Kiernan can't do it alone

Congratulations to Des Moines City Council member Michael Kiernan, who was elected to chair the Iowa Democratic Party on Saturday, along with First Vice-Chair Sue Dvorsky, Second Vice-Chair Chris Peterson, Treasurer Ken Sagar and Secretary Dori Rammelsberg-Dvorak.

I was pleased to read Kiernan’s remarks from his first press conference:

“We have over 100,000 new registered voters in this state who are Democrats, hundreds of new activists. I think our key is to keep these folks in the party, to bring them home permanently. I think they’ve stopped by for a visit, and it’s our job to reach out to those new voters and bring them home permanently.”  

Kiernan said Democrats will use new technology, social platforms and grassroots engagement to bring additional people into the party and bring newly registered Democrats home to roost.

“Now it’s about telling these folks that they’re welcome in our party and making sure that they know they have a seat at our table permanently” […]

Kiernan echoed these points in the press release from the Iowa Democratic Party, which I’ve posted after the jump.

It’s good to know the IDP’s leader understands that we can’t count on first-time Democratic voters to continue to support the party. This is especially true because President Barack Obama will not be on the ballot in 2010. Many newly-registered Iowa Democrats were mobilized by Obama’s presidential campaign.

Kiernan noted his family’s tradition of “Democratic public service” on Saturday. He seems to be no more than two degrees of separation removed from anyone who’s anyone in Iowa Democratic circles. Tom Harkin held one of his first steak fry events at the Kiernans’ family farm.

I expect that this political legacy will greatly shorten Kiernan’s learning curve as the new party chairman. His mother, Joan Kiernan, has been a Democratic activist for decades and served as the IDP’s secretary in the past.

Michael Kiernan has also had a close-up view of election campaigns at all levels. His father ran successfully for the Madison County supervisors. His mother was involved in Dick Gephardt’s presidential campaigns. Michael Kiernan managed Chet Culver’s first bid for secretary of state in 1998 and Preston Daniels’ successful mayoral campaign in Des Moines the same year. He also won a special election for a seat on the Des Moines City Council in 2004. (He has not disclosed whether he plans to seek re-election to that position this fall.)

With this extensive campaign experience, Kiernan has seen what works and what doesn’t work for Iowa Democrats. That’s bound to help the IDP’s “coordinated campaign” going into the 2010 midterms. The national political environment is likely to be less favorable for Democrats than it was in 2006 and 2008, so the IDP will have to be at the top of its game in getting out the vote. (It can’t hurt that Kiernan is on good terms with labor union officials.)

Turnout is always lower in midterm elections. In 2006, about 1.05 million Iowans cast ballots for governor, whereas turnout in the most recent presidential election was about 1.5 million. Clearly not all of the newly-registered Democrats will vote in 2010, but even if only half of them turn out, that could give Democrats a significant advantage.

Kiernan and other party leaders can do plenty to build on the IDP’s success with early voting, but the mechanics of GOTV efforts won’t be enough to keep new voters in the Democratic fold.

Here’s where Governor Chet Culver and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature come in. Coasting on the usual advantages of incumbency is not going to be enough, especially if the economy is still in bad shape in 2010.

The best way to change Iowa from a purple state to a blue state is for Democratic elected officials to deliver real, lasting change. That will involve taking on some big problems despite the political risks. In a time of budget scarcity, state legislators can’t just throw money at a lot of popular programs.

Nothing succeeds like success. If Democrats can show that their governance made a tangible difference in the lives of Iowans, it will be easier to give voters a reason to back Culver and Democratic legislators again in 2010. I’ve got a few suggestions:

-Reduce the influence of money in politics by approving a voluntary “clean elections” system on the model of Maine or Arizona;

-Reject new coal fired power plants (as several of our neighboring states have done) and increase our capacity to generate wind and solar power;

-Allow “local control” of large hog confinements (agricultural zoning at the county level);

-Make progress toward providing light rail in the Ames/Ankeny/Des Moines and Iowa City/Cedar Rapids corridors.

I can’t say I’m optimistic about the Democratic leadership taking on any of those tasks, because powerful corporate interests could line up against them.

But I am convinced that we need to have something big to show for four years of Democratic control at the statehouse and Terrace Hill. Give Kiernan something to sell to the voters he’s trying to keep in the Democratic fold.

The IDP’s press release announcing Kiernan’s election is after the jump.

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