State Rep. Ross Wilburn is settling in to his second week as the new chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, starting the work of assembling a new staff for a state party that’s looking to rebound from another poor election cycle. Wilburn’s election, along with making history as the first Black leader of a major Iowa political party, offers the opportunity to bring some real stability to the beleaguered — some might say cursed — office of the chair of the state party.
If the IDP is still putting framed photos of their past chairs on the conference room wall at the Fleur headquarters, they’ll need to open up an extra wing of the building soon. The chair’s office for Iowa Democrats has been a constantly revolving door of new faces during the past decade, a real problem that hopefully ends with Wilburn’s election.
I personally have seen five different chairs in the six years of running this news outlet.
My very first event I attended as a reporter, two days before we launched Starting Line in January of 2015, was the IDP meeting where Dr. Andy McGuire was elected to run the party. She served one term before making a run for governor, with Derek Eadon winning the contest for the gig in 2017. Health problems led to Eadon’s departure, and Troy Price took over the role in mid-2017.
Price was the first in several cycles to seek and secure another term, but he ended up resigning following the fallout of the Iowa Caucus reporting mess. State Rep. Mark Smith served as a sort of a bridge role as chair through the 2020 election, which was another shellacking for Iowa Democrats.
And if you go back before this time period, former state Rep. Tyler Olson only served part of a term in 2013 before leaving to run for governor, with Scott Brennan taking over through 2014. Olson was preceded by Sue Dvorsky, who held the role for parts of two cycles, stepping in after Michael Kiernan left the job early in 2010 for health concerns.
We could keep going, but the point is that there’s been nine different elected chairs for the Iowa Democratic Party since 2010. Four left midway through a term, and only two — Dvorsky and Price — oversaw election nights that could be considered a good year for the party here (2012 and 2018).
Adding to the problems for Democrats is that most new chairs have meant a reshuffled headquarters staff, with new teams coming in with different relationships and new project ideas. Fresh approaches are typically a positive, but the work of serious party building — not just planning for the upcoming election — requires real longterm planning and execution. There have been very few IDP initiatives that lasted multiple cycles run by the same staffers. And it can take months for each new team to get up to speed and plot out their agenda.
It’s not just at the IDP that it sometimes feels like Democrats are reinventing the wheel every cycle, but the state party is where this matters most. So much of each cycle’s attention and funding ends up with Democrats’ top-of-ticket statewide nominee, who is solely focused on winning that year’s election. The state party is one of the few entities that can really lead the much-needed, multi-cycle infrastructure efforts.
It isn’t exactly a coincidence that during this period of upheaval for Iowa Democrats, their Republican counterparts have seen stable leadership. Jeff Kaufmann was reelected last month to his fourth term as the chair of the Iowa GOP, and has played a big part in transitioning Iowa Republicans into one of the most pro-Trump parties in the country (nothing to be morally celebrated, but it brought them wins).
Obviously, this isn’t to say that Wilburn and his eventual staff should have a long tenure no matter what. If their party-building initiatives are poorly managed or see little progress, a change might be needed in future years. Indeed, there are many places throughout Iowa’s Democratic/allied organization infrastructure where legacy staffers have held down jobs for nearly two decades despite their failures and refusal to change.
But what I hope doesn’t happen is that if the 2022 elections don’t result in a sweeping Democratic victory in Iowa, Wilburn and his crew get tossed out regardless of how their internal efforts fared.
Winning the governor’s race in 2022 is certainly crucial, as is recapturing some of the federal seats. But Democrats here should also be realistic about the road ahead.
It could be the better part of this decade before the party has a real shot at holding full control of state government or is consistently competitive in all statewide races. Depending on how redistricting goes, the path to a majority in either legislative chamber could be a three to four-cycle effort.
Many Democrats point to Georgia and the incredible grassroots planning and work that Stacey Abrams did there to turn the formerly red state blue. Iowa activists are hoping to recreate that success here. Still, it should be noted that it helped that the more diverse demographics of that state were moving in Democrats’ direction. Iowa’s politics are moving in the opposite direction, and it may take longer to replicate a similarly successful effort here.
But overall, what the party needs now is consistent progress, not constant reboots. Even if Democrats don’t flip a key rural legislative district, did they improve on past margins? Is there a larger volunteer and donor base in the district now than two years ago? Were many different messages tested and does the party have a clearer sense of what works for next time? Do we have better data now that actually gets used in the next cycle?
Most importantly, that can provide hope for those of us who are in this state for the long haul. It’s one things to keep losing elections, it’s another to feel like no one is planning better for the future or making zero progress cycle to cycle.
Many Iowa activists worry their state is headed toward being the next Kansas. If the 2020s turn out for Democrats the same way the 2010s did, it’ll be hard to argue with that assessment.
Here’s hoping Wilburn has a long and successful run as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
by Pat Rynard
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