DES MOINES, Iowa — In less than a decade, Iowa Democrats have withered, from in-charge to almost irrelevant.
After sending progressive Tom Harkin to the Senate for 30 years and twice delivering the state for Barack Obama, Democrats are powerless in the House, Senate and statehouse, and remain stunned by President Donald Trump’s solid Iowa victory last year.
While it’s a familiar scenario across the upper Midwest, the pressure on Iowa Democrats to recoup the working-class voters who marched with Trump is more intense: They’re charged with setting the tone in a little more than two years for the party’s presidential nomination.
“There’s a prescription for getting them back,” former Iowa Democratic Party executive director Norm Sterzenbach said of rural and working-class white voters. “We just need someone who can talk to them.”
Three rising House Democrats — Illinois’ Cheri Bustos, Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Ohio’s Tim Ryan — travel to Des Moines on Saturday for a Democratic fundraiser, capping a summer of early activity in the presidential proving ground by more than 10 would-be White House prospects.
But a return to the strength Democrats had a decade ago will take soul-searching, including conceding they’ve fallen short in planning for the future, Harkin said.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of recruiting and running Democrats for county offices,” Harkin said in an interview. “It’s not irreversible. But we’ve got to get back to these local races. That’s where the farm team is built up.”
Just as Iowa Democrats are starting from scratch, the little-known Democrats surveying Iowa are a sign the national party too is starting at square one in its search for its next standard-bearer after consecutive, star-studded presidential campaigns.
It wasn’t long ago Iowa Democrats were sitting at a 40-year high.
On the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats controlled both state legislative chambers and had occupied the governor’s office for 12 years. The party held three of five House seats, while Harkin was Obama’s right hand in the push for the health care law.
But economic blowback from a national financial collapse, a poorly handled state budget crisis and the widespread revolt by grassroots conservatives against the Affordable Care Act created an angry backlash in 2010 against Democrats, especially in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
Former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad was swept back into office, as evangelical conservatives mounted a successful drive to oust state supreme court justices who voted to allow same-sex marriage. Four years later, Harkin retired and voters handed his seat to little-known, rural Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst, snubbing four-term Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in one of the year’s biggest upsets.
Iowa was also undergoing a rapid, politically consequential demographic shift. Iowa ranks in the top 10 of states with the highest population of whites and in the top 15 of those 65 years and older. According to U.S. Census data, both groups — two pillars of Trump’s win statewide and nationally — increased simultaneously after 2010 and became a bigger percentage of Iowa’s electorate.
Over the same period, Republicans added roughly 37,000 registered voters, a 9 percent increase, and now represent 33 percent of Iowa’s roughly 3 million voters. Registered Democrats are at a 10-year low as their numbers fell by more than 55,000, or 6 percent, and represent barely 30 percent of Iowa voters.
“We’ve lost touch with certain voters,” state party chairman Troy Price said. “We talk about issues, but not the values behind the issues. We haven’t done the best job communicating with the people we fight so hard for. It’s why we are where we are.”
Especially stark has been the decline of rural Democrats. Last month, small-town state Rep. Todd Pritchard, an Iraq War veteran and former county prosecutor, left the crowded Democratic field for governor, dominated by Des Moines Democrats. The last rural Democrat to hold statewide office was Gov. Tom Vilsack, elected in 1998.
“That’s been kind of a sea change,” said Doug Gross, a moderate Des Moines Republican and former nominee for governor. “It’s difficult to go into the rural areas of Iowa and find anyone who will admit to being a Democrat.”
Animosity also lingers between some Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders backers, after their clash during the 2016 presidential caucus. It reflects unhealed wounds from 2008, when Obama upset Clinton in Iowa en route to the nomination.
But time in the wilderness is soothing those wounds and sparking activity among people who have previously shunned politics, said state Rep. Kirsten Running Marquardt.
The GOP-controlled legislature pushed through a long list of legislation this year, notably the dismantling of much of the state’s 40-year-old public employee union protections, similar to laws enacted in Wisconsin in 2011.
That stirs the Democratic base, along with the rightward lurch in the statehouse and dissatisfaction with Trump.
The Democratic primary for governor has attracted eight candidates from across the party’s political spectrum. Seven candidates are seeking the party nomination to challenge Republican Rep. David Young, a second-term congressman from a competitive Des Moines-area seat, who voted for the House bill to dismantle Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Crowded primaries could energize Democrats while glimmers of hope have emerged at the local level.
Democratic school board candidates, with labor backing, won elections across the state two weeks ago.
“Those are the things motivating people now that have never been active before,” Marquardt said. “That’s sort of the bright spot.”