116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa Democrats face a rocky road ahead as the party looks to rebuild after another election cycle that saw Republicans expand their control over the state lawmaking process to levels not seen in Iowa since the 1950s.
Iowa Republicans now occupy all six seats in the state's congressional delegation, the governor's office, all statewide offices save for one and gained historically large majorities in the Legislature.
On top of that, national Democrats are poised to vote early next month on a new calendar for its presidential nominating process that would strip Iowa Democrats of the first-in-the-nation caucus status they held for half a century in favor of more diverse battleground states.
Who will be at the helm helping guide the Iowa Democratic Party as it charts a new path remains an open question.
Central Committee members will vote Jan. 28 to elect a new leader after Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn announced last month he will not seek another term as leader of the party.
So far, two have officially announced their candidacy for chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, while others are considering it.
Brittany Ruland, who served as campaign manager for Iowa Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, and Burlington veterans advocate Bob Krause, a former state legislator, have announced they are running for chair of the state party.
Iowa Democratic Party Vice Chair June Owens and Democratic former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart of Clinton County say they’re considering a run also.
“I’m just in a position where I’m hoping we can all come together in having some conversation about what’s best for the Iowa Democratic Party going forward and we’ll see what happens,” Hart said. “We have a lot of talking to do. There’s definitely some challenges we need to address, and I’m happy to be part of that conversation.“
Owens was elected in 2019 as the first Black woman to serve as vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, as well as the first Black woman to serve as a Democratic National Committee member from the state.
She also helped lead the party’s efforts to recruit and train candidates and volunteers across the state, and has worked over the years to increase voter registration and voter outreach.
“We definitely need to have a 99-county strategy,” Owens said. “Organizing year-round is of the utmost importance and engaging volunteers at all levels to help strengthen county parties and candidates to win. And developing a strong, robust small-donor program so that we can definitely engage volunteers — whether small donors to big donors — to support the party so we can be organized to win. … And recruiting candidates to run up and down the ballot … and that we are leaving no race uncontested.”
Some have also suggested C.J. Petersen, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Stonewall Caucus and the former communications director for U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken, should be considered.
In a Jan. 3 op-ed in the Carroll Times Herald, former newspaper owner and columnist Douglas Burns said Petersen, a leader on LGBTQ issues, “would bring the right and relevant portfolio of professional, political, and perhaps more important, life experiences, to the job.”
Petersen, who is gay and lives in Templeton in rural Western Iowa with his husband, Luke, told The Gazette he does not intend to run for chair, but did not completely rule out the possibility.
“I’m flattered by what he wrote, but I’m not there yet in terms of putting my hat in the ring,” he said.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, told reporters during a news conference Friday she is looking for “somebody who is able to do the fundraising” and “who's able to work with us collaboratively on getting across the state and talking with Iowans about who Democrats in Iowa are and what we stand for. …
“The good news is, we don't have to change who we are to get Iowans to vote with us, because Iowans are already with us,” she said of House Democrats’ policy agenda of lowering costs for Iowans, investing in public schools, protecting reproductive freedom and legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, echoed Konfrst and thanked Wilburn for his service, calling him a mentor.
Wahls said the next chair needs to be someone with experience organizing at the county and local levels, and “who's really comfortable in rural Iowa.”
“We know that a big part of the future for the Democratic Party in Iowa has to be trimming some of those margins in rural Iowa back down to where they used to be,” Wahls said. “
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 messaging, poor voter turnout and lacking party infrastructure.
Krause is a former legislator who ran for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2010 and 2016 and for governor in 2014. He withdrew from the race for his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in 2022, citing the impact of the pandemic on gathering the 3,500 signatures needed to get his name on the ballot.
“The earthquake caused by the Democratic National Committee shunting the first-in-the-nation Iowa Democratic Precinct Caucuses creates danger to the survivability of the state party,” Krause wrote to the members of the state party’s Central Committee. “Experience is critical in these times, and my experience with our first-in-the-nation caucuses goes back to December 1971, when I was in the room when the first first-in-the-nation caucus date was first picked at the old party headquarters on Mulberry Street, in Des Moines.”
If elected, Krause said he would use that experience to “rejuvenate the party, strengthen our hold in urban areas, and rebuild our party organization in rural areas.”
As for the caucuses, Krause proposes Iowa holds its Democratic caucuses earlier than the DNC allows to comply with state law, which requires both major parties to hold a caucus before any other state’s nominating contest. But, in doing so, the Democratic caucuses become a straw poll, not recognized by the DNC.
Any delegates selected at the caucus would be uncommitted. The delegate selection process would not start as a pledge system until district and state conventions that in all likelihood would be after the five-state early window the DNC has proposed.
In doing so, Iowa Democrats run the risk of not having delegates seated at the national convention. The DNC rules committee last year passed new rules that would strip half of a state’s delegates if it holds a contest outside the required window, and allows the party to vote to remove all the state’s delegates entirely.
Iowa accounts for about 1 percent of delegates at the national convention, not enough to impact the nomination.
Moving ahead with “a silent beauty pageant,” Krause said, “will keep some visibility on the Iowa Democratic Party as the Republicans slug it out.”
Republicans already agreed to keep Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses for GOP candidates.
One of the few bright spots for Iowa Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections was Trone Garriott’s defeat of former Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, a top target of Democrats.
Ruland said she is running to use lessons learned from Trone Garriott’s campaign to help Democrats rebuild, reorganize and lay the groundwork to unite local groups and a new generation of donors around a new vision for the party.
That includes implementing a “robust” year-round organizing strategy, including in rural areas “to rebuild some trust there.”
“Over the years, we as a party have shied away from organizing rural communities,” Ruland wrote in a guest post published by Bleeding Heartland, a political news site that features progressive commentary. “Many believe that it’s not worth our efforts, and while we may not gain outright wins in rural counties, we cannot discount the votes we do pick up.”
She pointed to Hart’s six-vote loss in 2020 after a recount to Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.
“More and more we are seeing key races across our state being decided, for better or for worse,” by margins of 2 points or less, Ruland wrote. “ … We must rebuild bridges of trust with our rural and marginalized voters by investing in cultivating relationships with local leadership year-round in all communities.”
Ruland as well proposes keeping Iowa Democrats financially competitive by building a donor base of “labor unions, Iowa power donors and issue organizations” to overcome the "inevitable“ financial loss of Democrats’ losing their premier spot in the presidential nominating process.
“We are at a pivotal point in the party, and I know we’re all feeling it and wondering what we can do next,” Ruland said. “And I think we have two options. Option one is we continue to try to keep what we’re doing on track and hope for a better outcome each cycle. Or, we decide that we’re to the point where we’re ready to do something different.”
Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.
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