Some people fear a vacuum of power post-election, but the wide-open race for IDP chair has generated some much-needed discussion over what has gone wrong with our party, and what we need to do differently. Rather than having a hand-picked chair, the uncertain coming election has allowed a wealth of new ideas to get debated for a party struggling with how to move forward. It’s refreshing, and it’s been a joy to observe.
However, one thing that struck me after watching the two forums last week and listening to a few of the conference calls, is how narrow the debate is over the issues facing the next IDP chair. I hesitate to write this, as one of my biggest annoyances is people watching the news and yelling, “They’re only talking about this! Why aren’t they talking about that!”, especially when both things are important. But the lack of serious discussion around several key topics was surprising.
For one, I don’t believe I heard anyone, not a candidate nor a SCC member in the audience last Saturday, talk about the importance of retaking the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House. Kim Reynolds was barely mentioned at all. Perhaps this was simply implied in the whole “elect more Democrats” mantra, and that most think the individual legislative caucus committees are the sole group responsible for the swing districts. While it’s true they take the lead on the targeted districts, the state party should also be a close partner in advocating for and highlighting the state’s most crucial legislative races.
One of the ideas that garnered the most discussion and interest from many of the candidates and SCC members was a proposal to run Democratic candidates in deep-red districts and have the state party help them with funding. I certainly agree with the desire, and wrote out a lengthy proposal myself last month. Doing so will help the top-of-the-ticket candidates with their statewide numbers. But my concern is that it seems the top priority for many, coming before a host of much more dire needs.
For example, what the hell are we going to do about Northeast Iowa and the 1st Congressional District? This used to be a reliably Democratic area of the state, and it went deep red in many counties this year. If we don’t immediately reverse the trends in Northeast Iowa and blue collar towns along the Mississippi River, this party is sunk.
Iowa Democratic activists have always loved to talk nonstop about Western Iowa and how to improve things there. I worked in Western Iowa and love Western Iowa, but there’s other regions of the state I see as a much higher priority right now.
The bottom fell out for Democrats in places like Howard, Dubuque and Clayton counties. Howard County went from +20% Obama in 2012 to +20% Trump in 2016, the biggest flip in the entire nation. Dubuque County went red for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower. Mississippi River towns that were once solidly Democratic thanks to union support embraced Trump instead.
And the problem here wasn’t that we didn’t run local candidates in every district. We did, and the party devoted a ton of money to win in these areas. And yet people like Representative Patti Ruff, a well-liked, hard-working, two-term legislator from Clayton County, got a mere 33% of the vote thanks in part to the Trump wave. If our best candidates and legislators can’t even get more than a third of the vote in formerly swing districts, taking back the Statehouse becomes extremely difficult. [Edit: Ruff actually got 44% of the vote – I was looking at the Register’s results map, and the data is wrong in that district. Even still, that margin was surprising. Perhaps the better example then is Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm, who got just 36.7% despite beating two incumbent Republicans in prior cycles.]
Which leads me to another topic I hope gets more discussion: our new opportunities. So, what happens if, despite our best efforts, we don’t regain our full, former share of the vote in places like Northeast Iowa and along the Mississippi River? We’ll have to make up for it elsewhere. And there’s an emerging area to do just that: in suburban communities.
If Muscatine and Allamakee and Clayton counties move out of reach for Democrats (not that they couldn’t swing right back in 2018, but just in case…), we need to start making up for it in Ankeny, Marion, Hiawatha and Bettendorf.
Consider the numbers from Bettendorf, which includes the higher-income neighborhoods of Scott County. In the four Bettendorf precincts with the highest turnouts, all ones that Mitt Romney won in 2012, Hillary Clinton improved significantly over Barack Obama’s margin. Obama lost Bettendorf Precinct 41 by 28 points in 2012; Clinton fell short by 11 points, a 17-point swing for the Democrats. In Bettendorf Precinct 52, Obama got 35% with 820 votes in 2012; Clinton improved to 41% with 1,246 votes, while Trump dropped 11 points behind Romney’s share of the vote.
|Precinct||Trump||Clinton||Other||Trump %||Clinton %|
|Precinct||Romney||Obama||Other||Romney %||Obama %|
While Iowa as a whole swung a full 16 points, from a six-point Obama win in 2012 to a ten-point Trump victory in 2016, Trump only improved over Romney’s margin in Bettendorf’s 11 precincts by a mere 0.3%. Many Republicans in suburban areas stuck with Trump despite their disgust of him, simply because they liked Clinton even less. When she’s not on the ballot and Trump’s still around in 2018, the choice to abandon the Republican ticket becomes a lot easier for these people.
Iowa Democrats could make huge gains in these places in 2018, flipping legislative seats in once-red areas of Ankeny, Johnston, West Des Moines, Hiawatha, Marion, Bettendorf and Cedar Falls. Of course, the problem is that Iowa doesn’t have enough suburban areas to offset losses in so many rural places, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. The point is that there’s a real opportunity here, and it needs to be a focus of the next chair.
One other area of opportunity: downtown Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Part of the problem with Democrats’ vote erosion in rural counties is that the younger, more progressive Iowans in those communities have moved away. Some have gone out of state, but a lot of them have moved into a three-mile radius of new apartment complexes and condos in downtown Des Moines. The party must find a way to cultivate this vote base, often difficult to get ahold of as they live in limited-access apartment buildings. You could potentially boost your statewide turnout by thousands of votes with an intensive effort here.
Finally, the legislative session is soon upon us, and it will be one that could define the future of Iowa for decades. Without an all-out mobilization from Democrats and progressives, Republicans could vastly change the nature of Iowa policies and culture without paying a price.
Whether you agree or disagree with having moved the IDP chair vote back to late January, one consequence of it is that a new team will come in weeks after the legislative session has begun. They’ll have to immediately implement a communications and grassroots activist strategy to push back against the Republican legislature. The outrage over extreme legislation the GOP will try to pass is also the perfect chance to build the party’s lists and engage new volunteers around specific issues. If the new chair spends their first few months having long conversations with constituency caucuses about party building ideas instead of actually leading them into battle at the Statehouse, the party will have missed out on a very unique opportunity.
I have so far seen little to no discussion from the chair candidates over what they’d do in their first two weeks or how they would approach this monumentally important legislative session. That needs to become a priority, fast.
There’s a number of other topics I could toss out as well, like: how do we keep the Iowa Caucus, what’s the longterm communications plan to defeat Joni Ernst in 2020 (you can’t wait until that year to run a full effort to defeat her), how can the party expand its donor base with the doctors at the university hospital in Iowa City, how can we win back Libertarian and Green voters, will we target specific municipal elections in 2017, how do we get incumbent legislators to turn out their districts better, and are we ever going to get a new IDP headquarters office that isn’t a complete dump?
The issues discussed during the IDP chair race so far are important ones. At this point I think everyone agrees that we need to run candidates in as many places as possible, we need to do something about VAN accessibility, we need to better involve the constituency caucuses, and we need to “communicate” better and “listen” (whatever those vague terms mean to each individual).
But now’s the time to expand the dialogue, because there’s a ton more challenges that the next IDP chair will have to confront, some of which (in my opinion) are more pressing than those currently discussed. 2017 and 2018 could be years of great opportunity for Iowa Democrats, or they could be years of debilitating defeat that sets the party back a decade or more. We need to make sure the next chair – and the party that will support him or her – is fully prepared for everything the IDP has to do going forward.
by Pat Rynard