Staff Columnist

Iowa Democrats could try offering rural voters a real choice

Old Iowa map postcard. Front image.
Old Iowa map postcard. Front image.

Back in the spring of 2017, your columnist humbly argued that Iowa Democrats might want to think about tapping a gubernatorial nominee who is not from Des Moines. Gov. Chet Culver, hailing from Des Moines, lost in 2010 and Des Moines developer Jack Hatch got walloped in 2014.

This free advice was met with some consternation. Hatch, in particular, criticized my take. I wasn’t suggesting Des Moines is not a great city and a fine place to live, just that a party losing its grip on rural voters might want to consider casting a broader geographic net for new talent.

So naturally Democrats nominated Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell for governor in 2018, picking him from a crowded field that featured multiple compelling candidates. He was well-financed but lost narrowly to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

And this year, Democrats nominated Des Moines real estate professional Theresa Greenfield for U.S. Senate. She was the pick of national Democrats. But the “scrappy farm kid” who knew the break-even price for soybeans off the top of her head still lost to Sen. Joni Ernst, the pride of Red Oak.

And, of course, President Donald Trump blew through Iowa’s six electoral votes like a big, orange derecho. Democrats were left to sift through the wreckage.

A Democrat hasn’t won a top of the ticket race (governor or senator) in Iowa since former Sen. Tom Harkin won reelection in 2008. Along with Culver, Hatch and Hubbell losing gubernatorial races, Roxanne Conlin, former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge and former U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley lost Senate elections. All but Judge and Braley hailed from the capital city.

Is residence the reason they lost? No. There are all sorts of factors that play into campaigns.

So I mention Des Moines as more of a symbolic problem for a party in need of a shake-up, fresh leadership and a recalibrated focus. Looking beyond Des Moines would, at least, be a good start as Democrats wander through the wilderness.

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Democrats haven’t just lost their grip on rural voters. Rural voters have declared open season on donkeys. Bright red counties, totally owned libs and shellacked Democrats are piled up as far as the eye can see. Oh the humanity.

Some targeted Democratic candidates have tried camouflage. They talk about rural issues in a way nearly indistinguishable from Republicans. It hasn’t worked all that well.

More Democrats might consider offering rural voters a real, distinct choice.

The coronavirus pandemic, for example, has shown us the economic risks for rural America posed by allowing a few massive corporations to control the food supply chain. Packing plants with lousy working conditions and little oversight from red-state governors became COVID-19 hot spots, cutting off markets for farmers. Republicans bent over backward to shield these companies from accountability.

So maybe corporate consolidation and workers’ rights are rural issues after all.

Republicans like to wax romantic about farming and recite how “God Made a Farmer.” But the laws they make regarding agriculture are far less than godly, heavily influenced by massive agribusinesses that produce chemicals, seed, equipment and other inputs, and fill GOP campaign coffers. The last thing they want are programs partnering with farmers to take less-productive or environmentally sensitive land out of production or protect beneficial wetlands. They care more about a big bottom line then declining soil health, low prices or flooding that can hurt individual farms.

At the Statehouse, the Farm Bureau has tried to hamper the donation of private farmland for parks and natural areas. Republican lawmakers have declined to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, and Reynolds’ plan to fill it contains Farm Bureau-backed limits on trails and park expansion.

Don’t Republicans realize that outdoor recreation is welcome economic development in rural Iowa? It brings business to town and makes rural areas more attractive for young newcomers.

Some rural county supervisors, including Republicans, have argued our current rules regulating confined animal feeding operations are inadequate to provide local input and protect the environment. They’d like a rewrite. But Republicans who run the Statehouse won’t listen. Again, powerful agricultural interests win out.

There are countless other issues. But maybe issues don’t matter. Maybe “socialist” Democrats who would, reportedly, open an abortion clinic, gun confiscation office and taco truck on every corner don’t stand a chance no matter what. The overhunted donkeys may just go extinct.

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But while Republicans are raking in rural votes, they’re not doing much to ensure the future growth, enhancement or even survival of rural communities. Rural Iowa should be more than a photo op and a source of corporate profits.

It’s something to think about while you’re wandering.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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