Guest column from Brittany Ruland, campaign manager for Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott.
2022 was a rough year for me to be a Democrat in Iowa.
Watching the results roll in felt like a collective gut punch, followed by the stinging realization that the best election for Democrats nationwide was still a year where we again lost ground in the middle of the country, even in places most of us were confident were winnable; it felt like salt on the wound.
Despite these losses, a silver lining emerged as returns continued to come in, with Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott taking down the most dangerous GOP legislator in Iowa, Jake Chapman. It hit me at that moment that even though we lost seats in the State House & Senate, this is the turning point for our party.
In a year in which projections from nearly all of the national pundits had us down by 2-5 percentage points, predicting a blow out win for the Iowa GOP as well as nationally, we performed in a way that many said wasn’t possible, and I’m here to say I believe we can do it again. We can rebuild, we can organize, and we can take a step back and reimagine how we can win statewide in Iowa by replicating the success we did have, so that we can grow our capacity for victory across the state.
Bringing people together with compassion, empathy, and love, like we did on Sen. Trone Garriott’s campaign, is something I can honestly say is the number one place we need to start in order to rebuild the party. I have seen firsthand how leadership with a people-powered plan is one that wins.
That means believing all Iowans are coming to the table with the best intentions. No person is our enemy – bad policies, poor decisions, and systemic failures are our enemy. We need to do a better job at listening as leaders. Especially with communities of color, refugees, people with disabilities, and other people who have been neglected and outright forgotten.
Positive change starts with bringing people together around a common goal of truly representing everyone. This is what Sen. Trone Garriott did in her campaign, this is what we need to be doing–not just during the election season–but all the time; this is how we win.
Politics are never easy to engage voters on even when they are supporters, but that no longer should set the precedent for voter outreach. Tough conversations are effective, Sen. Trone Garriott never shied away from them. In fact, she welcomed them. Choosing to meet Iowans where they are is a leadership quality that we must carry with us across the state.
Our leaders aren’t just representing those we get along with, they represent ALL voters in their districts and it’s far past time to start remembering and leading with that, no matter how uncomfortable. Through tough conversations comes empathy, trust, service, community and hope.
We do this by meeting people where they are, actively listening to their needs and asking “what can your leaders do to build your community back stronger?” Senator Trone Garriott embodies this approach. Not only does it resonate with voters as well as donors, but we should seek to emulate this statewide because it is the right thing to do.
Due to the presence of the Iowa Caucus, every four years we had the national spotlight and along with it, the presence of many large donors and organizations that would get us the resources we needed to fully fund a robust coordinated campaign that we have unfortunately now lost.
With many national organizations and committees writing off Iowa this election cycle, it was more important than ever for Sen. Trone Garriott to cultivate relationships and build sustainable coalitions of allied groups. Sen. Trone Garriott started to lay the groundwork to unite local groups and a new generation of donors around a positive vision for what Iowa’s future could be, without the over-reliance on national organizations we have relied on in the past.
While reflecting post-election, we see that the overwhelming majority of money raised came from within not only Iowa, but district 14 itself. This is a testament to our ability in creating a real small investment of campaign dollars that can overcome even the largest of GOP campaign dollars.
It is evident that the key to keeping Iowa Democrats financially competitive is by building a cohesive donor table of labor unions, Iowa power donors and issue organizations. This finance coalition program allows us to overcome the inevitable loss to our “political economy” now that we are no longer first in the presidential selection process.
Over the years, we as a party have shied away from organizing rural communities. Many believe that it’s not worth our efforts, and while we may not gain outright wins in rural counties, we cannot discount the votes we do pick up. Many of us know the story of Rita Hart’s (D) loss by only 6 votes in 2020. Josh Turek (D) won by 6 votes in 2022. More and more we are seeing key races across our state being decided, for better or for worse, by field margins (2pts or less).
Iowa has the ability to be powerful in its rural areas to swing these outcomes in our favor. The same is true for marginalized communities, the voters in these areas feel neglected, left behind and only sought after when they are needed to break tight races and then they’re forgotten once again. Unfortunately with that continuing neglect towards an already apprehensive block of voters will result in perpetuation of more outcomes that were winnable but lacked allocation of resources for tangible investment in every community. This strategy may have worked in the past, but lessons learned from Sen. Trone Garriott’s victory is that we must work for every single vote in every single town, county, city, community in order to win.
The people of Iowa will work hard for us if our party and our representatives work hard for them. We must rebuild bridges of trust with our rural and marginalized voters by investing in cultivating relationships with local leadership year round in all communities. Only then will we truly be able to see more outcomes like Senate District 14.
The path forward for the Iowa Democratic Party regaining our prominence/stature isn’t going to be easy, or happen overnight; but if we take this opportunity that the DNC has given us, with a renewed dedication to rebuilding the party from the ground up, the next generation of Iowa Democratic leadership will usher in a new era of victory for our struggling party.
I have hope, belief and a vision. I hope you will join me in rededicating ourselves to investing in Iowa. You, our party and all of our communities deserve it.
by Brittany Ruland
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