Iowa’s U.S. Senate race may feature a match-up between Chuck Grassley and a Democrat less than half his age who wasn’t alive when the senator was first elected to office. Kim Reynolds will likely face off with someone with a fraction of years experience in public office as her.
For many Iowa Democrats, seeing new, younger faces (or new, middle-aged faces) jump into high-profile contests or leadership positions can be exciting and invigorating for a party eager to try things differently after several cycles of statewide losses. It’s also a bit of a necessity for Democrats here, who simply don’t have too many well-known, long-serving members waiting in the wings for a run for higher office.
After Jack Hatch’s run for governor in 2014, Bruce Braley’s bid for the Senate in 2014 and Patty Judge’s in 2016, we haven’t seen many longtime legislators or previous statewide elected officials mount major runs. The model now for a Democratic congressional or statewide candidate is someone who just arrived on the scene.
Cindy Axne went straight to Congress with no prior elected office experience. Abby Finkenauer was only in her second term in the Iowa House when she launched her congressional campaign. Theresa Greenfield and Fred Hubbell were new names for the vast majority of voters. The same for Rob Sand.
Over in the Statehouse, Democrats in both the Iowa House and Iowa Senate are now led by members who were first elected in 2018 — Zach Wahls in the Senate and Jennifer Konfrst in the House — a significant departure from the norms and traditions of the chambers. That’s a reflection of Democratic members eager for a new path and new ideas, but also a sign that more senior legislators had no interest in the big job (or lacked the clout to win it).
On the party organization side of things, Ross Wilburn was in the Iowa House just a little over a year before becoming the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
And as we look ahead to 2022, a similar theme is shaping up, with Finkenauer, retired Admiral Michael Franken, and former county supervisor Dave Muhlbauer seriously planning or already launching campaigns for the Senate. Sand, first elected in 2018, and Ras Smith, first elected in 2016, will probably compete with Deidre DeJear, who won a 2018 primary but not a general election yet.
Over in the 2nd Congressional District, a name making the rounds recently is Christina Bohannan, a freshman state representative from Iowa City who ousted a 20-year incumbent in last year’s primary.
The one exception here would be Liz Mathis, who is expected to run for the 1st Congressional District this year, though she’s been urged to seek higher office since the day she arrived in the Iowa Senate in 2011.
On the Republican side in Iowa, the old ways of Iowa politics largely remain, with longtime incumbents holding down top jobs and most new recruits coming from the Legislature or repeat candidacies. Ashley Hinson and Joni Ernst, though, had relatively shorter wind-up times to their federal careers.
For Iowa Democrats these days, as soon as you get noticed for being an impressive, ambitious self-starter, you’re good to go. Excitement builds online and among activists and donors, and organizations can quickly come to your aid. The barriers to a major candidacy by relative unknowns outside the insider world have been greatly reduced.
Many activists prefer this approach. A fresh face is a chance to reintroduce the Democratic Party’s priorities for Iowans in a different way, and it can be a strong contrast to longtime incumbents who have grown out of touch. New leaders often bring with them a willingness to try different things. They may also not come with baggage from contentious votes or long-ago state controversies.
There’s also some downsides. Having to build up statewide name recognition from scratch each time costs money, and it’s far easier for Republicans to frame a new candidate how they want as opposed to a Tom Harkin or Tom Vilsack. And while first-timers can bring a fresh approach to campaigning, sometimes the opposite happens — we’ve seen less-experienced candidates lean too heavily on consultants and national advisers who implement boring, outdated strategies where the candidate’s own personality doesn’t come through.
A lot of this new trend has simply come about out of necessity for Iowa Democrats. But there is one big lesson to take away from it for this 2022 cycle.
Redistricting, which will take place later this year, is always a time for reflection for longtime legislators who will see their district lines shuffle around. It’s a good opportunity for those contemplating retirement to celebrate their accomplishments and prepare to pass the baton on to a new generation.
And as we’re now seeing, that new generation could quickly become the leaders of the party or the Legislature within a few short years. Bob Dvorsky stepping aside when he could have continued on in the Iowa Senate opened the path for Wahls. Rob Hogg’s district has already attracted a spirited primary by two younger Democrats.
With perhaps the exception of legislators who are holding down difficult swing seats, everyone else who’s served in the Iowa House or Senate for over a decade would be wise to seriously consider what they will achieve with several more terms, especially if Democrats remain in the minority for a while. And for some, there are important policies they can still get passed in a bipartisan manner behind the scenes. For others, it may just be years more of frustration with a GOP majority.
But if few reliably Democratic seats come open in 2022, we may never to get to know an inspiring up-and-comer who could be a member of Congress in two or four years, or maybe a statewide nominee for a key office in the next cycle.
That too should factor into considerations as Democrats continue to figure out the future of their party in this increasingly red state.
by Pat Rynard