are underwater on issues including the economy, immigration and crime.
“While Democrats maintain a lead on handling certain issues like abortion and climate change, voters also rank these issues as lower priorities,” according to the memo. “While it might be comforting to blame any midterm losses solely on historical trends, this data makes crystal clear that there is a much deeper problem at play. Ultimately, there is no way for Democrats to build and maintain winning coalitions without repairing their damaged brand, even in an era where Republican candidates are increasingly extreme and women’s fundamental rights are on the ballot.”
Loebsack joined Scholten, state party officials and candidates in bemoaning the lack of national investment to support Iowa Democrats. Outside spending heavily favored Republicans, with a little more than $350,000 spent supporting Democrats in Iowa’s U.S. Senate and congressional races during the general election cycle, compared with more than $6 million spent supporting GOP candidates, according to OpenSecrets, based on federal data.
Similarly, nearly $1.9 million was spent against Republican candidates running for federal office in Iowa, compared with nearly $8 million spent against the Democrats.
“It’s clear that beltway pundits and the D.C. donor class have turned their backs on Iowa, but Iowa Democrats have not and will not give up,” Iowa Democratic Party chair Ross Wilburn said in a statement.
Iowa Democrats already are in danger of losing their enviable position atop the nation’s presidential nominating calendar. The Democratic National Committee is considering factors like diversity, logistical feasibility and electoral competitiveness in making its decision. The latter of which becomes a harder sell following Tuesday night’s election results in the state.
“Every time a Republican candidate comes to Iowa and visits the district of one of my members or one of my candidates, they’re building an organization on the other side and they’re building enthusiasm and engagement among voters,” Iowa House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst, of Windsor Heights, told the DNC rules committee this summer.
“We were able to raise some decent money without any national help,” Konfrst told The Gazette. “Imagine what we could have done if we had national investment. And as I look at races that are within 500 votes in a lot of these places, that’s the point I’m going to make to our national partners. These races could have won if we had any help nationally.”
She pointed to Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas, where Democratic governors were reelected in formerly red states.
"I’m going to point to other states that people used to say were red forever and we’re never going to come back,“ Konfrst said. ”Certainly, we heard the death knell of Wisconsin about 10 years ago. We heard how terrible things were in Michigan, and they made progress there because millions of dollars were invested there.
“There is a path back, and we can make that case. If we have the caucuses or we don’t, that doesn’t change the calculus that Iowans are more balanced than the Legislature is.”
But, more fundamentally, Iowa Democrats continue to have a problem with rural voters. Iowa Republicans at the top of the ballot won in all but a handful of counties on Election Day, while support for Democrats continues to be concentrated mostly in urban areas.
And even some of the larger counties in the eastern part of the state, like Scott and Dubuque, also look to be gaining GOP support.
It’s a symptom Democratic candidates and party operatives interviewed by The Gazette say is tied to both messaging, poor voter turnout and lacking party infrastructure.
Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democrats, said to win in the future, Democrats need to figure out how to message to rural voters and counter some of the gains Republicans have made.
“We’ve got to find a way to get our message out, and find a way to communicate it,” he said. “So people in the rural counties are hearing that, just to be able to mitigate some of the people that are voting consistently Republican.”
Depending on the results of a recount in Iowa House District 20, where Democrat Josh Turek led Republican Sarah Abdouch by just seven votes, Turek and Scholten would be the only Democrats in the statehouse outside of the Ames and Des Moines metro to live west of Interstate 35.
“We need to build party infrastructure. I think that’s one thing that’s drastically missing here,” Scholten said of Western Iowa. “You got a party event and it doesn’t represent the community. In Woodbury County, for example, you go to the Woodbury County Dems meeting and it’s a lot of older white people. You go to the mall or anywhere in the community and it’s pretty diverse. I think we need to work on diversifying and getting younger people involved.”
In 2018, Scholten drove around in an RV wrapped with his name and visited each of the district's 39 counties, stopping at gas stations where he talked with cashiers about raising the minimum wage and universal health care. He chatted with campers at the campgrounds where he stayed.
"You have to find ways to talk to all voters,“ not just those who show up at campaign rallies and events in rural communities, Scholten said. ”You put all your effort to going there to people who already support you. We have to find ways to go and campaign in the areas where you can talk to regular folks.“
Both Scholten and Loebsack said Iowa Democrats need to barnstorm the state, holding listening session in rural areas.
“Many in rural Iowa view the Democratic Party as an elitist party and we have to change that image,” Loebsack said. “You don’t change the image until we go to them and show them we respect them and are about them and want to know what their concerns are. … The first thing we need to do is sit down and talk to them before we preach to them.”
The messaging, too, needs to shift, said Scholten. He said Tuesday’s results also provide a “clear indication that economic populist messaging and ideas are extremely popular right now.”
He said Iowa Democrats need to do a better job of focusing their messaging at vowing to crack down on corporate greed and price gouging to quell voters’ concerns over decades-high inflation, as well as antitrust issues and their impact on rural communities. He pointed to Dollar General’s threat to rural Iowa’s grocery stores
Loebsack said messaging also needs to change nationally, too.
“The national party not saying anything to speak of in rural areas, and some of the things that get pinned on these candidates,” like defunding police and wanting open borders, he said. “Candidates get saddled with this and they have to fight against that and they should not be placed in that position by folks in the national party making noise about things that people in the rural areas don’t want to hear about.”
Both Scholten and Democrat Deb VanderGaast said the Iowa Democratic Party also needs to collect better voter data.
VanderGaast lost decisively to Republican Kerry Gruenhagen in the race for Iowa Senate District 41. The district includes Cedar County, most of Western Scott County and the townships of Montpelier, Moscow and Wapsinonoc in northern Muscatine County.
VanderGaast and Scholten said the party’s voter data used for field and digital organizing is outdated and useless in many areas.
“We need off-cycle data drives to re-register folks regardless of how they are currently registered, and update all of their information,” VanderGaast said.
Konfrst, the Iowa House Democratic leader, and Wilburn, the Iowa Democratic Party chair, said Iowa may look red now, but said state Democrats are building the foundation for the future.
“Tuesday was not the end, it wasn’t even the beginning; it’s the latest in the ongoing fight to push back against the corporate greed that now funds the Iowa GOP,” Wilburn said in the statement.
Konfrst said House Democrats’ will continue to push forward their four-part policy agenda of lowering costs for Iowans, investing in public schools, protecting reproductive freedom and legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
“I’m looking at a Democratic caucus in the House that has 15 new members, and that’s where we’re going to start to build the bench,” Konfrst told The Gazette. “And that provides a lot of opportunity for energy, for growth, for new ideas and for enthusiasm and changing the way we do things.”
Konfrst said she’s already talking to candidates about 2024, and will conduct an in-depth postelection analysis of what happened.
As for party messaging and outreach in rural communities, Konfrst argued Democrats’ message is one that speaks to all Iowans.
“The concept of this urban-rural divide ignores that fact that voters in all parts of the state need the same things when it comes to access to child care, access to health care, access to public education, reproductive freedom,” she said. “These issues aren’t drawn by the place you live, they’re drawn by what families need. And so we’re going to keep communicating that to voters and try to find new ways to reach out to them.”
Konfrst said she’s not being “hyperbolic” or “naive” in her optimism that Democrats can reverse their fortunes in the state, but that it will take time.
“We didn’t get here overnight, and it’s not going to be an overnight switch, but we’re seeing those issues are ones that Iowans agree with us on,” she said. “I feel confident that we will be able to look back on election night 2022 as when things started to turn. … Look, I’m not ready to in any way shape or form concede this state, call this state a red state or say that we’re a lost cause.”
Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
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