Iowa Democrats Must Build A Deeper Bench. Here’s Some Ideas

Guest Post

Bench Building Problem

Democrats. The party of the young and idealistic. The party that looks toward the future and not the past. The party with policies to help the struggling 20 and 30-something’s get a job, buy a house, and start a family. The party which builds its campaign structure from the vigor and enthusiasm of dozens of young, hardworking paid staffers, fellows, and volunteers.

Democrats. The party with less total people elected under the age of 40 in the Iowa Legislature compared to the Republicans. The party which has a frustratingly hard time building the bench. The party with an internal system which makes it extremely difficult for up-and-comers to gain political prominence. The party that use the young to get elected, but does nothing to push them into positions of leadership or power.

The Democrats have a bench building problem. Not in the carpentry sense, but in the building of a sustainable pool of talent in which to call upon to run for significant offices throughout the state of Iowa. Not only offices such as Governor or Congress, but state legislative races, city council, and school board. There are dozens of talented young men and women in Iowa ready to jump into the political arena, but there lacks an infrastructure to make that a reality. If Iowa Democrats hope to recapture some lost political ground in Iowa, a refocus on the rising talent needs to be a top priority.

Skeptical about my claims? Here is what I consider the best illustration of the bench building problem with Democrats. The Iowa Legislature is often the training ground for talented individuals for higher office. An individual can develop a policy area and create relationships with key power brokers. Short of being a mayor of a city, there are few elected positions that better prepare an individual for higher office.

If you want to be concerned about the future of the Democrats in Iowa take a look at these numbers:

Young Republicans:

Rep. Josh Byrnes (41), Rep. Peter Cownie (35), Rep. Joel Fry (39), Rep. Pat Grassley (32), Rep. Chris Hagenow (43), Rep. Jake Highfill (24), Rep. Megan Jones (29-30), Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (30-31), Rep. Jarad Klein (34), Rep. Zach Nunn (36), Rep. Matt Windschitl (31), Sen. Bill Anderson (38), Sen. Jake Chapman (31-32), Sen. Charles Schneider (42), Sen. Amy Sinclair (40), Sen. Roby Smith (38), Sen. Jack Whitver (35)

Young Democrats:

Rep. Liz Bennett (32), Rep. Dave Dawson (42), Rep. Abby Finkenauer (26), Rep. Chris Hall (30), Rep. Brian Meyer (42), Rep. Todd Prichard (41), Rep. Patti Ruff (43), Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt (38).

17 Young Republicans v. 7 Young Democrats

I even included people near 40 in the numbers to help inflate the Democrats side. If you take out everyone that is over 40 the numbers are worse: 14 Republicans to 4 Democrats.

There are only four Democrats under the age of 40 in the Iowa Legislature. Not one of those individuals is in the Iowa Senate. That means other than some standout local leaders, the Democrats are placing their hopes of future power on four individual legislators. That seems like a fairly thin bench.

Now, it is true there are fewer overall Democrats in the legislature to create an accurate sample. It is also true those four individual legislators are fantastic people. Additionally, there are some great local leaders on school boards and city councils throughout Iowa who could run for higher offices and have a great chance at winning. I agree with all those sentiments, but that is not the point of my critique. Yes, there are plenty of young, talented, ambitious people who want to serve their communities and neighbors in higher elected office, it’s just that the Democratic Party and Progressive organizations lack a credible mechanism for developing and promoting talent and clearing the deck for individuals to run.


Developing Talent

There are numerous organizations in Iowa dedicated to developing leadership skills in young people. Groups such as the Des Moines Partnership, Cedar Valley Leadership Institute, New Leaders Council, and many others put a premium on connecting ambitious, talented individuals and giving them the skills to be leaders. However, there is not one organization in Iowa dedicated solely to preparing and supporting young progressive leaders to run for office.

Before an organization can be built, young leaders need to realize being open and honest about their ambitions is not a bad thing. Ambition is what brought humanity to the moon. Ambition is what builds big buildings, creates magnificent works of art, pushes innovation, and forges leaders. Many ambitious young people are coy about their desire to run. These future leaders believe the narrative for elected office should be a pure-hearted candidate who is drawn to a position out of self-sacrifice and wanting to rise above the political struggles. While a good narrative for a campaign, it does not help build the bench. Instead of shunning ambition, openly embrace wanting to run for office. Take the talent and energy of dozens of ambitious young people and harness it for the good of the Democratic and Progressive agenda.

Here is my proposal. Create an infrastructure and network of people who want to run for office. I don’t think this idea is earthshattering or new. Simply create a network of people who openly consider running in the near future and develop their talent. Put some money behind training them to be on boards, fundraising, door knocking, public speaking, dealing with media, etc. All the skills it takes to be a leader. Sharpen their skills so small issues, such as a gaffe or misstatement, may not cost Democrats elections in the future.

More importantly, letting these individuals meet each other and those who have the money might be the most critical aspect of bench building. How fearsome would a group of 70 or 80 motivated young people from across Iowa who know each other, want to run for office, and seek to help each other grow and develop? A group which will occasionally go head-to-head on issues or potentially a primary election, but come out stronger through the process. That’s a group of people who can reshape the political landscape of Iowa.

The other critical aspect is meeting people with money. Ambitious young people may have all the friends in the world and develop the greatest ground game to door knock and meet the voters, but without the money, they are dead in the water. Help introduce the network of young, ambitious leaders to the key influencers and donors of the Democratic Party. I have personally gone through several leadership institutes, and that is the piece that is always missing. Yes, I now know how to fundraise and door knock, but that does not guarantee an election victory. Who young leaders need to meet are the big party donors. They need to meet the policy leaders, progressive leaders, and all the individuals who can make or break big campaigns. Contacts that would take years to develop should be concentrated down into a few months. You want to build a bench? Introduce young leaders who have the talent to move Iowa forward with the people who can help make them into the next generation of Tom Harkin or Tom Vilsack.

Finally, after the training and introductions, keep supporting them. Make sure the young leaders in your community have access to key boards or positions to help raise their profile prior to a run. Establish a PAC or other funding mechanism specifically designated to electing these young leaders. Have big party leaders like Rep. Loebsack, Sen. Gronstol, Rep. Mark Smith, Dr. McGuire, and others hold fundraisers to help fill the coffers of the PAC. Giving them money, support, introductions, training, and acknowledgement of their skills will help push new leaders into positions of power throughout the state.


Clearing the Deck

Creating infrastructure to support the bench is one thing, giving them the offices to run for is entirely different matter.

So after the creation of a vast network of highly trained, connected, funded, and motivated young people to bring the party back into power, how do we give them the chance? Of course young leaders can run for local city council races or school board and help serve their communities. These positions are critical in our society. They represent some of the hardest working individuals who rarely get the attention they deserve. Candidates are able to jump to higher office from city council or school board. Monica Vernon is an excellent example of an individual who is a strong contender for Congress with current service on a city council.

However, many look to the state legislature as one of the best spring boards for higher office in the state of Iowa. Tom Vilsack, Patty Judge, Leonard Boswell, Chuck Grassley, Terry Branstad, Joni Ernst, Steve King, and Kim Reynolds were all members of the state legislature before running for higher offices. Being a state legislator gives individuals experience at governing, creating coalitions, and being accountable for key votes. It also gives aspiring candidates a platform to test messages and policy proposals.

That’s why it is frustrating to see many in the political establishment unwittingly keep young leaders out of such an important bench building position. If you talk to key leaders, they will give you the advice to move to a district with the legislator with the whitest hair and get to door knocking. Sounds like a great plan. Look for the legislators who have been there the longest and primary them to bring in some new blood. However, this fanciful idea is nearly an impossible proposition.

The way the political structure is currently designed makes it very difficult for a credible challenger to primary an incumbent. Besides the fundraising advantages from PAC money, the House and Senate Democratic election groups, the Truman Fund and Senate Majority Fund, protect incumbents from challengers. Money, staffers, endorsements, etc., line up behind an incumbent, leaving a challenger with little room for success. The next Tom Harkin may not have a chance to serve due to the drowning out of money and resources by the political establishment. What is a young leader to do?

Here is what I propose to help bring balance between protecting or establishing a majority in the state legislature and allowing new blood to enter the hallowed legislative halls. Cut incumbent protections for legislators in safe Democratic districts after a certain number of terms. Let’s put the number fairly high, say three terms for a Senator and six terms for Representative. Give them 12 years to try and implement their policy proposals and serve their communities. After that, the protections of the respective election group disappears. The incumbent still has the advantages of PAC money, years of name ID in the district, and an established donor base. However, removing incumbent protections takes away the Democratic establishment advantage and gives young leaders a little more wiggle room to launch a successful primary bid.

While this proposal is not as bold as others suggest, such as term limits or having party leaders require members of safe districts to resign after a certain number of years, it is difficult to fault legislators from staying in a district too long. Legislators don’t go through the rigors of an election to go to the Iowa Capitol and do nothing. However, someone in the establishment needs to know when to tell a legislator to throw in the towel. A party leader needs to go to an unproductive member of their caucus and quietly tell them to step down and let a new generation have a chance. Legislators who rarely introduce bills, take the lead on bills, spark new policy debates, or never make deals should make way for new leaders to try and change the political dynamic in Iowa. The Iowa House and Senate caucus should constantly be seeking ways to invigorate its members with new and exciting debates, policies, and ideas. Allowing incumbents to sit in a seat and not add to the political dynamic keeps Iowa Democrats from building a sustainable bench.

Finally, we as voters need to actively support young leaders who can alter the politics in the state of Iowa. In contentious primaries in safe Democratic districts, being the “next in line” is not an excuse for voting for someone. We need to be practical with how we choose our leaders for not only the legislature, but all elected offices. Simply picking the individual you have known the longest or seems the nicest doesn’t help shape the politics of Iowa. We need to elect young leaders who want to challenge the status quo, stand up for progressive principles, and reshape the political landscape. Individuals who want to be more than just an elected title. Leaders who want to use their time in power to help those around them and leave this world a little better than how they found it.


Going Forward

Building the bench in Iowa is not an easy task. Simply waiting for leaders to emerge does not help create a sustainable pool of talent. Building the bench will take time, energy, resources, and a concrete strategy to help establish a new generation of leaders. Admitting Democrats have a problem is only the first step. Having all segments of the political establishment work together can create new opportunities for Iowa’s young leaders. Building the bench is possible, but it will take more than words. It also requires trust in the next generation to move the Democratic agenda forward. Together, we can create leaders who will change the course of Iowa’s future, one election at a time.

Due to the author’s nonpartisan employment position, s/he is unable to put their name to the article, and will go by the pen name Frumentum Rex. The author can be reached at for further discussion. Comments and concerns are welcome.


by Frumentum Rex
Posted 11/19/15

1 Comment on "Iowa Democrats Must Build A Deeper Bench. Here’s Some Ideas"

  • Building a bench is half the challenge. Turning out voters is the other half. Off year elections have been forfeited to the Republicans. It is time for us to focus on 2018 to recruit new voters with the young talent you refer to and engage them in GOTV efforts.

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