The night at Progress Iowa’s fifth annual holiday party in Des Moines earlier this week opened with camaraderie among Democratic Party supporters, candidates, and legislators. The nonprofit grassroots organization has only been around for five years, but has garnered much attention from legislators and organizers from across the state, and was able to feature New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as the night’s featured guest and speaker.
The celebratory holiday atmosphere shifted when Iowa House Democratic Leader Mark Smith said that while December is a time for holidays, it’s also a time of reflection, and asked that supporters, candidates, and legislators take time to recognize what’s happened to them, the state, and their communities.
2017 saw the controversial passage of GOP amendments to Iowa’s collective bargaining rules for state employees, which eliminated all aspects that unions could negotiate on except pay, in most cases. The session also produced cuts to the state’s public universities and research centers, as well as cuts to Planned Parenthood. Smith also reminded the room of the loss the party took when Donald Trump won the state of Iowa’s–and eventually the entire country’s–vote to become the 45th President of the United States.
“You could see in this last year what [the Republicans] are capable of doing, and what they have done,” Smith said. “The President has said he wants to Make America Great Again. I just want to make Iowa, Iowa again.”
But the story of the anticipated rise of the Democratic Party in Iowa is more complex than a reflection of the prior two years, and goes beyond just presidential elections. It goes back to the party’s history when it comes to not only winning elections, but of governing after those elections. It’s a history of victories, losses, and defeats that could be considered demoralizing to supporters. But it’s also an open book as to how the party and its organizers will choose to respond to those victories, losses, and defeats that will dictate its future.
Since 1992, Democrats in Iowa have only controlled both the legislature and governor’s office four times, consecutively from 2007 to 2010. Similarly, Republicans have also covered the trifecta three times in that span as well — consecutively in 1997 and 1998, and 2017.
When just looking at the Iowa legislature, Democrats have only controlled both houses four times to the Republicans’ nine times over the years of 1992-2017. In the years of 1999 to 2006, while the state had a democratic governor, the party couldn’t pick up either branch of the legislature.
In the 2016 Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton lost the election in Iowa to Donald Trump by a margin of 51.2 percent to 41.7 percent. Back in 2012, Barack Obama won by a margin of 50.2 percent to Mitt Romney’s 46.2 percent — a sequel to 2008’s electoral victory by a margin of 53.9 percent to John McCain’s 44.4 percent.
Not only was the 2016 presidential election a complete turnaround from the two prior, it was the first election that a Democratic candidate for president received less than 45 percent of the vote since the loss of Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan in 1980, at a margin of 38.6 percent to 51.31, respectively.
After hearing the night’s introductions from legislators about the pitfalls and hopes of what’s to come for the party in the state, de Blasio took the podium, sharing in the frustrations of Iowa Democrats for their state, as well as their country.
“During my 20 years in New York there were times where we felt the same frustration that I’ve heard talked about just a short time ago,” de Blasio said. “I can’t tell you we always thought that change was right around the corner. I can’t tell you we always thought it would be easy. But I knew change was coming.”
During de Blasio’s 40 minute speech, he talked about his accomplishments of becoming the only Democrat to win consecutive mayoral elections in the city since 1988, as well as providing universal Pre-k to every child in the city, and his intent to provide childcare to every child in the city, at the age of three. He also talked of his accomplishments of ending the city’s previous “stop-and-frisk” policy, as well as approving a $15 per hour minimum wage, all of which happened in less than four years, he said.
“But I knew change was coming,” de Blasio said. “I knew we had to give people a reason to believe and we had to reach people in their neighborhoods. We had to show them what was possible. Like what you face, we had a long road in my city, but here’s the realit,y and I think this year is showing us so sharply so plainly it’s a simple concept. Change can happen anywhere.”
Life After 2016
While de Blasio was consoling and sympathetic in his remarks, he also was critical of his party and its members for the mistakes and assumptions made that cost the party the White House in 2016.
“Too many people decided that you could only run a campaign if you have a lot of money,” de Blasio said. “And if you needed the money you had to favor the donors, and if you have to homogenize your message and takeaway the rough edges and not do anything that might offend certain people, guess what we end up doing as a party? We were decimated.
“Our meaning was lost. Sure our donors gave money, and sure the party came up with something that maybe seemed like kind of like a message, and we lost. We were so desirous of the money that we gave the people a message that we could not win with.”
Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidates in attendance reiterated the mayor’s comments about the shortcomings of the national party and how to fix the mistakes in 2018 for the sake of Iowa. A total of seven candidates are vying for Democratic nomination for the gubernatorial election next year.
“I think you have to have a vision about how you do those things better,” said gubernatorial candidate Andy McGuire. “We can’t just be against things. I mean it’s very obvious, a lot of things are falling apart. But what we have to have is somebody who not only knows they’re falling apart, but knows how fix them.”
McGuire was the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party from 2015 through 2016, and is a medical professional and former executive at Wellmark and the American Enterprise Group insurance companies, and the Meridian Health Plan, a Medicaid managed care organization.
Gubernatorial candidate John Norris said that by having figures come to discuss national issues like de Blasio had, they are simply party building events, and that the focus needs to remain on Iowa.
“What are we building for a future versus what are we handing out to special interests?” Norris asked. “That’s the difference here. [Republicans are] about rewarding their donors and special interests and I think what hopefully people become aware is who’s looking out for our future? Who’s building a future for us? And that’s really what we’re focused on is how do we rebuild education, how do we address our mental health needs, and clean up our environment.”
Norris was a former aid to U.S. Iowa Representative Tom Harkin in the 1980s, ran Jesse Jackson’s campaign in Iowa in 1988, as well as was the chief of staff for Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and for Vilsack when he was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He has since been a partner of State Public Policy Group in Iowa.
For Senate Democratic Leader Janet Peterson, the way forward for Democrats is to go back to the fundamentals.
“We need to get back to basics and focus on things that help people in their daily lives,” Petersen said. “Like make sure that we are funding our public education system so kids can get decent education no matter where they live. We need to focus on jobs and helping people get to the next level in jobs so they can bring in more income to their families.”
A unifying message among all patrons in attendance for de Blasio’s speech was that the party cannot just be against the current status quo. The mayor cited two Des Moines Register polls in which 60 percent of Iowans said that they do not approve of the Trump administration, as well as 49 percent of Iowans wanting a new governor beyond Republican Kim Reynolds in 2018. De Blasio said that the “door is open,” and that those who want something different are willing to listen.
“We have a clearly defined moment, but we have to meet the moment,” de Blasio said. “We have to go to people. Leave no stone unturned and no seat uncontested, go to the people.”
State of the Iowa Democratic Party
While de Blasio’s speech incited excitement, hope, and pause for reflection, as he said, the party cannot simply wait for change, it must show voters that change can happen.
Kevin Geiken, executive director for the Iowa Democratic Party, expressed in a separate interview that he feels very good about the state of the party at the end of 2017. He has seen attendance at central committee meetings spike higher than typical meetings over the last two years, and feels that there is definitely a momentum swing occurring in the party, citing this year’s special election results.
This past August, in the special election for the 82nd Iowa House of Representatives District, Democratic candidate Phil Miller beat Republican Travis Harris by a margin of 54/44. Donald Trump carried the same district by a margin of 58/37 in 2016. Earlier this month, Iowa Senate Democratic candidate Todd Wendt went up against Republican Jon Carlin, losing only by a margin of 55/45. According to registered voter information, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district, 2-1.
“Any one of those two things would give me reason to be optimistic about where we are,” Geiken said. “The fact that we’re seeing these two things simultaneously makes me feel very hopeful and feeling very good about where we are as a party.”
Geiken shared in some of the party sentiment that activists, organizers, and the party itself could have done more in the last election, and had taken some things for granted, but that those mistakes cannot be made again if Democrats are to make progress in Iowa.
“I think we saw in campaigns past we built big coordinating campaigns and big presidential campaigns and what I think we kind of lost track of is the intentional growth of our campaigns,” Geiken said. “We put such a premium on knocking on so many doors, making so many phone calls, and while that’s very important and we will always bring our organizing tactics to every district and precinct in Iowa, what we lost sight of was that the goal wasn’t to just knock on a bunch of doors and make phone calls. The goal is to build a relationship with the voters and the people of Iowa.”
Geiken said that the Iowa Democratic Party had a period of self reflection at the turn of 2017, coordinating with all 99 county organizations in constructing individual two-year organizing plans. These plans are now serving as guidance to each county organization in how to make their activism “deliberate” and “intentional.”
As to whether or not there’s truth in pundit criticisms that the Democratic Party as a whole and in Iowa is “fractured” between ideologies and the direction of the party, Geiken said he isn’t going to accept those arguments. Geiken said that the Democratic Party is always about finding the new way to go and always improving on what can be done better. At the end of the nomination process, Geiken said that voters will vote for the nominee, “hopefully” not because they have to, but because the party’s proven how the candidate stands for the issues.
“It’s the chic topic still,” Geiken said,”and I imagine among Republicans, to be talking about the Bernie v. Clinton divide because they need the Democrats to be fractured. The fact is it just isn’t.”
The View From the Ground
The Iowa Democratic Party isn’t the only organization trying to focus and build the party. Iowa has several progressive organizations that target labor rights, healthcare, and environmentalism, including Progress Iowa. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), is one of those organizations across the state with 4,500 members who actively participate in program and organizing efforts.
“I mean the number one thing that I hear in my work is people are unhappy with politics as they’re currently done,” said Senior Organizer and head of the organization’s movement politics program Evan Burger. “They’re unhappy with the outcomes, the campaigns, and which candidates they have to choose between. Some are turned off entirely.”
Burger said that some hear his title for the “movement politics program” and call it a buzzword. For Burger and CCI, it’s a direct contrast to “business as usual politics.” The focus is less on raising money from donors for advertising and campaigns and more about coalescing around the issues impacting Iowans, and pushing those issues to the forefront of policy agendas. Burger said that Iowans see candidates that are vocal about issues that Iowans support, but then do nothing about them when they get into office.
“There’s a long history of Democratic politicians running on local control of factory farms,” Burger said. “Democratic politicians from Tom Vilsack to Chet Culver would run on local control to get votes. Then obviously we don’t have that here in Iowa, even after Democrats had the trifecta about 10 years ago.”
Burger also criticized Hillary Clinton’s campaign on her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), stating that her position against it “was pretty obvious that it was kind of a campaign statement rather than a governing statement.”
Earlier this year, Iowa CCI released its endorsement for the Democratic governor nomination in Cathy Glasson, nurse and president of the SEIU Local 199 union, representing health care workers at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Glasson has come out in favor of a $15 per hour minimum wage, clean water, fully-funded public education, and expanded union rights.
Burger said that when it comes to endorsements, CCI takes them very seriously, and that the organization’s philosophy is that the candidate is someone who helps push the issues forward. Any given candidate is part of the larger movement. The entire organization votes on who to endorse.
“When people say ‘we just have to elect more Democrats,’ we’ve seen first hand that doesn’t work,” Burger said. “When Democrats had the trifecta they chose not to do anything. That’s a drastic contrast to Republicans. Republicans are not afraid to govern; they had an agenda and implemented it. We’re trying to build something outside the party structure.”
As to what happens if their endorsee doesn’t become the Democratic nominee, Burger said that the organization will deliberate on the proper candidate to endorse, but that the organization remains true to its mission in advancing issues, not people, into office.
A Defined Moment
According to a Des Moines Register analysis back in November, the crowded field for Democrats has begun to separate, revealing first term state senator and Des Moines labor attorney Nate Boulton, and former CEO of the Equitable Life Insurance Company and well-known philanthropist and Democratic donor Fred Hubbell, as the front runners for the nomination. Following close behind is Glasson.
Boulton has the support of many unions in Iowa as well as legal networks, and is running on reversing the results of 2017’s legislative sessions. Hubbell is considered by some to be the centrist candidate who brings progressive ideas. Both candidates have centered their campaigns on economic and social-service challenges, while Glasson is viewed by many to come from the left wing of the party in Iowa. She advocates for universal healthcare in the state, expanding unions in the state, and fighting for clean water and other environmental concerns.
Some organizers and party affiliates have said that it’s too early to clearly pick a frontrunner in the Democratic race, considering the broad range of candidates. Outside of Boulton, Hubbell, Glasson, Norris, and McGuire, the field also holds John Neiderbach (former Iowa legislative analyst and Department of Human Services employee), and Ross Wilburn (former mayor of Iowa City and diversity officer and the associate program director for Community and Economic Development for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach).
But in a time when the party’s base is taking stock of its resources, stepping up to contest seats, and hitting the road to organize, unifying behind a particular candidate in such a diverse field can be challenging. But what legislators, politicians and organizers are sure of is offering something for Iowans besides being against the status quo.
“We don’t win elections by talking about how terrible Donald Trump is,” Geiken said. “And you need to look no further than 2016 to prove that to be true. We can’t win alone by reminding Iowans about how poorly Kim Reynolds has managed our state. While that is absolutely true, she has completely mismanaged the state of Iowa, we have to remind voters that and have to tell them what we as Democrats stand for.”
The Democratic primary for governor will be held in June 2018, with the election for governor to follow five months afterwards. While not much can be done to stop the current Republican majorities in Iowa’s current political landscape, de Blasio encouraged activists and organizers to be upfront about the issues and forgiving of mistakes.
“I don’t want us hung up on who people voted for last time,” de Blasio said. “All I care about is who they’re voting for this time, but we’ve got to show them something real.”