Every cycle in Iowa, hundreds of Democrats are on the ballot. Some run in safe districts where registered Democrats easily outnumber Republicans. Some run in swing districts where both parties compete heavily and either side can win.
And then there’s the brave souls who run in deep-red districts where they have no realistic shot of winning, short of a massive wave election year.
Those candidates obviously don’t get as much attention from the party infrastructure as ones in must-win swing districts do. That’s understandable to an extent, as a serious party has to prioritize its resources into races it can win. There are many places around Iowa where the numbers are just too tough that even a great candidate and a massive investment of funds won’t change the basic underlying partisanship of the district. And I don’t think anyone is expecting the House Democrats to put $300,000 into a race in House District 24 in Southwest Iowa (Page, Taylor, Ringgold counties) where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats 9,691 to 3,308.
However, there is a difference between directing money to other races, but still staying in touch with long-shot candidates, and just outright ignoring the long-shot candidates altogether. The latter approach causes longterm problems for the party and misses out on big opportunities.
Most cycles the senate and house committees within the IDP will hold training sessions for all their candidates, even those from deep-red places where the party knows they’re unlikely to support them. That’s useful and good, but then there isn’t always much longterm support provided as the campaign progresses. Again, this is understandable, because those specific committees have to focus on their swing districts.
The problem is that some legislative candidates, along with other down-ballot Democrats running for local and county offices, end up feeling neglected and lack the advice necessary to run a semi-professional campaign. In some of the worst situations, they get frustrated and don’t work as hard, or go around complaining to local activists, which causes cynicism toward “the party.”
This is a missed opportunity. By better empowering these long-shot and local candidates with professional advice, their campaigns will get better at turning out the vote in their districts, which helps all Democrats up-ballot. It’s particularly important because most local candidates come with a unique volunteer base – their personal friends and families. A County Auditor candidate’s 18-year-old nephew who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in politics will go out and knock doors for his aunt. Those are extra volunteers that IDP field organizers wouldn’t be able to recruit on their own. So better incorporating their efforts into the state party’s could be very beneficial.
They all just need better advice and direction. A lot of first-time candidates have literally no idea where to start. How do I raise money? What do I spend it on? Do I need a website? Where do I print my campaign materials? What voters do I talk to? What should my talking points be? Where do I find a list of voters?
I remember one local candidate from a few years ago who was so afraid a voter would ask them a question he didn’t know the answer to that he literally spent months at home doing issue research to come up with in-depth policy ideas. No, buddy. Just go out and start knocking on doors and listen to voters’ concerns. Your policy solutions will grow from there.
Plans To Incorporate Long-Shot Candidates
I have two ideas for how the party could better utilize these long-shot and local candidates, one which costs money, one which does not. (As I lay out ideas in this series, I am trying to keep my suggestions to things that don’t cost a lot of money. Even when the IDP is well-funded, it’s difficult to launch broad new projects. When the party struggles with its finances, it’s outright impossible. Everything takes time, and that’s usually time by IDP staffers.)
Let’s start with the mostly free idea.
There are plenty of former campaign staffers living all across Iowa. There are also plenty of former successful candidates. The IDP could assemble a volunteer group of these people to work as informal advisers to long-shot and local candidates. All it would need to be is assigning a volunteer adviser to two or three candidates who they check in on from time to time, and maybe even go knock doors with them to show them the ropes.
Obviously a plan/structure on the advice would first need to be created – you can’t have each adviser giving wildly different suggestions. It probably wouldn’t take the IDP too long to set this up, and aside from checking in on the volunteer advisers to make sure they’re still working, it shouldn’t take too many IDP resources to handle.
A group of former/current staffers/candidates could also put together an easy how-to candidate guide. Many of these things already exist out there, it would just need a little tweaking to work for Iowa. Set benchmarks that the advisers could check in on with the candidates to see how they’re progressing. There’s also little things you could do, like having sample mail pieces and social media ads they could use.
Now for the cadillac plan.
The IDP could have a specific staffer designated to work with these candidates in an effort to incorporate them into the party’s local field effort. That person would give all the same advice as the advisers, but would really hone in on actually making them a team member for the IDP’s field operation. Why might this be cost effective? Because you could essentially turn local candidates into part-time field organizers if you trained them up well enough, gave them some access to the VAN (or create their lists for them) and quantified and tracked their work.
If you wanted to get really crazy, the IDP could even establish a small fund to help entice these candidates to work on your program. Set up specific goals for the candidates, and rewards for if they meet those goals. Say you’re a Democrat from Denison running in the very Republican Senate District 9 in Western Iowa. If you knock 3,000 doors that are tracked in the VAN, the party will send out an extra absentee ballot mailer into Denison, which the candidate would then get her volunteer base to go chase. That’s a small investment in a place where you probably don’t have many volunteers to work, and turning out Democrats there will help the top-of-the-ticket.
Alternatively, you could offer rewards like having a legislator or well-known Democrat come out to headline a fundraiser, or getting a round of professionally-designed Facebook ads to run in your district.
The key here is setting up specific goals for these candidates to help guide them to focus on efforts on things that work. That will make them more effective in their races, which helps all Democrats. Plus it would make the local party activists happy and feel a better connection to the party.
And that’s one last thing a program like this would help fix: my biggest pet peeve, the complaining candidates who do nothing.
Every cycle, there is a small handful of Democratic candidates running in impossible or tough districts who just simply do a bad job in running a campaign. But instead of working harder or accepting responsibility, they put the blame on everyone else. Those are my least favorite candidates. They’re big talkers. They cause a big ruckus. But they don’t do the hard work. When they lose they just blame “the party.”
I once had a candidate I had to deal with that complained nonstop to his local county parties that the IDP wouldn’t do anything for him. He wanted me to set up a fundraiser for him. He wanted me to get a big speaker to it. He wanted me to get him more volunteers. This was after him being in the race for five months and raising all of $1,000 and only knocking on 300 doors. It was also after I had constantly given him good advice on what to do. But it ended up all being the evil state party’s fault.
Local activists need to understand that “the party” is not at fault for everything. Many activists like to complain about how Bruce Braley or Patty Judge weren’t good candidates. Well, guess what? A few of your local candidates ain’t that great either. And again, this is understandable too – it’s easier to complain about “the party” or a statewide candidate you’ll never see than it is to confront your hometown candidate who you see at the grocery store every week. The point is we just need to be more measured in how we talk about “the party” so that we don’t needlessly create cynicism.
That’s why setting up a better system to track long-shot candidates’ progress, offer them rewards and advice should cut down on the cynicism that’s created in these situations.
There also needs to be a real discussion about what to do with VAN access. It’s simply cost-prohibitive for some candidates, which undercuts their ability to talk with and turn out voters. Should a central staffer help create them lists? Should it be free (it might actually take more time for staff to train and troubleshoot)? Should the local parties be better trained to use it for their candidates? I’m not sure what the answer is.
Finally, anything like this that costs extra money may not get implemented in this exact manner. However, a clever congressional or gubernatorial campaign could provide similar help to down-ballot candidates and essentially deputize them in their campaign. A local candidate might be grateful of the help from a congressional candidate and pitch their name on the doors more.
Setting Realistic Goals With Honest Conversations
In addition to any plans, we should have open, honest discussions with long-shot candidates in what they hope to achieve. It is great when Democrats field local candidates in deep-red districts and counties, but someone in the party just needs to ask: It’s unlikely you will win, so what do you want to accomplish if you don’t? Do you want to help turn out the Democratic base to help other candidates on the ticket? Do you want to get a specific group of people in the district more involved in the party? Do you want to push a specific issue that might get traction in your local government?
It would be helpful to have an extra goal they can achieve, win or lose. Because frankly, if you’re a Democrat running in a 3-1 Republican district and all you do is talk with swing voters and Republicans about yourself, and then you lose 65%-35%, what have you really accomplished?
I asked my readers whether long-shot candidates should focus on turnout or persuasion. Most said both. I think it probably depends on what your real goal is and how red your district or county you’re running in is. Spending several hours a week getting local High School Democrats chapters started in your district to help your campaign may do more to the longterm health of your local party than spending those hours knocking doors in Republican-leaning precincts.
This also isn’t to suggest we should’t try to outright win in some deep-red places in Iowa, as every now and then we do. We just need to think outside the box a bit and take into consideration what the longterm plan to winning in these places is.
To do that we should look into changing the structure of how the party deals with long-shot races. Right now there’s not enough incentive for the party to focus a significant amount of time and resources into these areas. But with a little bit of creativity in creating a new project – either funded or not – we could better incorporate our candidates running in tough races into the broader effort, lifting our entire party up as a result.
by Pat Rynard