On an unseasonably warm Saturday that felt like a spring thaw, top Democratic activists from around the state looked to shake off the cold reality of their 2014 losses and chart a new course forward to victory. The party’s state central committee met in Des Moines to choose a new state chair out of a field of four candidates. A competitive race for party chair is extremely rare, and there was intense behind-the-scenes campaigning in recent weeks to win over the 44 voting members, to the point where some members apparently stopped answering their phone.
Dr. Andy McGuire touted her leadership skills from being a doctor, a mother of seven, and a business executive at Meridian Health Plan. Kurt Meyer, the chair of the northern Iowa tri-county party, emphasized the impressive results his organization had achieved in turning out Democrats in rural counties. Jim Mowrer’s surrogate speaker promoted Mowrer’s fundraising ability and media savvy from his campaign against Steve King. Tim Tracy, party co-chair in Carroll County, expressed his desire to improve Democrats’ messaging.
After three rounds of balloting, taking about 15 minutes each, Andy McGuire emerged as the new leader of the Iowa Democrats. Tracy was eliminated on the first ballot, Mowrer on the second. Meyer battled it out to the final ballot, but couldn’t overcome McGuire’s support in the room. McGuire was boosted by the endorsements of many of the remaining top elected Democrats in the state, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Congressman Dave Loebsack, and Attorney General Tom Miller. Gronstal himself attended the meeting and sat with McGuire for much of it, perhaps signaling his willingness to wield more of his influence in a party that owes a lot to his ability to stop Republican legislation.
An undercurrent of division over the top three candidates was detectable, though in typical Iowan fashion, no one really voiced it publicly. McGuire faced skepticism about her ability to implement a statewide party-building strategy, as she would be another in a long line of chairs from Des Moines or Iowa City. Linda Nelson, the chair of the Pottawattamie County Democrats, pushed back strongly against that idea in the most pointed comments of the day, opening her introduction of McGuire with, “Judging someone’s commitment to a 99-County strategy based on where they live is wrong. It’s about what you’ve done.” After her election, McGuire promised better outreach to all county parties and a strong focus on the grass-roots.
In the end, however, the rural versus urban divide may have been an overblown topic of discussion. One might have predicted that when Mowrer was eliminated, most of his rural and Western Iowa-based allies would have gone to Meyer. Instead, McGuire carried the day in the one-on-one matchup with Meyer on the third ballot. Indeed, the biggest topic missing from the day’s debate (in this writer’s opinion anyway) was any consideration of Democrats’ under-performance in several of the urban counties that typically provide Democrats’ statewide margins of victory. What, for example, is to be done about the chronic difficulties Scott County has in turning out Democratic votes?
Jim Mowrer ended the day with a pretty decent consolation prize, winning the 1st Vice Chair spot on the first ballot in a contest with seven candidates. He’ll be a voting member of the DNC, but more importantly, he earns a title to stay in the game and set up a later run for office. Young, a veteran, and a good communicator, Mowrer is widely considered to be a rising star after his unsuccessful-but-impressive campaign against King. Meyer, on the other hand, was gracious with McGuire after the results, but you could tell the outgoing activist was disappointed. Some had wondered if he was being groomed for chair when the IDP gave him speaking roles at recent Jefferson-Jackson Dinners. Meyer’s hard work in rallying Democrats in difficult-to-organize counties has become a model for others around the state, but it wasn’t enough to capture the top gig. Perhaps a prominent role on a presidential caucus campaign is in his future.
Democrats rounded out their leadership by electing Jean Pardee as 2nd Vice Chair and Omar Padilla as 3rd Vice Chair. Pardee, of Clinton County, has been on the state central committee for decades. Her election was likely a given, but she still had to fend off tough challenges from Des Moines activists Kim Boggus and Diedre DeJear that took the race to the third ballot.
McGuire will take over a party eager to bounce back from a disappointing 2014. Her extensive donor network and fundraising ability will keep the Democrats competitive. She’s a skilled communicator that should effectively promote Democrats’ message at a time when the nation looks to Iowa. In particular, if Republican presidential candidates continue to harp on Obamacare (and that’s kind of a given), it will be very useful to have an expert on healthcare of McGuire’s stature giving the response. Democrats “are going to have a great couple years here,” McGuire proclaimed after her win. Everyone in that hall on Saturday hopes she’s right.
One last note: IDP Executive Director Troy Price choked up a bit when announcing to the central committee that longtime IDP staffer Donna Latessa is retiring. It won’t be the same walking into that office without Donna greeting you.