Building a Bench: Succession Planning and the Iowa Democratic Party

A guest post from Rob Barron

For all of you who watched the Iowa-Iowa State game last night, you witnessed the product of years of preparation. Each player that took the field trained so that they could perform at an elite level in the biggest game of their lives. Their coaches were prepared too. Every Saturday, we watched them scheme and exhort to get the best effort out of their teams. But years before those Saturdays, Coach Ferentz and Coach Campbell also recruited players needed to fill key roles on their team. Looking ahead to the future, they are working to win the 2019 and 2020 Cy-Hawk games now by recruiting the stars of tomorrow.

In business, that would be called succession planning. And our Democratic Party can take a page from that book.

Ever since we lost the 3rd Congressional District in 2012, I’ve been watching and worrying over the method and success of our candidate selection for Congress and statewide office. Before I go any further, I want to state that I am not approaching this post as a critique of the people that have represented our party for Congress and statewide office. I’m fortunate to know many of them and I don’t feel that wins and losses in November are the sole responsibility of the candidates.

However, if Democrats hope to retake the governor’s mansion and Tom Harkin’s senate seat, we have to get serious about testing our brightest potential candidates and supporting their growth as future standard bearers for the party.

The next Democratic U.S. senator or governor from Iowa faces an uphill battle. To win, they will have to simultaneously raise millions of dollars for primary and general elections and introduce themselves to thousands of new voters across the state. That sets us up to fail until we catch lightning in a bottle with the next Tom Harkin or Tom Vilsack, or if we benefit from a wave election.

If the Iowa Democratic Party embraces succession planning, we can improve the chances that our best players are on the field for the biggest games. I propose the Iowa Democratic Party take ownership of grooming and networking future candidates for statewide and Congressional office by creating a group of prospects drawn from current or former officeholders who have shown success through agreed upon metrics.

There would be two criteria to enter the program: first, exceeding Democratic Performance Index (DPI) by a certain agreed-upon percentage in winning an election, and second, raising $5,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party.

So how would this work once the group is set? Begin by sending these prospects out on the road. Our current chair has done as good a job as any in recent memory in traveling the state and speaking with local party activists. I suggest taking some of those invites and spreading them around to the identified prospects. We have a legislative delegation that is heavily tilted to the eastern side of the state (and based on targets, appears to stay that way). The first time that a state legislator from Eastern Iowa travels to Woodbury, Crawford, or Webster Counties should not be when they are testing the waters for a statewide campaign. Our rising stars should get to know the key activists and donors across the state well before they form their exploratory committees.

While Danny Homan or Ken Sagar knows each Democratic legislator, I doubt they’ve met the rising stars of the Cedar Rapids School Board or the Union County Board of Supervisors. The more exposure these up-and-coming Democrats have, the more we’ll know about their ability to win rural votes or excite young college voters.

This proposal has other benefits, too. The DPI requirement incentivizes legislators and local elected officials in safe districts to not just cruise to victory, but to really invest in getting their messages out and turning out voters. And we can all agree that Democrats win when we turn out the vote!

The money raised to the IDP can go to genuine party-building activities. I suggest those funds go towards the salary of a permanent constituency outreach director charged with building relationships with Latino, African-American, Asian-American and disabled voters so that our outreach to those groups does not only occur in the closing stretch of an even-year election.

One obvious criticism of this proposal is that it puts the party in the position of picking winners and losers. However, if the criteria is known by all, the party is just the facilitator, not the gatekeeper. This program also does not preordain success for its members. It just opens the door. An Iowa City school board member may not impress the party faithful in Creston. Or a promising legislator in Davenport may not resonate with donors in Des Moines.

But we all know that somewhere out there – 18 years ago it was Mount Pleasant – there is a legislator who has the right stuff to lead our party and win statewide. I want my party to do all it can to make sure that person is as ready as possible to make that run for office.

Here’s the last part of this proposal: this idea is free to a good home. For any aspiring IDP chair that has read this far, you have my license to take this idea, improve it, and run with it. I’m not running for state party chair. I just want to win elections and do good things for people that need help. If this proposal makes sense to you, it is all yours. The stakes are high. We shouldn’t be satisfied by a world in which Kirk Ferentz has put more thought into his next left tackle than our party leadership has in who will be running for U.S. Senate in 2020.


by Rob Barron
Posted 9/11/16

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