Who Can Win Back Iowa’s Blue-Collar Counties?

By Pat Rynard

March 28, 2019

Back during Elaine Baxter’s childhood, party loyalty was a simple matter.

“When I was growing up, it would be unthinkable if you worked in a factory and were a Republican,” Baxter explained to Starting Line last week. “The two didn’t go together.”

Now 86, Baxter, who served as Iowa’s Secretary of State from 1987 to 1995, has seen a sea change in her adopted hometown of Burlington, Iowa. Once a Democratic stronghold, the blue-collar Mississippi River town with a population of 25,000 became a key flip in Donald Trump’s 9-point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“People we know were losing their jobs, they were insecure, and this sounded good for them,” Baxter said of Trump’s message. “Trump will say anything to get elected, and he did.”

For all the talk of Republicans’ lopsided margins in rural, Western Iowa, it’s been the working-class voter defections – mostly in Eastern Iowa – that really doomed Democrats’ electoral hopes here lately. Running up the margins in Des Moines, Iowa City, Ames, and Cedar Rapids alone simply doesn’t cut it. Without decent vote margins in the mid-sized counties along the Mississippi River, a Democrat doesn’t win Iowa.

That’s how it used to work. By the time Baxter won her first election to the Iowa House in 1982, Burlington had long been deep-blue. The region served as a launching pad for a couple of well-known Democrats, including nearby Mt. Pleasant’s Tom Vilsack.

“Tom Vilsack wouldn’t have been governor without Southeast Iowa – we put him over the top,” Baxter noted. “This is a part of the state that was traditionally heavily Democratic. You grew up Democrat, you’d stay Democrat.”

Lately, the region has been an afterthought.

Presidential candidates didn’t start visiting Southeast Iowa in 2019 until the past two weeks (though several did in 2018). Beto O’Rourke hosted his very first campaign stop as a candidate in Keokuk, a Lee County town that’s as close to Missouri as you can get. A couple days later, Kirsten Gillibrand set out on a Mississippi River tour.

O’Rourke speaks at a union hall in Burlington

That Gillibrand swing came with perfect bookends to understand Democrats’ struggles in Iowa, starting in Dubuque and ending in Burlington. Both Dubuque County and Burlington’s Des Moines County (yes, there is both a city and a county named Des Moines, but in different parts of the state) were important anchors of the Democratic Party in Iowa for decades. Manufacturing centers with a large labor presence, the two counties started their Democratic voting trends long ago.

Dubuque County swung hard to the left for John Kennedy in 1960 and never looked back. The power of the Catholic Democrat vote here was immense. After voting 58% to 42% in favor of Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, it delivered a 63% to 37% vote for Kennedy in 1960, a full 42-point swing in favor of Democrats (for comparison’s sake, Trump’s 40-point swing in Northern Iowa’s Howard County was the largest in the entire country in 2016).

After narrowly going for Richard Nixon in 1960, Des Moines County went deep blue for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (as did much of the country), then stayed solidly in the Democratic column for all but one election in 1972.

In 1968, Dubuque and Des Moines counties were two of just seven Iowa counties to vote Democratic for president. In the 1980 race, they were two of only four blue counties in Iowa. When Al Gore carried Iowa by a few thousand votes in the 2000 election, Des Moines County was his second-best county in the state (58.6%) and Dubuque his fourth-best (55.4%). As the pro-life movement took hold in rural Dubuque County, it started to slip some for Democrats, but it was still Barack Obama’s 11th-best county in 2012.

Maps via Wikipedia

Then came the 2016 election.

“This county was deep-blue, always labor, lot of UAW. But something changed after I was in office a couple of terms, and this district started to slide the other way,” former State Senator Tom Courtney of Burlington told Starting Line.

Hillary Clinton carried only six Iowa counties in 2016.

Courtney was one of six Democratic state senators who fell in the Trump wave of 2016, and his loss was by far the most surprising. Democrats didn’t even target his race, feeling he was safe. A Republican candidate beat Courtney 53% to 47%. The first two times Courtney ran, he was unopposed. But there were some signs on the ground three years ago that things were different.

“I can’t tell you how many doors I’d go to – I’d walk up to a house, it’d be kind of run-down, you could tell they didn’t have money to paint. People would talk to me, say, ‘I might vote for you, Tom, but I’m not voting for that darn Hillary.’ Except they didn’t say ‘darn.’ They were really upset,” Courtney explained.

Democrats’ losses in blue-collar counties ended their chances at legislative majorities. The party held seven of the nine senate districts that border the Mississippi River as recently as 2016. Today, they control only three of them.

Similar trends were seen in Upstate New York, where Gillibrand first won election to Congress in 2006. While on her Iowa swing, she spoke about her own conversations with voters who had flipped to Trump in 2016.

“I listened really hard to the people of my state about what was happening in their lives, and why they felt left behind, why they chose to vote for Trump,” she said at a diner in Muscatine. “They chose to vote for him largely because he was a disrupter. Largely because he promised to blow up the system. They thought if you feel left behind and you feel you can’t make ends meet, can’t have part of the American Dream, then vote for Donald Trump because he’s the one who’s going to blow it up.”

Many Democrats in Eastern Iowa say the same of what they’ve heard from their friends and neighbors who left the party for Trump.

So, how to win them back? That’s the question that many of the 2020 Democrats will try to learn as they travel across Iowa during the next year.

There’s plenty of theories and options.

One that has already been proven to work is relatability. Abby Finkenauer of Dubuque, who ran ads about growing up in a union family, won back Northeast Iowa’s 1st Congressional District in 2018. Dave Loebsack has held down Southeast Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District even in red wave years thanks to his focus on his own working-class roots.

Loebsack often greatly over-performs Democrats’ top-of-ticket in Burlington, Ottumwa, and Muscatine.

“I think one thing locally that carried Abby was her dad was a big man in the union, and she stuck to that right from the get-go,” said John Healy, a retired UAW member and tool and die maker who lives in Dubuque. “There’s an awful lot of us old union people laying around. I don’t say the unions have to come back, but that kind of philosophy has gotta come around again.”

A Finkenauer TV ad from 2018

“I thought they looked at [Finkenauer] and saw her as someone who represents the rest of us here,” added Ken Cornell, a retired union member that used to work in the aerospace industry in Cedar Rapids.

Several presidential candidates have heavily emphasized their upbringings. Elizabeth Warren, known best for her consumer protection work, highlights her working-class family’s healthcare and minimum wage job struggles while living in Oklahoma. Sherrod Brown, with his gravely voice and rumpled look, may have been a good fit on that front, but he chose not to run. Joe Biden has his own base of support in Catholic Dubuque.

Another approach is addressing the actual economic realities that are making life so difficult for the Iowans in blue-county counties, those people that feel like they can never get ahead. Trump certainly succeeded in talking about trade and bad job prospects, though in a much different way.

“Trump’s willing to lie, that’s what they want to hear,” thought Lizz Tyler of Dubuque. “They want to hear that they can keep their jobs. They don’t want to hear the truth.”

Whatever those policies end up being, former Senator Courtney just wants Democrats to actually talk about those economic and job issues again.

“I think Democrats forgot how to talk to people. Trump was out telling everybody, ‘I know you don’t have a lot of money, I know your job sucks or you lost your job, and I want to help change that,’” Courtney said. “They started buying in. Democrats weren’t saying that. We were saying, ‘We’re for gay marriage, we’re for abortion rights, we’re for gun control.’ Voters were saying, ‘I don’t care about that stuff. It’s okay. I don’t care one way or the other. It’s not important. I want a frickin’ job.’”

Several candidates, like John Delaney and Andrew Yang, have honed in specifically on the changing economic trends that hit places like Dubuque and Burlington hard and how the country can use technology to workers’ advantage.

There’s also that hard-to-define inspirational approach, convincing voters that your election alone will bring with it sweeping change to D.C. The message of hope and change worked well for Barack Obama in Eastern Iowa during his two elections. Beto O’Rourke seemed to be shooting for the inspiration and energy lane during his packed, frenzied events in Southeast Iowa. One of the first big signs that Bernie Sanders’ outsider appeal was catching fire in Iowa was at a big rally in Burlington in 2015.

A union member listens to Sanders in August 2015 with a crowd of 500 in Burlington

But candidates like Kamala Harris and Gillibrand should also be watched on that front. Passion can fit that bill just as well, and Gillibrand’s speeches at mid-sized events in Iowa were certainly full of that. The “change” candidates also need a healthy dose of railing against the system, and many of the Democrats are doing that, including Gillibrand.

“Washington is corrupted,” she said at a bar in Davenport. “It is corrupted by the special interests, it is corrupted by the money in politics, it is corrupted by those who are so powerful they get to decide everything, every time.”

Gillibrand’s pitch got good reviews.

“She nailed it the best of anybody yet,” said Healy after watching her at a Dubuque coffee shop.

“I think her communication will get her there – it’s understandable and very direct,” agreed Carol Ward, a retired teacher in Muscatine. “The morals and ethics of Trump need to be attacked, and she attacked him.”

Many Iowa caucus-goers will also be looking at track records, especially when it comes to winning red-leaning areas like their own. While the online debates around the candidates often center on ideology and policy issues, not everyone is focused on those finer points.

“I don’t really care as much about specific policies at this point because my bigger concern is whether we have a candidate who can beat Trump,” said Sally Fager of Mt. Pleasant, who drove over to Gillibrand’s Burlington event. “Any of the Democrats who are in the race, I could put up with any of their policies as long as we could get into the White House.”

Pete Buttigieg didn’t win statewide in Indiana, but he points to his understanding of Midwestern voters from his South Bend victories. John Hickenlooper touts his success in a purple state. Amy Klobuchar talks about her record vote totals in her Senate races, and the many rural counties she carried in neighboring Minnesota.

And Gillibrand, perhaps the most of the 2020 crowd, hammers home her past congressional wins on Republican turf.

“[My district] hadn’t been Democrat since Nixon, and then only for two terms. It was a district that was rural, has manufacturing, has agriculture – a lot like a lot of places in Iowa,” Gillibrand said in Muscatine, noting her pollster warned her the district had more cows than Democrats. “When you can win a red district by 24 points, you can win anywhere.”

That resonated with some.

“I like the fact that Kirsten comes from a 2-to-1 [Republican] district in Upstate New York, and she was able to a) win it, and b) she seems to be able to speak to the ones in the middle, the independents and the moderates in the Democrat camp,” Fager said.

Whatever strategy each Democratic candidates find works best for them, there is real opportunity along Iowa’s Mississippi River counties.

Fred Hubbell, Democrats’ candidate for governor in 2018, won back both Dubuque and Des Moines counties. The problem in his 3-point loss to Kim Reynolds was that he didn’t win them back by enough. The real advantage of Eastern Iowa’s mid-sized counties is that they used to produce some real vote margins for Democrats that added up.

Hubbell only carried Dubuque by 576 votes. Chet Culver stacked up a 7,431-vote margin in his winning 2006 gubernatorial bid.

Interestingly, though, Des Moines County was one that bounced back the strongest for Democrats in 2018. Hubbell carried it 53% to 45%, two years after Clinton lost it 43% to 50%.

It’s not entirely clear the reasons for that, but an all-Republican Statehouse did embark on a major anti-union effort after taking control in 2017, and they passed the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Both Dubuque and Des Moines counties have strong union membership, but Dubuque is the one with the very active pro-life community, especially among those Catholic voters that used to vote Democrat. Rural Dubuque County stayed deep-red.

As the 2020 election plays out, it’s unclear how much the eventual nominee will target Iowa. Some believe this state and Ohio may be too far gone in the Trump era (even though Iowa has three of its four congressional seats represented by Democrats).

But one thing is very clear: if the Democratic presidential hopefuls can’t figure out a way to win back places like Iowa’s Dubuque and Burlington, it’s a good bet they’re not winning back similar blue-collar towns in places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Michigan. And those are states Democrats must win in order to have a shot of retaking the White House.

Every candidate has plenty of time to test out their messages and appeals in places up and down the Mississippi River, from Allamakee to Lee County. Doing so won’t just boost their chances of winning the Iowa Caucus; it’ll give them the roadmap to retake the Midwest.


by Pat Rynard
Dubuque photo via Wikipedia/Benjamin Haines
Posted 3/28/19

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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