DES MOINES — Iowa Democrats are in a decadelong slump, not winning a statewide campaign atop the ballot since 2008, the last time U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin was elected.
But Democrats say the gains they made in this month’s midterm elections show the party is on the road to recovery, asserting that statewide success is only an election cycle away.
“You don’t get there in one cycle. It doesn’t get fixed in one cycle,” state party Chairman Troy Price said. “I feel very good about the state of our party.”
The 2018 race for Iowa governor presented Democrats with a prime opportunity for a statewide victory. Terry Branstad, the nation’s longest-tenured governor, was serving as U.S. ambassador in China and thus no longer on the ballot. His successor, Kim Reynolds, had only a year on the job and had never been elected statewide running on her own.
But she defeated Democrat and retired businessman Fred Hubbell.
In four of the statewide or federal races since 2008, Democrats were attempting to upset Branstad (2010 and 2014) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (2010 and 2016), two entrenched Republican incumbents.
And Democrats have won statewide races with their own entrenched incumbents, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Iowa Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald. Plus this year, Democratic candidate Rob Sand, who once worked for Miller as a prosecutor, won the statewide auditor’s race against an incumbent.
But in the key races for governor and the U.S. Senate, Democrats have come up short.
“It’s hard to know exactly (why), but we have been losing rural and working-class voters over the last five elections, at least when it comes to our statewide races,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran of Democratic campaigns in Iowa. “It could be that we have be unable to articulate a compelling message that truly impacts their lives. It could be changing demographics. Or it could be that in these specific races, the voters just preferred the Republican candidate.”
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The 2010 and 2014 elections were wave elections for Republican candidates across the country, and 2016 was not much better for Democrats.
Democrats somewhat rebounded this year by winning two Republican-held congressional seats, in Eastern and Central Iowa. But even with those victories — plus a near upset of GOP U.S. Rep. Steve King in Western Iowa — Hubbell fell 5 points shy of Reynolds.
Democrats are nonetheless optimistic that those congressional victories are the start of more success to come.
Price noted a 13-point swing toward Democrats in Iowans’ votes for congressional candidates in just one cycle: in 2016 Iowans cast votes for Republican congressional candidates by a margin of 9.2 points, but in 2018 Iowans voted more for congressional Democrats by a 3.8-point margin.
“Those results show we are still a purple state, that the Democratic Party here is not dead, and that it is in fact growing and thriving,” Price said.
Iowa is becoming more conservative, especially in the vast swath of rural counties, according to Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt, magnifying Democrats’ challenges statewide.
“The Democratic Party has lost its brand and the state has become more conservative,” Schmidt said. “That’s true of the rural areas where the GOP holds a great deal of sway because Republican candidates for Iowa House and Senate, U.S. Senate, and governor are a better ‘fit’ — more traditional values and faith-centered.
“Democrats are holding their own and have recovered two (U.S. House) seats. But it’s not a coincidence that they are anchored in the two largest cities in Iowa (Des Moines and Cedar Rapids) and their suburban areas which have less conservative cultures. The state population, however, is small town and rural.”
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If Iowa Democrats are going to be more competitive, they must fare better in rural areas, experts, party officials and campaign veterans said.
When Democrats Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver won gubernatorial elections in 1998, 2002 and 2006, they carried 49, 68, and 62 counties. In the competitive 2018 race, Hubbell won 11 counties.
“There was a blue wave in the urban and suburban areas for Democrats but there was a red wave out in the rural areas and to a certain extent in the blue collar places,” Pat Rynard, a Democratic campaign veteran and publisher of the liberal Iowa politics website Iowa Starting Line said during recording of this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television. “And until especially Democrats are able to win back some of those Mississippi River counties or come out of them with larger margins, it’s going to be hard to win a statewide race either on the state or presidential level.”
The increasing urban-rural divide also means Democratic candidates for statewide office will have to drive up turnout in the state’s metro areas where there are more Democratic voters.
“The more urban areas are becoming a darker blue, and the more rural areas are becoming a darker red. For statewide races, this means that the results depend upon Democratic turnout in those urban areas,” said Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University.
But 2018 was not the only opportunity for Democrats. The next two elections likely will provide three more chances to gain ground.
In 2020, Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst will be running for re-election after completing her first term in office. Ernst will be on the ballot in a presidential election year — during which turnout typically favors Democrats — and she will be on the same ballot as Republican President Donald Trump, whose job approval numbers have languished in the low 40s.
In 2022, Reynolds will face re-election. And while he has not made an official statement, it would not be surprising if Grassley opted against seeking another term. Grassley would be 89 on Election Day and 95 at the end of another six-year term. Should Grassley retire at the end of this term, that would create another open-seat Senate race.
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“Politics normally swings like a pendulum,” Schmidt said. “If the Democrats can get their mojo back, launch a really skillful national ticket and statewide candidates for governor and (U.S.) Senate for 2020, and walk a careful line to mobilize Democratic voters but also attract the necessary no-party voters, they can ride or stimulate a pendulum back to their brand.”
Republicans say they will be ready.
State party chairman Jeff Kaufmann said he is not one to rest on laurels, even after the party’s decisive electoral successes in Iowa in 2014 and 2016, and its continued success at the state level in 2018.
Kaufmann said he feels comforted knowing Iowa Republicans have strong support throughout the state, geographically, including in some pockets of the urban areas where Democrats are also strong. And Republicans plan to take their message to those suburban areas that got away from them in 2018, Kaufmann said.
“From my perspective, we’re going to hold rural Iowa, and I believe in this case President Trump will have coattails. He’ll help solidify, because he’s still popular in rural Iowa,” Kaufmann said. “I think the key for Republicans is to never forget that (Iowa voters) are purple and that means we have to go to work for it. We can’t rest on our laurels. But I really like the spread of Republicanism throughout this state, in every single corner and in urban counties. I think that’s something that fundamentally gives us an advantage over the Democrats.”
Price said he sees enthusiasm among Democrats even after the election. And the state party will go into the 2020 election ahead of where it started the 2018 cycle.
In the wake of the disastrous 2016 elections, Price did not become the state party chairman until July of 2017 — just 16 months before the general election — after previous chairman Derek Eadon stepped down due to health issues.
“The good news is that over these last couple of years, and because of the great campaigns that people ran, and because of the work that our volunteers have done, we’ve got an infrastructure to build around,” Price said. “We’ve built a frame of the house. Now we’ve just got to go ahead and put up the walls, and move the furniture in and finish the house.”