Few elections have ever held more longterm consequences for a state than the upcoming 2018 races in Iowa. A few of the issues at stake: the survival of public unions and Planned Parenthood, the existence of mental healthcare services, and the state’s own political identity as a purple or red state. Iowa could soon become the next Kansas for decades to come, or a Democratic wave could return balance to the Statehouse.
But for the Democratic Party here, 2018 presents one more opportunity that could outlive all of those outcomes: the chance to vote into office a raft of young leaders.
One of those candidates, Zach Wahls, kicked off his campaign for the retiring Senator Bob Dvorksy’s seat Thursday night in Coralville. At age 26 now, Wahls would be by far the youngest member of the Iowa Senate if elected. He might also enter the chamber as the most well-known if he wins. Catapulted to national prominence when the speech he gave in 2011 to the Iowa House about being raised by two mothers went viral, Wahls used that unexpected fame to push for national causes like opening up the Boy Scouts to LGBTQ members.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment that will determine the future of our state for generations to come, and I feel responsible for doing my part,” Wahls said at his announcement event in a packed room of about 100 supporters in the Old Town Hall of Coralville.
He first faces a primary with Janice Weiner, a former U.S. diplomat, for the Democratic-leaning seat that covers Coralville, Cedar County and parts of Iowa City and rural Johnson County. No Republican has announced any interest, and the party didn’t put up a challenger to Dvorsky in 2014.
Anticipation of Wahls’ run had been building behind the scenes in Iowa politics for several weeks. Many had wondered for a while if he would seek elected office – and if he’d do so in enough time after his 2011 speech before memories of it faded.
He had certainly stayed involved in the years since. He teamed up with One Iowa to travel the state and speak about his family to show skeptical people, as he described it, that he “didn’t have horns or a tail hiding behind [his] back.” Wahls co-founded Scouts For Equality, spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, was a delegate to it in 2016 and worked with Jason Kander’s voting rights group – all while attending college (he plans to finish out his last semester of his Princeton masters degree remotely in Iowa).
“I wasn’t exactly sure what role I wanted to play, which is why I went to policy school,” Wahls told Starting Line earlier this week. “When 2016 happened, I remember waking up November 9th and it settling in that this is really happening, and it was a really scary moment.”
He heard in April that Dvorksy was planning on retiring (that decision was made in part to allow new faces to emerge), but figured that Representative Dave Jacoby or City Councilman Mitch Gross would make a run for the seat. The night of this November’s municipal elections in Iowa and the Virginia general, Gross called Wahls, told him he wasn’t running and encouraged Wahls to do so instead, offering to chair the campaign. Gross was Wahls’ U.S. History teacher in high school and had helped Wahls triage the overwhelming reaction to his speech when it happened.
Wahls’ candidacy will be one of the closest-watched in Iowa in 2018, in part thanks to the large state and national followings he brings to the race. Kander heavily promoted Wahls’ kick-off on Twitter, as did many other prominent national Democrats. Crowdpac, an organization that helps raise funds for progressive candidates online, highlighted the new campaign prominently, leading to a nearly $25,000 haul in the first 24 hours. That’s more than many legislators in safe seats raise all cycle, and about a percentage of what recent competitive legislative primaries have cost.
But it’ll also be a notable race for Wahls’ age and potential future.
“I know that I’m young at 26, but I think I do have a record of stepping up and be willing to do the right thing, especially when it’s hard,” Wahls said of his campaign, adding he hopes candidates like him can encourage young voters to get inspired again. “There’s an important chance for younger Democrats to reunite the party … Our generation has unique economic challenges that are going to bring us together because we’re literally fighting for our whole generation. That’s bigger than Republican or Democrat or Bernie or Hillary.”
One of Democrats’ biggest electoral problems in 2016 was the collapse of the Obama coalition, with many young voters staying home or voting third party. Most of the candidates on the party’s ticket that year in Iowa were older, had run before and didn’t seem to connect as well with a younger generation’s issues or passions.
Those voters may see a lot more people who look like them in 2018. Rob Sand, 35, will be the party’s candidate for state auditor. In the secretary of state race, Democrats will nominate either Jim Mowrer or Deidre DeJear, both of whom are in their early 30s. In the 1st Congressional District, it’s likely Abby Finkenauer, 28, or Thomas Heckroth, 33, will be the nominee. J.D. Scholten, 37, has a good shot of winning the 4th District primary, while Austin Frerick, 27, has generated a lot of buzz for his bid in the 3rd District. And the top-of-ticket candidate for Democrats could well be Nate Boulton, 37.
Add Wahls into that mix and you have an impressive image of a younger, energetic Democratic Party. Three of the largest campaign kick-offs Iowans have seen this year were for Boulton, Sand and Wahls.
But it’s more than just recapturing the youth vote. After three Republican wave years in the past four cycles in Iowa, much of the Democratic Party’s bench of rising stars was wiped out. There was significant concern over whether the party was developing credible, experienced new leaders to run in high-profile races down the line.
Fortunately, that bench is already starting to get refilled after this year’s municipal elections. Josh Mandelbaum, 38, won the much-watched city council seat in Des Moines. Fellow former Tom Vilsack staffer Joseph Jones, 40, nabbed a spot on the Windsor Heights council. Ashley Vanorny, 32, defeated an incumbent on the Cedar Rapids City Council. And Alex Watters, 31, won his race for a full term on the council in Sioux City.
Any and all of those people who just won or who are running in 2018 may well be perfectly happy with those positions and settle in for a long career in public service there. Or they may run for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seats in 2020 or 2022. Or be the next mayor of Des Moines. Or run for governor if Democrats come up short next year.
As we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much in today’s media environment – or in a state party where few others step up – for them to rise quickly. Boulton turned his first few months in the Iowa Senate into a springboard to being one of the leading candidates for the party’s gubernatorial primary.
Depending on how the next year plays out, Iowa Democrats may look back on the 2018 cycle as a major turning point where a new generation of leaders took power. That’s good for the party now, that’s good for it for decades to come. The winds of 2018 seem to be blowing Democrats’ way at the moment, but if the tide turns and Republicans hold onto their complete control of Iowa government, the Democratic Party here may go into the wilderness for many campaign cycles. The path back to power could come a lot easier – and a lot faster – if there’s a larger bench of younger elected officials in place to guide the party into the future.
by Pat Rynard