When the Donald Trump wave swept white, blue-collar voters away from Democrats in 2016, few places were hit harder politically than Wapello County, Iowa. Home to Ottumwa, a working class city of 25,000 that’s seen better times, the Southeast Iowa county was carried by Trump in a 58% to 37% rout.
Wapello County has been moving in the Republican direction for some time since the rise of the Tea Party, but this year’s margin was particularly significant given Obama’s 55% to 43% victory in 2012. Clinton received 3,025 fewer voters than Obama did four years ago, leading to local Democrats’ sense of foreboding for their future under a Trump presidency.
“Wapello County historically, since the 1950s, has been a Democratic county. We should never elect any Republicans from here, and yet it happens. Where are the leaders in our party?” asked Tom Stewart, a local activist in Ottumwa, at a recent gathering of county Democrats.
About 30 Democratic activists gathered at the Hotel Ottumwa this past week at a meeting that was nominally intended to discuss the upcoming legislative session. Instead, it largely focused on a re-hashing of the 2016 campaign, along with an airing of concern about the direction of the party. Ottumwa State Representative Mary Gaskill, along with Senator Rich Taylor from the Mt. Pleasant/Keokuk district a few counties away, headed up the meeting.
“We had excellent candidates, but for some reason they didn’t win, and I have yet to figure out why because we had the platform that people say that they want,” Gaskill told her constituents. “And yet boosting the middle class, revitalizing rural Iowa, workforce and education, land and water and clean energy was part of our platform. Protecting seniors and vulnerable Iowans and children. And we were rejected.”
Most of the attendees were teachers, retirees and a few other state workers. Many were concerned about the lack of campaign activity they’d seen during the election.
“It was dead,” said Miriam Kenning, a local activist, of the party’s field office in Ottumwa. “I knew right then that is was a done deal, because there was nothing happening this year. That was a horrific feeling. I don’t care whether it’s the signs not up or anything, there was nothing going on … We have to take control of what’s happening in this county.”
That was a change from what they saw around the Iowa Caucus, both in terms of investment from the campaigns, but also the people involved. Kenning observed that there was a much more ethnically diverse and younger group of volunteers working during the caucus campaigns.
“We’ve gotten used to getting this extra attention,” noted Melinda Jones, the Wapello County Democratic chair. “And I think that a lot of people need to look at themselves and ask if they did everything they could. We got used to having hundreds of out-of-state volunteers shipped in for GOTV.”
Everyone’s opinions on why 2016 played out the way it did varied widely during a back-and-forth discussion among the group.
“We had Democrats who were voting for Donald Trump.”
“Oh yeah, I could tell that when I was out walking the streets.”
“I don’t know if it’s anything necessarily the Democrats did wrong, but it’s that we got hosed by Donald Trump.”
“I never felt less connected to an election, and I’m a determined voter.”
“I didn’t like either one of them, I heard one person tell me.”
There was also frustration with a state and national party that many there in Ottumwa felt disconnected from. Much of that was focused on a lack of communication they thought they were getting from their party. Jones said that from her role on the IDP’s State Central Committee, she’s heard from the candidates for party chair, all of whom hope to better connect local activists with what’s happening statewide and at the legislature.
The new legislative session was the most immediate concern for the room. Many voiced worry about what might happen to IPERS (the state retirement fund) and school funding.
“They are going to attack your IPERS, they are going to attack state employees,” warned Taylor. “IPERS is a great program and it works. People say, ‘well, state employees, they get all this and they get all that and this IPERS is too much.’ But they don’t realize – I was a state employee for 27 years – the things we sacrificed in order to get IPERS. We wouldn’t take pay raises so we could take our IPERS … So collective bargaining work. The state got what they wanted, the employees got what they wanted. Nobody was happy, and that’s how you know it worked.”
Taylor suggested worried Democratic activists put pressure on legislators who are on the IPERS program themselves.
Both Taylor and Gaskill cautioned that the 2017 session would see Republicans try to push through a slew of right-wing items that they’ve been planning for for a long time.
“They’re like a kid in the candy shop now,” Taylor said of Senate Republicans. “Everything they’ve had on their agenda for at least my last four years, they’re going to do it all the first day.”
“Can we count on the party to give us an idea on what’s relevant?” asked Jean Dell, a local volunteer. “I can read all that, but I’m not sure what parts of it Democrats feel are essential. On education, you’d have to tell me that a 2% amount is going to cut a teacher’s job in Ottumwa.”
Wapello County will also feature prominently in the state’s discussion over the minimum wage. County supervisors voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour over several years, though the the Ottumwa City Council voted it down for their municipality. Republicans aim to introduce “pre-emption” legislation, which takes away local control from counties and cities to implement their own wage laws.
The best those Democrats may be able to hope for, however, is to make the Republicans’ agenda this year a little less bad. Or to make their individual legislators pay for their votes. At the end of the day, the real way to stop the new Republican majorities is to send them out of office in the 2018 election. Ottumwa will play an important role with that in Republican State Senator Mark Chelgren’s reelection race.
But if the voting trends continue from 2016, that’ll be difficult. So the Democratic activists planned on continuing their meetings throughout the year to plan out a better path forward.
“I think in Wapello County we need to define what is a Democrat,” suggested Dell.
by Pat Rynard