For his running mate pick, Fred Hubbell has looked east to rural Wheatland, Iowa, population 764. State Senator Rita Hart will be officially introduced as Democrats’ Lt. Governor nominee at the state party convention today. The Hubbell campaign announced the choice first thing this morning.
Hart’s selection puts one of the party’s most credible rural voices on the ticket, and lifts up a legislator who, though not well-known among the larger activist crowd, was seen by many behind the scenes as a rising star with great potential. Some in Democratic circles see Hart as the party’s answer to Joni Ernst: a charismatic, knowledgeable, authentic farmer who can connect on a more personal level with voters. She also brings the statewide ticket some better regional balance from Eastern Iowa.
Hart, 62, represents Senate District 49, which covers Clinton County (she hails from Wheatland on the far western side of Clinton County) and a rural part of northeastern Scott County. It’s a swing district that she was up for reelection in this year. Her nomination means she’ll have to remove herself from that race, and Starting Line hears that Senate Democrats have been looking to recruit a new candidate out there over the past few days (see how that impacts the legislative races here).
First elected in 2012, Hart, a mother of five, worked as a teacher for over 20 years and co-owns and operates her family farm. She’s won her races in good years and bad, always over-performing Democrats’ top-of-ticket in the rural precincts of Clinton County. Hart also took a lead on clean water efforts this past year, organizing and hosting a water quality summit in DeWitt last summer.
She also made headlines this legislative session by pressuring Republicans to sign on to a statement opposing Donald Trump’s threats of trade tariffs that would impact Iowa’s farm economy.
“I am honored to join Fred and fight tooth and nail alongside him to get Iowa growing the right way,” Hart said in a press release. “In Big Rock, Wheatland, and communities like it across rural Iowa, we’ve born the brunt of Governor Reynolds and this Republican legislature’s extreme right-wing agenda that has reduced access to health care, underfunded our schools, and put out of state corporations over local investment. We need to put people first in our state again.”
Starting Line sat down with Hart late last year for an interview about how she thinks Democrats can better reach out to rural voters and win back those who have become deeply skeptical of the party. Her own Clinton County saw a dramatic shift toward Donald Trump in 2016 (the New York Times even covered it in a story). Trump won the county 49% to Hillary Clinton’s 44%. Barack Obama carried it 61% to 38% in 2012.
Hart began by noting that when she had attended an early morning meeting in Clinton recently, she passed a lot of traffic at 5:30 A.M. on Highway 30.
“That’s their real lives,” Hart explained. “They’re working hard, they’re going to work early. They’re trying to take care of their kids, and at the same time their taxes are going up, it’s harder or impossible for them to get healthcare. And they’re just kind of tired of the nonsense. So, they’re looking for someone who has simple solutions. Then we have somebody who comes in and says, ‘I can fix all that. Just have faith in me. I won’t give you any specifics, but you can believe in me.’ That’s appealing. They wanted to believe in Trump.”
That disconnect with the larger political scene and a general negativity locally about Hillary Clinton doomed the Democrats along Iowa’s Mississippi River towns in 2016. And further mistrust and misconceptions about the Democratic Party, Hart said, has slowly drug the party down among blue-collar and rural voters.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like politics, they try to stay away from it,” Hart said. “But they’re bombarded by advertisements and conversations, so they tend to fall into the old, false, tried-and-true kinds of factoids out there that Democrats want to have big government programs and give away everything, and aren’t smart about how those programs are developed, so they create a system where there’s more takers than givers. And Republicans in rural areas have the reputation that they are more about creating good business climate, and that they’re about independence and keeping government off your back, keeping taxes low.”
That, however, hasn’t been the kind of ideas that have stuck to Hart during her campaigns. She won the rural precincts of Clinton County with 52% of the vote in 2012. She outperformed Bruce Braley by 5 points in 2014 in those same rural precincts, and topped Jack Hatch’s total there by 17 points (Hart had to run in both 2012 and 2014 due to a redistricting quirk).
It helped, of course, that she lives out there (she ran 11 and 12 points ahead of even Barack Obama in some rural precincts in 2012), but the rest of it is simply showing up and talking with people.
“I’ve got a lot of people, I’ll walk into a Legion and someone will yell, ‘Hey Rita, you on the Trump train?’ But when I talk to them, it’s more about hope,” Hart said. “They hope that somebody out there is looking out for them … If you get to know them, they’ll be in your corner, they’ll give you a chance. That overrides party and belief systems about the parties.”
Her work on her farm and years of teaching local farmers’ kids certainly helped build up trust as well. That’s let her be viewed as something more than just a simple politician.
“I think people recognize when people are being fake,” Hart said. “When they’re just in it for their own gain.”
As for how Democrats can start to win back rural counties around the state (or at least not lose so badly in them), Hart suggested the party first simply needs to understand what people are dealing with. While Democrats have often pushed for better schools and rural hospital access in small towns, the basic economic and agricultural concerns are the biggest thing on voters’ minds.
“Farmers’ inputs are really high and the prices are really low,” Hart said. “There’s an obvious glut of grain on the market, so it doesn’t look good for the future. Everybody’s got their own individual situation on how much they’re extended on their credit. It still comes down to the same thing: are we setting up policies to where our crops are covering our costs? That’s the bottom line.”
And the constant new pressures that farmers face create uncertainty.
“Agriculture is really changing,” Hart explained. “There’s a lot of older farmers who are trying to bring in younger people, and that’s a challenge today. Younger people are trying to get involved, but to do that, they’ve got to have a good job, their wife has to have a good job, and they have to farm too. That is stressful for families.”
Hart also sees her farming neighbors struggling to figure out what to do with the water quality situation. She herself has tried to spearhead conversations between environmentalists and farmers to find ideas that everyone can work on.
“Farmers are trying to understand what to do about cleaning up the water,” she said. “We’re still learning a lot, but they face some criticism because it’s not being done fast enough, and not comprehensively enough, so there’s a lot of division on that out there … We can’t just come in and mandate stuff, and we can’t just simply think that it’s okay. There’s something here in the middle and we’re going to have to give and take on this.”
For Democrats to be successful in winning back the governor’s office in 2018, the party will have to at least not get blown out in rural counties like they have in recent elections. They’ll also need to reverse the Republican trend of Eastern Iowa counties like Hart’s, where former Democrats have grown weary of the party in the age of Trump. Having someone on the ticket with real farming experience will help, but the ultimate success will hinge on voters’ trust of this year’s Democratic candidates.
“The answer to [Trump] is to have a better alternative, to be the party that does really care about the common person,” Hart said.
by Pat Rynard