The sound of metal chairs scrapping across a floor is music to Andy McGuire’s ears. That’s what she says she hears in community rooms across Iowa as extra chairs and tables are needed when more people than expected show up for Democratic organizing meetings. Six months ago today Dr. McGuire won a four-way race to become the new chair of the Iowa Democratic Party through the 2016 elections, running on a message of local party building and better party messaging. Starting Line sat down with McGuire this week for an interview, along with speaking with many Democratic insiders and activists around the state, to take a look at how those first six months have gone.
On The Road To Build Party Infrastructure
McGuire and IDP staff have put a lot of miles on their cars in recent months, traversing the state to assist with local party events and organizing, a key campaign promise for McGuire. She’s hit 45 of 99 counties so far, and she’s been encouraged with the enthusiasm she’s found and the new tactics they’ve been able to try out.
“I wasn’t sure what I was getting into with this job after that  election, but it’s been a very good, very enthusiastic response,” McGuire says. “The big thing is getting out there. They have not seen the state chair many times, and I understand that – I’m not throwing stones – because it’s hard. It’s a very difficult thing. I stepped down from my other position [with Meridian Health Plan], that’s the only reason I could do it … I wanted to listen. They’ve given great feedback and we’ve implemented a lot of that.”
So far the IDP has focused on a lot of the nuts and bolts of party infrastructure – filling in organizational gaps, improving communication methods with county parties and preparing for the 2016 Iowa Caucus.
“I think we’re more organized than we were – we have county chairs everywhere, we have central committees filled out,” McGuire explains. “We’ve got to build the infrastructure first. That wasn’t everywhere, and it is now.”
One intriguing and very useful new tactic the IDP is trying is building an off-year field team, with four regional organizers, one each assigned to a congressional district. McGuire says it wasn’t a plan that was in the budget, so she went and raised some extra funds to pay for it.
“It’s something we needed to do,” she says. “We can’t sit here in Des Moines and decide what should happen in Allison [in Butler County]. So it’s very important we have people on the ground.”
The IDP has three of the four hired right now, working out of Des Moines, Ames and Davenport. Those extra organizing bodies in the state could be incredibly beneficial to the party long-term. In the past, a couple important Democratic-leaning counties have struggled with their turnout efforts – an extra guiding hand actually located out in their region, and not just communicating by phone in Des Moines, could yield real differences in eventual vote totals.
“I want to get things pushed down to local, because that’s where the action happens,” McGuire says. “We need to be close enough to it to understand what’s going on – if the chair is having trouble, we can come in and help. Before we didn’t have a lot of idea of what was going on. That’s why I want them on the ground.”
Most of all, as she travels the state, McGuire is inspired by the excitement still out there among activists, and wants Iowa Democrats to know that. “I thought people might be down in the dumps,” she says. “And what I’ve found is they’re fired up … they’re excited, they want to do something, they want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, they’re talking about candidates at the local levels. I think people need to know that the whole state is coming together on this. I’m optimistic about what we can do.”
Fundraising and Tonight’s Big Event
Another major promise McGuire made while campaigning for state chair was improving fundraising, touting the connections she could bring to the office, and she says the party has made good progress there.
“Fundraising has been very good,” McGuire says. “The biggest thing is I’m asking people to step up from where they have been. It’s been sort of flat over the years, and we have not been flat this year. I’ve asked people and they’ve given. We’re trying to broaden our base – it needed it, it’s not big enough.” She says the IDP is planning several regional fundraising events in conjunction with local party activists to expand that source of funds.
However, one source of consternation Starting Line has heard about surrounds tonight’s Hall of Fame Dinner. Space has been limited and hasn’t nearly matched demand of those wanting to come see all five Democratic candidates together for the first time. Some important folks haven’t been able to secure tickets, which ran out fast, and we’ve heard the Clinton campaign was disappointed about losing tables. The party also let go their finance director three weeks before the big fundraising event, probably not helping things (though they have a new one in place). McGuire acknowledges there’s been issues they’ve worked through, and admits that if this was another year and she wasn’t chair, she might have missed out herself as she often RSVPs to the dinner later on. However, she sees the issue as a result of positive excitement for Democrats.
“The problem I have right now is not enough seats in a building,” McGuire says. “If we’re going to have problems, let’s have that problem … I think we’ve gotten most people in. It’s a fundraiser, we’re going to make money for the party, but more importantly we’re going to have five of the presidentials on stage and we’re going to have great Democrats that we’re honoring.”
“If the worst thing is someone complains about they couldn’t get a ticket late in the game – there’s JJ, there’s other things, we’ll get you into something,” she continues. “I think you’re going to have 1,300 very excited, enthusiastic people from all over the state there. This is a huge crowd screaming and cheering for what they believe in.”
Dealing With Skepticism
This year’s election of the IDP chair was one of the first contested races in recent memory. Typically Tom Harkin or Tom Vilsack/Chet Culver got their pick of party chair, and the state central committee voted for them without any competition. McGuire won on the third ballot in January against three other hopefuls. Any time there’s a hotly-contested clash of ideas for how to move the party forward, there’s bound to be some lingering differences in opinion, and Starting Line has found that to be the case with some insiders and activists. (Though McGuire notes that, in retrospect, she’s glad there was competition and has a better appreciation for primaries, believing it made her a better chair in the end.)
One of the early issues the party faced was a large turnover in staff. At this point, barely any IDP staffers from the previous year remain at the office. Those activists who really liked some of the former staff were sad to see them go, and would have preferred they stay.
“I think sometimes from the outside it looked a little different than what it was on the inside,” McGuire says of the transition of the IDP’s staff. “In business, turnover is never a terrible thing – you don’t like it, but it does bring in some new blood. I always try to look on the bright side – this is what it is, so on we go, and I think we’ve got a great staff in place.”
And, by all accounts of those Starting Line has spoken with, the county party leaders like the new staffers they’re working with. Several mentioned they enjoy the conference calls with the IDP’s field director and the best practice-sharing they discuss. Others appreciated the county party chair trainings they’ve held (though some note it overlaps a bit with the district trainings). And everyone likes how much they’ve seen McGuire and staffers out in their counties. Some of the issue may be resolved as people get to know the new team better.
The other issue that crops up from time to time in discussions is McGuire’s future plans. Many speculate (including Starting Line) that she is interested in running for Governor in 2018. Some question what that means for the IDP long-term (though it could also be argued that it gives her extra motivation to build the party up really well, which is beneficial to everyone regardless).
“It’s a long ways off, and I have said I’m going to do this for two years, which I have no intention of not doing that,” McGuire explains. “I will tell you I think our present governor is not doing a good job, so if people perceive that from me and think that’s why I might do that, then go ahead and perceive that because I do not think he’s doing a good job, and the chair of the Democratic Party has got to say that. Right now, I’m about making sure we have this organization, we have these grass-roots, making sure we’re blue in 2016 … That’s my total focus.”
Looking Toward the Caucus and 2016
After the disastrous 2014 (and 2010) election, the Iowa Democratic Party’s success in 2016 will be crucial for the future of Iowa, and their role will be a large one. “Not having Harkin and Braley, two people who were getting the message out – the party has to step up and take a lot of that,” McGuire says. “Right now we have to be extremely active because we don’t have some of the same voices we used to have.”
The spotlight has shone on the IDP a lot recently with all the presidential candidates in town, and they’ve taken quite a few shots at the Republicans traveling around Iowa. Still, McGuire tries not to lose focus in promoting the good things about Democrats.
“We make sure we talk about what we’re for as much as we talk about what they’re against,” she says of their communication efforts around the Republican visits. “I try to do that. But the 15 of them are doing my job for me sometimes. The more they talk, the better we look.”
The activity on the Democratic side of the caucus presents the biggest opportunity to Democrats in 2016 races, up and down the ballot. Nothing brings out new Democratic activists like a highly competitive Iowa Caucus. The question is always, will they stay involved with the party if their candidate loses? The first step in ensuring they stick around is building good relationships with the presidential campaigns while they’re in Iowa.
“What I’ve said to all of them is the caucuses is about party building,” McGuire relates of her conversations with the presidential campaigns. “I know we’re going to select a presidential preference, but the caucus is about party building. The fact that all five are here is wonderful … They want to help us build too because it’s an important state in November.”
She’s also worked hard to ensure even more people can attend the caucus, working on several remote caucus sites for the military and the disabled. “Our goal is to have as many people as possible participate – because we’re the party of inclusion,” McGuire says.
After the Iowa Caucus is all said and done, however, is when Iowa’s political activists and leaders will turn their eye back toward the IDP to lead the Democratic Party forward. That moment will be the biggest test of McGuire’s leadership as party chair. Will people come back together for 2016 and will the improved infrastructure the IDP has built up be ready to direct that energy to the November election? Many Iowa Democrats, not eager to see a repeat of 2014, certainly hope she’s successful in that effort.
by Pat Rynard