How Are Iowa Democrats? ‘I Can’t Even Describe to You How Bad It Is.’

by Pelican Press
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Not long ago, Iowa was the center of the Democratic political universe.

In 2019, two dozen presidential candidates roamed the Iowa State Fair to grill pork chops and admire the famed butter cow as they vied for the state’s caucusgoers. Some Democrats still saw the state’s rightward jolt in 2016 as temporary, believing that their flipping of two congressional seats in 2018 had reaffirmed Iowa’s purple status. Days before the 2020 general election, Joseph R. Biden Jr. campaigned in Des Moines.

Now, as Republican presidential candidates flock to the fair, Iowa Democrats are at their lowest point in decades.

“It is so bad,” said Claire Celsi, a Democratic state senator from West Des Moines. “I can’t even describe to you how bad it is.”

Ms. Celsi and others described themselves as exhausted by repeated defeats at the ballot box, an inability to slow Republicans at the State Capitol and the loss to South Carolina of the first-in-the-nation status in Democratic presidential contests. Deep in the minority, Democrats in the State Legislature have squabbled among themselves, ousting their party’s State Senate leader in June after a dispute over personnel.

In interviews this week, Iowa Democrats said the state now stood as a warning sign for what happens when their party falls out of touch with voters who once made up key parts of its electoral coalition.

“There’s no question that Democrats are at a low point in Iowa,” said former Representative Dave Loebsack, whose eastern Iowa seat, which he had held for 14 years, flipped to a Republican when he chose not to seek re-election in 2020. “It’s difficult even to recruit people to run when we’re so far down.”

Iowa’s transition to a deep-red state has taken place with remarkable speed. Democrats controlled the State Senate as recently as 2016. In 2018, Democrats won three of the state’s four congressional seats and three of the six statewide offices. But after the party’s bungling of its 2020 presidential caucuses, President Donald J. Trump cruised to victory in Iowa that November.

The midterm elections last year were a Democratic blood bath in Iowa, even though the party had over-performed in much of the rest of the country.

The underfunded, little-known Democratic nominee for governor lost by 19 percentage points to Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, and carried only four of the state’s 99 counties. Republicans took all four congressional seats for the first time in 50 years, enacted a gun rights amendment in the State Constitution, ousted two of the three Democrats in statewide office and took supermajority control of both chambers of the Legislature.

The three congressional seats Democrats held as recently as 2020 are still winnable, Democrats say, but the party doesn’t have 2024 candidates for any of them so far.

“We should have candidates out there thinking, ‘If I get a few breaks, I can win,’” said Pete D’Alessandro, a senior aide to Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns in Iowa. “That we don’t is a direct reflection of having an incompetent party for the last couple of years.”

Democrats, including Mr. D’Alessandro, express optimism about the party’s new chairwoman, Rita Hart, who has sought to empower county-level leaders. Ms. Hart, who in 2020 lost the congressional race for Mr. Loebsack’s seat by six votes, said Iowa Democrats would have to fight for a focus on local issues.

Ms. Hart took over the party in January, after a period in which Iowa Democrats had four leaders in less than two years. She has sought to instill some continuity while reorienting the party’s priorities away from the presidential cycle and toward local needs.

“The way the media has changed, the way people have gotten their information, we have not shifted to understanding that we’ve got to talk to our fellow Iowans,” she said. “I’m very convinced that we’ve got to empower our county parties to do just that.”

The struggles of Iowa Democrats reflect the broader migration of white, rural voters to Republicans, a long-term trend that has accelerated during Mr. Trump’s political career. Iowa has just two big cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, and two college towns that state Democrats can still count on winning.

Interviews with two dozen Democrats in the state suggest that the party has suffered from a confluence of problems, including diminished campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic; Mr. Trump’s appeal to the white, rural voters who dominate state politics; and weak messaging in the 2022 elections.

Democrats have faced numerous setbacks this year, including Republicans’ passage of a six-week abortion ban — which has been temporarily halted by a court order — and a new program that allocates state money toward private school vouchers.

“It’s just been so exhausting and frustrating to continue to take losses,” said Sarah Trone Garriott, a Democratic state senator who was the party’s rare bright spot last year when she flipped a suburban Des Moines district to beat the Republican president of the chamber.

She added, “If I had known everything that I was getting into, I don’t think I would have run in the first place, because it’s just been really hard, but I see so much opportunity in Iowa.”

Losing the first presidential contest after the state party had suffered international ridicule for the 2020 caucuses fiasco forced what several Democrats described as a long-overdue reckoning. No longer can the party rely on a periodic influx of fund-raising and attention. Internal discussions now center on how to act more like successful red-state Democrats elsewhere, nominating moderate candidates who can attract independent voters who have been tilting more conservative with each election.

“I’m hopeful that now our attention is on getting people elected and getting Democrats to turn out the vote rather than a national entity that overtakes everything,” said J.D. Scholten, a state representative from Sioux City who in 2018 nearly defeated Representative Steve King, a hard-right Republican with a history of racist remarks.

Mr. Scholten, who spent years playing professional baseball in several countries, will not attend the State Fair because he’s pitching for a team in the Netherlands this summer. Ms. Celsi said she wouldn’t go because it is “Kim Reynolds’s show.” And Mr. Loebsack said he was staying home because the country music acts at the fair’s amphitheater did not appeal to him and his wife.

It’s clear that Iowa Democrats have a long way to go.

Republicans, with a hammerlock on the state’s politics, dominate fund-raising and media attention — and that was before the G.O.P. presidential candidates made themselves regulars at local fund-raisers and other political events.

That has left Democrats doing a lot of finger-pointing and soul-searching about what has gone wrong, whether they have hit rock bottom yet and how to maneuver their way back to political relevance.

“The Iowa Democratic Party didn’t prepare for the transition to understanding and using social media,” said Jack Hatch, a longtime state legislator who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. “Some individual campaigns understood, but not the party. As a result, we had one message for all campaigns, which weakened all our campaigns. One message doesn’t work in Iowa.”

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