Where do we go from here?
That’s the question on every Iowa Democrat’s mind following last Tuesday’s election results. There’s no need to rehash how bad it was. We already know. And we know it will take a massive amount of work to fight our way back.
But how? Obviously, things must change. What we’re doing as a party did not work. There were a multitude of factors that caused the extent of Tuesday’s loss, and there are an even greater amount of solutions going forward.
That’s what Starting Line will be focusing on for the next week or two: solutions.
Yes, we need to understand the reasons for failure, and we’ll look at some of that, but mostly I want to discuss positive means of action we can all start taking now. My goal is to toss out as many ideas as possible, both big-picture ones and small project suggestions. They might be good ideas, they might not. May as well just put it all out there, with the hope that people will take some of the good ideas and run with them.
I’m also asking my readers to get involved in the discussion. The first questionnaire on new Democratic leaders got nearly 175 responses, and included the names of over 200 potential young leaders from all over the state, the majority of which I’d never heard of before.
If you want in on the discussion, sign up on this form.
Time For A New Generation Of Leaders In The Iowa Democratic Party.
A large vacuum of power exists in Iowa and national Democratic politics following the party’s third wipeout in four cycles. The old way of doing things seems flawed at best. Most of our longtime leaders are gone. A new generation of young Iowa Democrats should fill that void and lead us back into the light. We need more than just tweaks to our strategies and tactics; we need a movement.
The path forward to accomplish that varies. Any specific, tangible plan, however, will not happen unless there is an outright culture shift within the Iowa Democratic Party. We must constantly have a mindset of preparing our next generation of candidates and activists. Every action the party takes should take into consideration whether it is helping or hindering the long-term health of the party and its next wave of leaders.
The first step can be a relatively easy one. Democrats don’t have a deep bench in Iowa, but we do have one. It’s time to highlight them every chance we can.
The next IDP chair should launch a rebranding effort, calling it “The New Iowa Democratic Party,” or something like that, and feature the faces of our current young leaders in everything they do. Our next IDP chair and eventual gubernatorial nominee don’t necessarily have to come from the under-40 crowd, but they must put an emphasis on promoting the party’s younger members.
Every Democratic activist and volunteer in the state should know the names and faces of Nate Boulton, Chris Hall, Abby Finkenauer, Liz Bennett, Amy Nielsen, Ras Smith, Todd Prichard, Stacey Walker, Rob Sand, Nathan Blake and many more. They should be featured on the party’s social media posts and at events.
A speaker’s bureau of sorts should be created that sends many of these young leaders out to headline county fundraisers and rallies all over the state. It might be fun for activists in Webster County to hear from a 30-year-old mayor from Eastern Iowa who can deliver a passionate speech. And it would give those local parties a new excuse to try to get younger Democrats out to a meeting.
As for the annual statewide fundraisers and events? Mix the speaking slots up a little. Stop allowing only the state’s top elected officials to speak. Instead of having the Senate or House leader talk, give a speaking role to one of their up-and-coming members. There are probably some great orators out there that we have no idea about because they’re never given a chance to perform.
For example, every year the IDP names a “Rising Star” winner, who gets honored at their annual Hall of Fame Dinner. The winner never gets to speak to the crowd. I mean, come on. They walk up on stage, are handed an award, walk off, and then party activists and donors don’t see them again in a prominent way. That’s a small, easy fix to our problems that doesn’t cost a dime. (The Clinton campaign did a great job of this in Iowa by using diverse, lesser-known Iowans to introduce Clinton at their rallies.)
None of this would necessarily be aimed at setting any specific person up for higher office. Some of the people I just named may have higher ambitions, some may not. The important part is getting them out there so that other young Democrats see that you can get elected at an early age and that the party will support you.
It is also crucial in reigniting passion for our party among young voters. It was frightening to see some polls showing the Democratic Party slipping in support among under-30 Iowans. Using youthful ambassadors to that voting bloc (along with a better message) might win them back.
There are a ton of programs and big-picture ideas to help get young people elected and rally young voters, but they all take money. Simple inspiration could come cheap.
How Can The Local Parties Welcome Them?
The next thing that Iowa Democrats must do in this culture shift is provide a welcoming, open environment for young Democrats to step up. There are people with ambition and passion out there, they just need the right entrance point into the party.
One thing that many young people mentioned in my survey was that they tried to attend some local party events, but felt unwelcomed or were quickly bored with overly-procedural meetings. The former concern is unfortunate, as I know many long-time county activists would love to welcome young people into the fold if they showed up.
Some of this is just human nature. People like to hang out with who they know. So when a 20-year-old shows up to a party meeting dominated by those in their 60s and 70s, it can be a little awkward to connect. One of the solutions to that is people just need to try harder. Hard to enforce in any way, but what can you do? However, for the small minority of county party activists who really do think young people should wait their turn, and have little to add? They should be shown the door.
The latter concern is one that can be solved by county parties holding more creative, social events. Some already do that very well, others less so. Social gatherings at bars can work. Issue-based forums on topics young people care about might draw in some new blood. There’s a lot of ideas out there on this topic. A sharing of best practices around the state would help.
And again, this is where sending out our younger elected Democrats could prove useful. They could host events in counties that lack younger, dynamic leaders of their own to help entice new Democrats to show up.
One other complaint brought up often in the survey is that it’s hard to figure out where to enter the local party when their website isn’t even updated. Several reported outdated emails for county party leaders that bounced back. Others have no social media accounts. Clearly, the state party needs to do an inventory of every county party’s online presence.
This is also an easy way to get younger Democrats involved. Most people in the survey suggested they be assigned to head up county parties’ social media accounts. Easy enough. The state party could then hold trainings to get everyone on the same page and teach best practices. I see a lot of misused or underutilized county party Facebook pages. A coordinated effort run by social media-savvy millennials could mean that anytime Iowa Republicans pass an awful piece of legislation, a set of graphics or stories would be quickly shared on all 99 county party Facebook pages and spread through cheap ads into each county.
How Can The Democratic Party Find Young Leaders?
What if they won’t come to you? How do local Democrats seek out new blood? It’s easy to find and organize college students, all nicely situated in one place. It’s much harder to discover promising Democrats from age 23 to 30, who may have just moved into town after college, bounce around from apartment to apartment, and who aren’t as well-connected into their local community yet.
First off, the state and local parties need to start thinking outside the box and actually be intentionally proactive. Hitting up high schools is obvious, but many of those students soon move away. You can run some ads on local social media to try to find newcomers. But mostly you need to go out into the community and find them yourself in places where young people naturally organize.
Also, not all potential young leaders and future candidates are the ones with political science degrees or a love of political activism. Some of the most effective candidates could be someone who simply took a position in their local Habitat for Humanity organization, even if they’ve never volunteered on a campaign.
You know where I’ve always felt we should look for potential candidates? Charity marathon organizations. Things like Race for the Cure. The people involved are clearly empathetic and care about their community. They have organizing experience if they helped put together a running team, and they know how to ask people for money (plus all that marathon running probably has them in better physical shape, so they can knock lots of doors!). So either send some Democratic activists to charity marathons to network, or just grab a list of organizers and look them up in the VAN to see which ones are Democrats.
If the state party has the resources to do so, a staffer or two could essentially start head-hunting around the state and start up a farm team of potential candidates. Training sessions could be held, even for city council and county board-level candidates. A mentorship program could be established, with elected officials and former/current campaign staffers helping guide young leaders. But that all takes money and manpower.
We also need to rethink how we organize on college campuses. Right now the impetus is to rack up huge voting margins from students during elections, and to recruit young volunteers to staff phone banks and knock on doors. But there’s so much more potential of what College Democrats chapters could do, especially in the off-years.
Some kind of central database of every campus’ most promising stars should be kept so that the party can better stay in touch with them after they graduate. Sure, many move to other states, but many come back and they could still donate to Iowa causes.
But those college students can also help with the tricky task of identifying young Democrats who aren’t at college. During the off-years, the party could encourage college activists to help connect them with young people back in their hometown. College Democrats leaders could host get-togethers with former high school classmates who either didn’t leave their hometown, or who already graduated college and moved back. That could connect those hard-to-find 20-somethings with their local county party.
And of course, the party should always ask it allies in the progressive movement, like ISEA, AFSCME, LGBTQ organizations and women’s rights groups which of their young members are ready to step up. Sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
Finally, one source is obvious: young field staffers employed by the party and campaigns every cycle. I have a separate post completely on that topic that I’ll write later.
Making Room For Younger Candidates
One of the major issues keeping younger Democrats from running for office is that few seats ever come open. Iowa loves to reelect its incumbents, and many incumbents like to hold on to their offices forever. This is a problem.
While I’m not advocating for primary-ing long-time incumbent Democrats in safe seats, I am suggesting every elected Democrat take a serious look at their future plans. What do they believe they will accomplish in office if they run for reelection again? Do they want to run for a higher office or not? What’s the game plan?
This also isn’t to suggest a legislator or local elected official that has been around a while needs to move on. Some incumbents raise a lot of money for the party. Some really turn out voters in their districts. Some are excellent, policy-focused legislators who make Iowa law better with their experience and knowledge.
But if they aren’t any of those things, they should consider moving on. If they’re just staying in a seat because they like the title, but are doing little to move the Democratic Party and our issues forward, it’s time to step aside. Their colleagues should nudge them to that conclusion if they don’t come to it on their own. Maybe if Democrats weren’t in such a tough spot in Iowa right now, we could overlook a couple of these situations. But we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to rebuild our party now. That requires some incumbents to move on so that a new generation can bring their fresh ideas and enthusiasm into the spotlight.
Tom Harkin had it right in theory when he decided to step aside in 2014 in order to pass the torch on the a new leader. Unfortunately Bruce Braley’s campaign faltered, and it was another Republican wave year. Even though Braley failed, many would still rather lose a seat that way than lose it the way we did with Patty Judge. One of our next younger candidates will catch fire and make us proud and win.
Overcoming Hesitation And Fears About Running For Office
Okay, so you’ve got some younger Democrats involved, now how do you get them to the next step of running for office? When I asked people what they felt the biggest impediment to younger people stepping up into politics, the answers were numerous. Young people don’t know where to start. They’re unfamiliar with what races you can run for. They’re scared off by the ultra-negative campaigns that smear people’s reputation. They think campaigns cost too much and that they couldn’t raise enough themselves. They don’t have enough time to commit to running a campaign or serving in office. They don’t have the personal financial stability, either.
The good news is that many of these things are due to some misperceptions that can be cleared up. A lot of people watched the TV ads for the presidential, congressional and swing legislative districts and thought that’s what all campaigns are like. They saw how Republicans took a minor tax mistake from a Polk County House candidate and turned it into a lie they repeated incessantly on Central Iowa TV. They read news reports of how candidates were raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. That can make politics seem really scary.
But here’s the reality: most people who run for office for the first time don’t run for an office that requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to win. And some local offices don’t necessitate a huge time commitment.
You’re not going to see slick, negative mailers in a campaign for a county conservation board seat. You don’t need tens of thousands of dollars to win a city council position in a mid-size Iowa town. Your opponent isn’t going to hire a top-flight opposition research team to take you down in a school board race. Hell, there were a lot of people who ran unopposed in the county board races around Iowa.
Do not get discouraged from all of politics just because you see the worst of politics in a handful of campaigns. It simply isn’t representative. I had ten races to vote in on my West Des Moines ballot. Only five had a significant amount of money spent in them.
Katie Rock, a 32-year-old mother from Des Moines, won a seat on the Polk County Soil and Water board. She spent no money, it only meets once a month, and it’s a board that makes important decisions about our environment. These kinds of offices don’t always sound the most exciting, but if the responsibilities of a state legislator or a county supervisor is too much at the moment, start here instead.
None of this is to say that running for office, even some of these lower-profile down-ballot seats, is easy. If you want to win, you do have to work hard, and you do need to ask everyone you know for a contribution of money and/or time. The point is this: you can do it.
Now, if you plan on running in a swing legislative seat or for Congress, then yes, you will have to do a whole lot. You do need to raise several tens of thousands of dollars for the legislative races. You do need enough time to knock doors five or six days a week. You do need to have a relatively clean personal history, or at least a good plan to confront those challenges.
If you’re unable to do all that, then the highly competitive races targeted by both parties may not be for you. But there’s still tons of other opportunities available. Many of which would set you up for those tougher fights in the future.
One other misperception that should be addressed, which I often heard from Sanders supporters: you have to sell your soul to raise money from special interests. Yes, for some of the really big races, candidates rely in part on big donations from PACs. But you can also get $1,000 checks from wealthy Democrats who simply care about progressive causes like women’s health, LGBTQ rights and the environment. Not all money is tainted, nor does all of it come with strings attached. We should be careful in how we talk about big money in politics, and make clear distinctions over which races it really influences and how. Sometimes you risk needlessly turning people off to the whole endeavor.
Supporting Them When They Run
What would a full structure look like to do all that? It could be a major project within the IDP, or it could be a separately-funded operation. It could be modeled off the 21st Century Forum that elected a lot of younger Iowa Democrats, like Janet Petersen, a decade ago. It could raise money and direct seed funding to first-time candidates. That might be a longer post I do for another time.
But such an organization may simply not happen. Multiple efforts over the past several years started to form, but they all fizzled out. It’s more needed than ever, but I’ve been around Iowa politics long enough to know that what is needed doesn’t always happen. It’s unclear if a formal operation will finally develop in 2017.
That’s why I believe it’s so important for the next IDP leadership to put its young leaders front and center in a public way. At the very least, just their visual presence might inspire other young people to step up.
However, there is one other minor idea that cropped up before that could help young candidates with fundraising. The state and local parties could host get-togethers of major donors to meet ambitious Democrats in their 20s and 30s. That way they can start to form relationships with donors they wouldn’t otherwise ever know. A lot of the state’s older donors are getting tired of funding the party and candidates so much on their own. They would be more than happy to support young, new talent that could form donor bases of their own and take some of that burden away.
Finally, On A Personal Note…
I chose to write about this topic first because it’s the one I’m most passionate about and the one I also have a unique perspective on. I often hear from Iowa Democratic activists, donors and elected officials that they want to support young, ambitious Democrats who are ready to step up. I’m not so sure I believe them.
I am a 31-year-old experienced operative who created this Iowa Starting Line experiment two years ago because it was a project we desperately needed, always talked about, but no one ever stepped up and got it done effectively. It was an extremely risky project to launch, to publicly write and share my opinions every day in an industry that shuns actual analysis and even constructive criticism. I never quite raised all the funding for it that I hoped, but I pressed forward because it was important for the cause in Iowa.
There were some good people who helped me fund and create Starting Line. But I was always disappointed (though perhaps not surprised) that more people didn’t see the potential, and didn’t reach out or get involved. Many doubted it would succeed. It was a success and it was impactful, however, even beyond my original hopes. My readers were a big part of that.
Now I have one of the largest political megaphones in the state. I have thousands of loyal readers who trust my opinion and analysis. I have a good reputation with the Iowa press. And now I have a list of all the promising up-and-coming Democrats in the state. I wonder how many of those Iowa Democratic activists, donors and elected officials think this news website is the last thing I’ll do in Iowa politics.
If you are interested in getting involved in the future of our party in Iowa, if you’re a young person who wants to be more engaged or run for office, or if you’re just a good Democrat who wants to see the next generation step up, you know how to reach me.
by Pat Rynard
Pictured: State Representatives Ras Smith, Abby Finkenauer, Liz Bennett, Chris Hall