Staff Columnist

Iowa Democrats should look to experienced candidates

Old Iowa Travel Postcard. Front image.
Old Iowa Travel Postcard. Front image.

So former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver gave me a call this past week. He had “read with interest” last Sunday’s column on how Democrats might rebuild support in rural areas.

One argument I made is that the party look beyond Des Moines for fresh talent. I lumped Culver into a group of candidates from Des Moines who have lost statewide elections in the last decade or so.

Not exactly true, Culver said. Although he was living in Des Moines at the time he ran for secretary of state and later governor, his family has nearly a century of roots in the Cedar Rapids area. He spent childhood summers in McGregor.

“I’m actually an Eastern Iowa person. And I think that helped me,” Culver said.

We tend to remember Culver’s lopsided loss to former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2010. But when Culver ran for governor in 2006, he won 62 counties, beating former U.S. Rep. Jim Nussle handily.

It was a win akin to the sort of victories posted by former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack and former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. This fall, President-elect Joe Biden could only win seven counties as the state once again went solidly for Donald Trump.

Culver agreed that geography plays a factor. But he also argues Democrats need to look for candidates with political experience and who know Iowa from Decorah to Denison.

Culver’s father, the late John Culver, was a U.S. senator, which gave him name recognition and credibility among Democrats. But he didn’t try to immediately leverage that advantage in a run for public office.


“I started as a kid out of college, thrown out into the field,” Culver said. “At that time we had six congressional districts. I was making $1,000 a month as one of six people lucky enough to be a field director in one of the congressional districts. I loved that experience, cutting my teeth and understanding campaigns and politics.”

Culver chaired Bonnie Campbell’s run for attorney general in 1990. He won two statewide elections for secretary of state after campaigning in all 99 counties.

Vilsack was mayor of Mount Pleasant and a state senator before he ran for governor. Harkin lost a bid for Congress in southwest Iowa in 1972 but won the rematch in 1974.

Political experience is definitely a factor for Democrats to consider. Fred Hubbell, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial election, and Theresa Greenfield, who lost her U.S. Senate bid this fall, were making their first full runs for political office. Greenfield ran briefly for Congress in 2018 before her campaign manager admitted forging signatures on her campaign petitions.

“That’s not to say we don’t welcome people who have been outside the process. More power to them if they can find a pathway to victory. But it has not worked very well,” Culver said.

I argued last week that Democrats should offer rural Iowans a sharper message explaining how Republicans care more about doing the bidding of large agricultural and business donors than doing what’s best for rural Iowa in the long run.

Younger voters in particular are looking for a more progressive message than what Vilsack and Culver deployed to win years ago.

But Culver pointed out that Harkin, former U.S. Sen. Dick Clark and former Gov. Harold Hughes were all seen as considerably left of center in their days and still won in Iowa.


Culver’s 2010 loss has crossed my mind a few times this year. Branstad and Republicans worked overtime to paint Culver as incompetent, pointing to the film tax credit scandal, budget woes and other issues.

But faced with the biggest test of his tenure, the natural disasters of 2008, Culver proved to be more than competent. With funding scarce in a recession, he took a political risk in issuing bonded debt to help communities, including Cedar Rapids, recover. Republicans dubbed him “Big Debt Chet” and bounced him out of office.

Now, Gov. Kim Reynolds is badly mishandling a pandemic that’s spiraling out of control and has already killed more than 2,000 Iowans. Makes film tax credits seem pretty insignificant, competence-wise.

Culver, like all of us, has watched this unfold. He’s watched Reynolds plead for Iowans to wear masks in recent days after she attended maskless campaign events throughout October.

“Your actions and behaviors matter,” Culver said. “The rules apply to you but they don’t apply to me. That’s part of our problem. That’s why our numbers are skyrocketing.”

Another factor for Democrats to consider as they look toward 2022.

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