A Word Of Warning From A Rural Democratic County Chair

A guest post from Brian Bruening, chair of the Clayton County Democrats in Northeast Iowa. 

It’s easy to get caught up in national Democratic excitement after the November 6th election. We flipped two house districts in Iowa as part of the Democratic wave the crashed over the US House. However, on the state and local levels, November 6 was a bigger Democratic disaster than the Republican wave of 2010. While we flipped several Iowa House seats from Republican control in affluent suburban districts, a voting trend seen nationwide, Democratic representation in the Senate was decimated, and only one statewide office was moved out of Republican control. (That being Rob Sand’s election as State Auditor. I would argue his was a singular campaign that brought an obscure statewide post to prominence. I’m willing to bet almost no voters could name the current State Auditor he was running against. And has there ever been an advertising presence by a candidate running for this position? It seems unlikely.)

I became the Chair of the Clayton County Democrats in April of 2017. Like many Democrats in my county, I was reeling from the election of Trump to the presidency and wanted to do something. My county, which had voted for Obama twice after handing him a huge majority of delegates on caucus night, had flipped around to support the anti-Obama. It was time to step up and try to help turn things around.

My first major task as chair was the off-year caucus in early 2018. Planning it was stressful — finding caucus leaders, locations, making sure everyone got the proper paperwork — and more than once I had the sinking feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. But caucus night came, along with a blizzard, and turnout was paltry. But we persevered, elected delegates to the county convention and sent in the paperwork. Incidentally, we were forced to adjourn our county convention early because another freak snowstorm blew in that quickly created whiteout conditions. But the caucuses and conventions were done.

2007-2008 was my first real interaction with a political campaign. Obama had an outstanding crew of organizers in the county more than a year before the caucuses. He marshaled volunteers, got people out to the caucuses, and maintained a constant presence in the community. They also had a robust GOTV organization come November. They provided real leadership and people were willing to volunteer because they had a unified message and an actual game plan.

Contrast this with the 2018 election. Campaign for Iowa (the Democratic coordinated operation) was the statewide organizing body. After several false starts, Clayton County finally assigned a field organizer, to be shared with other counties in our area. As a county party official, I was only tenuously aware of what was being done. Much of this was due to my own inexperience, but I didn’t know enough about how it should be going to ask appropriate questions.

There was no unified Democratic organization, but rather separate campaigns doing their own canvassing and consequently calling the same people over and over, and knocking on the same doors, until everyone was exhausted and tired of being bothered. I heard stories about people getting calls from the Hubbell campaign, the Finkenauer campaign, and local candidates all on the same day!

Working with the Campaign for Iowa was like shouting into the darkness. Was there anyone there to listen?  We had to beg repeatedly and constantly for Hubbell signs, and even then we got maybe 30 for the whole county. We sent a constant stream of messages to the campaign that the only impression voters had of Hubbell was the Younker’s attack ads and that he and Rita Hart needed to visit as soon as possible. Months of sounding the alarm finally got a 30-minute stopover on his way to a neighboring county that we were only informed of several days in advance.

There is no way that a candidate can convince undecided rural voters that they care about them if the people in their own party are unsure. From our vantage point, it seemed like Hubbell was pursuing the Hillary Clinton strategy in Iowa: do events along the Highway 80 corridor and hope TV and radio ads will drum up enough support in rural counties to carry the election. This 11-county strategy didn’t work for Clinton, and it certainly didn’t work for Hubbell.

I’ve levied a lot of criticism against the Hubbell campaign because I think their strategy was a failure. Their lack of organization and inability to plan an event more than a day or two in advance hurt the whole party and was a drag on down-ballot candidates. As a county party, we spent more in this last election in radio, newspaper, and direct-door advertising than ever before. We contacted registered Democrats and No Party voters to encourage them to vote early, to let them know about changes in polling locations and to inform them about our candidates.

We still lost all our races by a 2/3 margin. The Trump coalition of Republicans and ‘08 Obama voters showed up in record numbers for a midterm election and gave Republicans up and down the ticket commanding victories. A robust GOTV effort might not have closed the gap, but it wouldn’t have left Democrats in my county feeling so dispirited. The momentum and call-to-action from Trump’s election was squandered.

So what can be done? First and foremost, the Iowa Democratic Party needs to figure out how to create a viable ground game in rural Iowa. Iowa is a rural state. We cannot hope to win if we only carry our few urban counties. This should have been obvious after Clinton’s dismal showing in 2016. Much of the nationwide energy of the Democratic Party in last week’s election came from young people, people of color, and college-educated suburban women. (The traditional sources of Democratic power—unions—have been so seriously weakened in Iowa as to be of minimal impact here.) All groups which are only just barely represented in Iowa. The vast majority of voters in Iowa are rural, lower-middle to middle class, and white. We need to speak to these voters and address their concerns. Democrats need to create a plan for rural Iowa.

Clayton County is a very rural county. We are one of the larger counties area-wise, but only have about 18,000 residents. We have several small towns throughout the county, but no population center. With the exception of a small elementary parochial school, public schools are our only option for educating our kids. We are blessed with a lot of natural beauty here which drives our tourist industry, but we often have trouble finding qualified employees because most of our young people move away shortly after graduating high school. We have several small local hospitals but no place to deliver a baby in the county. We have experienced over 13 flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations in the last 30 years.

Most people love living here. There is a great quality of life. But people are worried about the future of their small town. They are nervous about the ongoing trade war with China and depressed agricultural commodity prices. They worry about the value of their homes and property they’ve spent their lives investing in. They want their local hospitals and schools to stay open. They want better maintained roads and bridges. They wish their kids had opportunities here so they wouldn’t move to Des Moines or another big city. They are worried about shrinking populations and getting older and not being able to retire. And they’ve seen over and over how their tax dollars go to Des Moines and never seem to make it back home.

These are all real issues that the Democratic Party of Iowa can create a plan to solve. Maybe it means creating an Economic Development Fund for small rural towns that encourage young people to create businesses in their own towns. Or a comprehensive plan to help counties repair bridges and roads and install fiber optic cables. Or a national recruitment plan to encourage people to move to Iowa small towns. Big, bold ideas that show the Democratic Party actually cares about the future of rural Iowa. This seems like a worthwhile endeavor to spend some time and treasure on.

Secondly, the party needs to train county parties on how to run their own Get Out The Vote campaigns. Having gone through an election cycle has shown me how unprepared I really was. The state party should create an education program for county leaders and activists. Most county parties meet monthly—why can’t the state party do an education workshop in every county over the course of a two year election cycle? Hiring a small team to travel the state to do these workshops seems like a good investment in the long term health of Democrats in Iowa.

My final point, though by no means the end of the discussion, is that we need better avenues of communication from the state to local parties. Many of the active members of the Clayton County Democrats, including myself, have full-time jobs and many responsibilities. We aren’t free to pop down to Des Moines for a meeting, or take off an entire Saturday to spend in a District committee. I think we often miss out on being a part of the parties messaging and direction. But we are still committed to spending our free time helping the party. Better avenues of communication between the central committee and the various county parties across this large state are vital.

One of the few bright spots I saw in this last election cycle was that almost no races were left uncontested by Democrats. People stood up around the state to run against incumbent Republicans at all levels of government. The Democratic Party needs to encourage and nurture this trend. Most importantly, the state party needs to train candidates on how to run successful campaigns including GOTV activities. We cannot win elections without putting ourselves forward, and creating a solid plan to get our voters to the polls.

If we as Democrats are serious about winning elections again in Iowa, we need to start now in building a 2020 effort. We need to reach out to rural districts and build a network of volunteers willing to do the leg-work needed to flip their districts. We need to craft a message to rural voters—both farmers and those who live in small towns—that identifies their concerns and works to address them. We cannot install new campaign leadership six months before an election and think it will be enough to engage voters who feel like they’ve been ignored by the Democratic Party for years.

The 2018 election isn’t a week old, and Caucus Fever had already begun. The Iowa Caucuses put a bright spotlight on the state as droves of reporters invade towns far and wide to try to determine who will win a contest over a year down the road. The state party will bask in the attention as being the First State to Decide. Lots of pressure will be coming down the line to county party chairs to undertake the heavy lift of a flawless caucuses (no more 2016 coin-flips, am I right?).  Presidential hopefuls will try to engage a population exhausted by the Eternal Campaign that has become the reality of American politics. And not a thing will be done to bolster the party on the county level.

I offer this modest proposal: Let’s kick the caucus can down the road and not pick it up until after Labor Day.  Instead, let’s focus our attention on building our party in all parts of Iowa. Let’s come up with a coherent and comprehensive plan for rural Iowa. Let’s train our county parties how to run successful election turn-out campaigns. Sure, we’ll talk to the blizzard of candidates descending down on Iowa, but let’s not let them take all the oxygen in the room. Democrats can win in Iowa, but only if we are willing to work for it.  We need to start today.


by Brian Bruening
Posted 11/17/18

16 Comments on "A Word Of Warning From A Rural Democratic County Chair"

  • Agreed. Obama managed it. What can we learn from him and from J.D. Scholten? That Dems can win in red and purple states IF they show up (over and over) and if they GOTV.

    • Great analysis! I remember when Chet Culver made an unofficial visit to Cherokee to swear in the NSDA Student Congress District Contestants. Pretty low key, but everyone in Cherokee knew he had come to Western Iowa. Democratic officials need to do the 99 county tour. Senator Hogg did that. We need that type of commitment to take back the legislature and keep the House districts we have.

      Train the chairs on GOTV. Create some easy to duplicate spreadsheets and game plans.

  • Wow. I learned more from this post than from most official news coverage in Iowa about what really happened in rural Iowa and why. I hope this post will be shared by many Iowa Democrats, and thank you, Brian, for writing it.

  • Bravo! Your description of the 2018 campaign is accurate for Southwest Iowa, too.

    I will say this year was better than my first runs at being a chair in late 90s and early 00s, but that is a comparison to be devoutly avoided. This year, we had a phenomenal local CFI organizer in Amanda Ludwigs, but once the campaign hit full stride, I only heard from her on email. She was pulled away apparently to Pottawattamie and the Des Moines area.

    As a candidate for HD24, I had to fight to get access to the CFI Votebuilder information, obtained it sometime in October, and then in the weekend before the election, my access was closed with no warning.

    I don’t know if better and more open communication between the state and county parties would have had much impact on the final results, but leaving us in the dark in 2020 will guarantee continued losses at the state level, and will make Iowa a gift to the current president. I understand how stressed and stretched people are in the two months before the election. Like Brian, I worked full time through the election, served as county chair, and I added a run as a first time candidate. I felt like I was in the dark as to what CFI was doing. Good training in the preseason is critical, and frequent updates are important.

    • Thanks James, as a volunteer I wondered what happened to Amanda. I loved working with her. The problem is that there should have been a more Central message and organized campaign that included all those running. While we live in a very red county, I think that starting soon we need to be out listening more and as a States present a more centralized message. That message must be designed and be authentic to the rural voter. Schools, hospitals and access to EMS are big ones. Talking to many was great, however there was not an effective social media or media campaign. Locals must seriously look at and know voting records of states office holders and compare what they say and what they do. You ran a good campaign, I enjoyed talking with you. Hopefully will see you in the future. Also I found it amazing that many voters had never looked a either the state Democratic or Republican platforms. They are getting most of their information on social media, at least here.

  • Message and Likability

    Why are Democrats doing well in the more urban area of the state but not in the rural counties? I believe it comes down to message and likability. These are aspects to politicking Tom Harkin was able to achieve where he not only defeated an incumbent senator in 1984, but beat sitting Iowa Congressmen in re-election years of 1990,1996, and 2002. How does messaging work in rural Iowa as compared to the larger population centers? I don’t have an answer for that now that we are in the 21st Century. The same message seemed to work the old fashioned way of political activism: shoe leather and turning out the vote. In the absentee ballot voting era, this is turning IN the vote.

    In this iI put forward one overwhelming argument will be true: I don’t have all the answers. I can say this: I am stating part of the issue. Harkin, Vilsack, and the Democratic Congressional delegation got it when each got elected and/or re-elected. They maximized their vote in the urban areas and minimized their “losses” in the rural areas.

    One other piece of political information about myself. I have lived in Linn County all my life, Cedar Rapids, but my parents were both born in Clayton County and lived in various locations of Delaware and Clayton Counties until moving to Cedar Rapids into their 20s. I still have a lot of close relatives living in northeast Iowa.

  • Brian hit a lot of nails that need planks to pull it together. Vision is something most of us lack and looking at our dwindling small towns it seems we have lost a very large chunk to simply no one left. Each year I see fewer and fewer people willing to do the things that need to be done to make even the smallest of things happen. My own rural small town lost its Jaycees this past year, but in other years nearly all of our masonic organizations have vanished, our veterans organizations hang on but by the skin of their teeth, many of the things that need to be done by the party organization are lacking simply because there is no party organization left. Our churches are dying for lack of rural attendees because there are fewer and fewer farmers out on the land. In the last twenty-five years at least ten churches have closed and as I look around many more are closing in on that final trip, sharing ministers, dividing up who gets to have the service and even then 16 attendees is a full house in some places. This can’t continue if our small communities are to stay viable. Certainly Brian’s compliant of sending tax money to Des Moines with no expectation much of it will come back to help support our schools and infrastructure is very apparent. We can’t keep pouring investment dollars on fertilizer plants that belong to foreign investors or companies that don’t need our state money in the first place. Brian’s suggestion of making opportunity available to our young people is so needed to get them to come on back to their roots and build what we need for a future for both those who currently live here as well as the hope more will follow suit and take advantage of some sort of incentive to make it all happen.

  • Brian, in defense of the state party, they do have training for GOTV and the caucus. I think part of your problems with the state party are a little bit of sour grapes. The biggest problem we Dems in Iowa is that we have more Republicans in rural Iowa than Dems and it is just difficult to get them to vote for Democrats. I think lot of the problems can be solved with our legislature developing and implementing the right legislation. All I can say Brain is hang in there. . Learn how do press releases for your local party and when a Democratic potential candidate comes to your county make sure the press is notified, With the internet it is now easier than it has ever been. I was a county chair in a west central Iowa county for about 8 years and I used to do my press releases before I went to bed and early in the AM on my work I would drop them by the local newspapers and radio station on my way to work. the media was jealous if one got it before another. I knew all the printing deadlines of the county newspapers and knew when to mail them to surrounding papers. Keep working on being county chair. It isn’t easy but will come naturally after a while. If you don’t know how to do a release to your local library or ask a local teacher or press person. I am sure they will help you. Clayton County isn’t that big and it should be fun to make sure every Democrat, No Party and interested Republicans should know about Democrats in Clayton Co…. the state party can learn much from your suggestions but there is only so much they can do. Much is up to your county party central committee and your work in leadership of the central committee.
    Read up on party organizing. Buy a lot of stamps, hold a lot of events be it fundraising or candidates coming to Elkader,, Guttenberg, Strawberry Point or surrounding towns. If you need info contact Troy at the state party and I am sure he will be able to help you or point you to the right direction. Don’t blame it all on the state party organization because a lot of it depends on your central committees work and your leadership. Troy has a big job to do and any help you can give him through your local county party will help.. Put a lot of work into it and it will pay of for Clayton Co, Best wishes!!.. …

  • Brian, there are many lists for you to use;;. If you can, go to your local Clayton County Auditor and get a list. He will charge you for it but that is what your central committee treasury is all about. You may find there are Democrats on the list you may not even thought were Democrats. When any presidential candidate contacts you you can say we can help you with names of activists etc. When the presidential caucus season gets heated, contact each candidates campaign office and let them know that they are welcome to come to Clayton Co. If necessary, get a list from the state party of prospective presidential candidates. Invite them to Clayton Co. our county is just as important as any other Iowa County. be persistent as it will pay off in the end.

  • The politicians do NOT care about rural Iowa because there are too many poor and less educated people living there. It is always easier to criticize policies than to find a solution.
    With Trump’s tariffs costing millions to the farm economy, the situation will only get worse. Maybe a few thousand farmers will realize that the GOP is not their friend and they can change the opinions of their family and friends. As usual, change occurs very slowly.

  • One aspect that may be overlooked by those at the local level is numbers of eligible party voters. In our rural counties the demographics have changed considerably over the past 10 years. We aren’t as blue in rural counties as we used to be. To put it bluntly, the “good democrats” have all but died off and all the young dems have moved away to our urban settings. Our education level of those left in rural areas is declining because of the “brain drain”. What does this leave? No Party voters who tend to vote republican, and dwindling democratic numbers. Let’s face it. Rural Iowa is predominantly middle-aged to older, white, and male. It isn’t a shock to how we went from a swing state to now comfortably situated in the Red column.

  • I would encourage everyone to read White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C Williams. She explains why so much of the professional elite’s analysis of the white working-class is misguided, rooted in class cluelessness. “Their dream is not to join the upper middle class, with its different culture, but to stay true to their own values in their own communities–just with more money.” It is important that we are committed to social and economic equality for ALL groups. I believe if we do that, we can win the hearts and minds of a much greater portion of Iowa.

  • My mom is from nearby Winneshiek Co… More specifically Castalia. The one thing that stood out to her is how when Obama ran, she got a postmarked absentee ballot request form pretty much right away each time. When Hillary ran, she got the absentee request form like a couple weeks after I told her to go to the SOS website to print one out. In this race, there was nothing and so she went to the SOS website again.

    My mom has been a loyal democrat for years. Maybe she is not the type to volunteer but, she also hates the idea of being the only blue in the sea of red too. I know that people say “Well if she hates it do something about it.” but, not everybody is cut out for politic-ing either. She works 2nd shift too. Mail is only the first step in making voters feel welcomed. Its about the ultimate GOTV mechanism that Obama used: timely absentee request forms.

    I honestly think that she might be more willing to do stuff if she didn’t feel ignored. Even in a town of 180 people, there may be a democrat or 2 that just needs an opportunity and a push.

  • Excellent analysis and insight. Rural Iowa is the backbone of America and not everything in the Hawkeye State revolves around Des Moines, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, and Dubuque. Rural Democrats are more traditional and don’t necessarily subscribe to the hard-left doctrine that has been taking over the party. A fair amount of those rural Iowa Democrats are NRA members and some – gasp are even Pro-Life.

  • Hubbell was a disaster. I called his HQ several times for a yard sign as I live in a swamp of Republicans (Radcliffe, Hardin County) but it never returned my call or left a yard sign. I am handicapped and do not drive so I could not go get it–I voted absentee for all Democrats–even for Hubbell but I felt abandoned. Only two local candidates came to visit me and ask for my vote. This is insulting to old (I am over 70) and the handicapped who do vote.

  • As a Precinct Cochair in Story County, I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. Even with more population centers and our proximity to Polk County, the whole Fourth Congressional District was starved for resources from the state party and the gubernatorial campaign, which should have provided strong leadership and would have won — except for our Congressional District. Rural Iowans, and rural citizens nationwide, present challenges to all politicians which the Democratic Party is best suited to address. The progressive insurgency emerging across the nation is really recapturing the progressive mojo of previous generations.

    The Obama campaign showed us all how it is done — make sure you contact all democrats and let them know they are being served by the party. That foundation then helps us push for progressive solutions to a whole host of grievances rural citizens rightly have. In many cases, we need to go back to the 1980s for legislation and regulatory changes Obama and Vilsak championed, but got watered down and then killed by the Trump Department of Agriculture as discussed in this article: https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january-february-march-2019/how-to-close-the-democrats-rural-gap/?fbclid=IwAR2NJODUlS_IOPscWqp7GTYYlRJl55tE5XqqFEpturoKvglMuBoSdEAAWAI.

    Keep the faith and let us all raise our voices to demand more discipline and organization from the state party. We can help our fellow citizens, of all political persuasions, more than any other political party. We need to understand that, and act upon it without delay.

    Great article!

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