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Capitol Ideas: Iowa Democrats hope for big year in 2021

Party seeking new leader after caucuses meltdown

Mark Smith (right), the interim state chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks to reporters Feb. 15 in Des Moines.
Mark Smith (right), the interim state chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks to reporters Feb. 15 in Des Moines. He has announced he does not want the position permanently. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

A new year has begun and in Iowa politics we have reached our quadrennial respite: a light political calendar.

Yes, I know: famous last words and all.

But we have reached that point in the four-year Iowa political cycle when things should be a little less hectic. There is no midterm election like there was in 2018, no yearlong campaign to the caucuses like there was in 2019 and no presidential election like there was in 2020.

But that does not mean there is nothing to watch for this year in Iowa politics. In fact, this will be a critical year for Iowa Democrats.

It starts with the party’s search for its next leader. Former state party chairman Troy Price resigned last year in the wake of the caucuses’ results reporting disaster, and interim chairman Mark Smith is not seeking to retain the post.

The selection comes at a critical time for the party. In addition to moving on from last year’s caucuses, the next state chair presumably will be forced to address more and louder-than-ever calls for Iowa to be removed from the front of the line in the nation’s presidential nomination process.

And three of the last four elections have been terrible for Iowa Democrats. The next party chair also will be tasked with overseeing the creation of infrastructure designed to help Iowa Democrats change those electoral fortunes.

So, to sum up: The next state party chair will be asked to save the beleaguered first-in-the-nation caucuses and reverse a growing trend of electoral shortcomings. No pressure.

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And perhaps even more importantly, this year Iowa Democratic candidates will begin laying the groundwork for those next elections. That makes Iowa Democrats worth watching this year as potential candidates emerge for a pair of upcoming statewide races, for governor and U.S. Senate.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is expected to run for reelection in 2022, and Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has not given any indication he is ready to retire, despite the fact he would be 89 if sworn in for another six-year term.

That gives Iowa Republicans two strong incumbent candidates in those statewide races, which the party has been dominating lately. They have not lost a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate election since 2008, the final victory of Democrat Tom Harkin’s career.

Clearly, if Iowa Democrats are to reverse that trend in 2022, some strong candidates will need to begin to emerge in 2021.

Watchful eyes will be on Democrats such as State Auditor Rob Sand and U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, both of whom may have interest in the governor’s race. Also worth watching are J.D. Scholten and Deidre DeJear, who were unsuccessful in recent campaigns but in the process made great impressions upon Iowa Democrats.

Surely more Democratic candidates will surface; it seems likely both races will have competitive primaries. If recent history is any indication, one or more candidates will emerge from the Statehouse. That was the previous stop for a long list of recent gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates, including Reynolds, Joni Ernst, Abby Finkenauer, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, to name just a few.

All that leaves plenty for Iowa Democrats to do in 2021, and plenty for the rest of us to watch.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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