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Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn announced Saturday he will not seek another term as leader of the party, after Democrats in the state faced a drubbing in the Nov. 8 midterm elections and a likely vote by national Democrats to strip Iowa of its first-in-the-nation caucus status it’s held for half a century.
Wilburn, a state representative from Ames, was elected in January 2021 to lead the party as its first Black chair in facing a challenging midterm election and a battle to retain the Iowa caucuses. Wilburn replaced outgoing chair and former state Rep. Mark Smith, who decided not to seek a second term.
Wilburn, in a statement, said his service to Iowans will continue as a state lawmaker, “but it is time to pass the torch.”
“As the leader of the party, I have worked to stem external threats, listened to those who have felt left behind and managed expectations about what we could do with the resources at our disposal,” he said. “No one can predict the future. But I have the utmost faith that whoever takes up the mantle next will guide our party with grace through the challenges ahead, as we all continue to work on growing our party and electing Democrats who will fight for the ideas we know are supported by a strong majority of Iowans.”
Wilburn called it “an honor of a lifetime to serve as the first African American chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.”
“No matter what, I will always put people before politics,” he said. “If we want to make Iowa a place where folks want to live, work and raise a family, we have a lot of work to do and I’m in this for the long haul.”
Elections for a new chair and party officers will take place Jan. 28.
Republicans in Iowa dominated in the Nov. 8 general election, sweeping in a statewide red wave and bucking a national trend where the GOP fell short of expectations.
Iowa Republicans now occupy all six seats in the state's congressional delegation, the governor's office, all statewide offices save for one — ousting two long-serving Democratic incumbents — and gained historically large majorities in the Iowa Legislature.
State Auditor Rob Sand, the lone Democrat to avoid defeat in the statewide elections — narrowly holding onto his seat despite outspending his opponent by seven figures — thanked Wilburn for his “patience, work ethic and peacemaking as IDP Chair.”
“ (A)nd he deserves credit for good work done in a tough environment,” Sand posted on Twitter. “I wish him the best and look forward to continuing to work with him.”
The election losses were immediately followed by the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee vote earlier this month to boot Iowa Democrats from the front of the presidential nominating calendar, replacing it with South Carolina.
Republicans, on the other hand, will keep Iowa as the first-in-the-nation caucuses for GOP presidential candidates.
“I’m really disappointed, because I really like Ross and I think he’s worked really hard and accomplished a lot as the first African American chair of the Iowa Democratic Party,” said Scott Brennan, the only Iowan on the DNC rules committee and who served as Iowa Democratic Party chair twice, from 2006 to 2009 and 2013 to 2014.
Despite a tough year for Iowa Democrats, Brennan said he “has never talked to anyone who has blamed Ross Wilburn for any of those things.”
“He’s worked very hard and he’s done everything he should have done as chair,” Brennan said. “And any criticism of Ross is misplaced. … In a challenging election cycle, he was very disciplined and hit all of the fundraising goals set for him, and was just a good leader of the party.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann echoed Brennan.
“It’s real easy to try to choose one person who is responsible for something disappointing … but it’s not grounded in reality,” Kaufmann said. “Anybody in the Democratic Party that thinks that replacing a chair is going to change prospects are mightily mistaken.”
Kaufmann said the job of the chair “is to direct the trains” and “to set a tone.”
“The mechanics of the campaigns are ultimately the responsibility of the individual candidates,” he said.
Wilburn is the sixth Iowa Democratic Party chair Kaufmann has worked with. “And there have been none I’ve had a more trusting, relationship with than Ross,” Kaufmann said.
He praised Wilburn’s “tenacity when it seemed as if the national Democrats had their laser focus on Iowa and doing harm to Iowa, and I thought Ross handled himself very well.
“And I’m sure it seemed a bit lonely at times,” Kaufmann said. “Ross is definitely a special guy. We may disagree on policy, but I have the utmost respect for him as a person and a political colleague.”
Kaufmann said his best advice to Iowa Democrats is to pick a chair who appeals to all parts of the party, “and is staunchly in favor of keeping these Iowa caucuses and telling the national party to go pound sand.”
“If the Democrats have a chair that backs off one inch, they’ll be making the mistake of the century as far as their prospects in this state,” he said.
Brennan said he was “too old to speculate on names” as who may run for chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
“It’s going to be hard work and it’s going to have to be somebody who really wants to do it,” he said. “So I look forward to supporting whoever it is.”
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