Ben Nesselhuf is a veteran of many Democratic campaigns and managed Jim Mowrer’s 2014 Congressional race against Steve King. -promoted by desmoinesdem
‘Don’t Panic’ – The Hichhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy
First, my fellow Democrats, Don’t Panic. Election night was horrific. It was especially difficult because we all expected something different but, Don’t Panic. The Democratic Party, both in Iowa and on the national level, is far from the dumpster fire that the national media is portraying it as. We are in much better shape than the GOP was after the 2008 elections. If you recall, the national punditry was talking about the death of the modern day Republican Party. That was going to be nothing but a regional party that couldn’t win a race outside of the south. Obviously, that is not the case. In 2010 they came back in a big way and we will too. So, again I say, Don’t Panic.
Let me take a moment to introduce myself. I have not met nearly as many democratic activists in Iowa as I would like and it is very likely that you, dear reader, have no idea who I am.
I have been involved in politics for my entire life. In the fall of 1987 I was a 6th grader who had penciled out a southern primary strategy for my preferred candidate, Paul Simon. I started making calls at my local Democratic Party office in 1988. I had my first paid gig on a campaign in 1996 as a campus organizer for Tim Johnson. I managed my first congressional race in 2000. That fall I won a seat in the South Dakota House. I served for 10 years in the SD legislature serving 2 terms as the Caucus Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. During that time I started a caucus campaign program, the first time we had such a thing in SD, that saw us get within 3 seats of having a majority in the senate.
During the last few years of the 2000s I also worked with the Obama ’08 campaign, mayoral and city council races in Iowa and Nebraska and in many positions on campaigns at all levels. In 2010 I became the Chairman of the SD Democratic Party. In that role I was a member of the DNC, a Super Delegate and was on the Executive Board of the Association of State Democratic Chairs. I came to Iowa in the summer of 2013 to manage Jim Mowrer’s congressional campaign against Steve King. I had fallen in love and married a woman from Sioux City and we thought it would be nice if we lived in the same state. I am now totally out of politics as a profession. This Election Day was the first one in 20 years where I knew exactly what my job was the day after the election.
I share all of this with you not to prove that I know what I’m talking about. In fact, if history is a guide, I almost certainly do not, but the one thing that all of this has taught me is to take the long view of electoral trends and to constantly be looking around the country and see what democrats are doing right. At the end of the day, this is simply one man’s opinion. I fully accept that I could be wrong about everything.
So, what happened to democrats in 2016? Well, we got our asses kicked. There is no sugar coating it. There are many opinions as to why that happened. There is probably a nugget of truth to every one of them. Some will tell you we nominated a flawed candidate. Others will say it was the Russians or the FBI. I’m sure there is an activist somewhere saying that Hilary just needed more yard signs. I’m sure you have your own theory and you are probably right. In a close loss, there are many reasons.
It is important that we don’t learn the wrong lessons. In politics, you are never as smart as you look when you win and never as dumb as you look when you lose. The Iowa Democratic Party is not at fault for the outcome of the election. Almost every state under performed in democratic turnout.
Look to our neighbors in Minnesota. They have one of the best chairs of any democratic party in the country in Ken Martin. Corey Day has been the ED for years and is superb at his job. They have every statewide elected, they raise twice the money as the MN GOP, they have 16 different constituency caucus within their central committee, they make it a point to get out into the counties and listen to the party activists in the rural areas. What happened in MN on election night? They didn’t flip a single one of their targeted congressional seats. They lost a few state house seats (where they were already in the minority) and they lost 6 seats and their majority in the state senate. Almost exactly the same as Iowa.
The only swing states that bucked the national trend (Nevada, New Hampshire) have political machines that are run by powerful statewide elected officials. These machines use heavy handed, top down tactics to turn out the vote. Not sure that would work here and if it was tried, the grassroots activists would hate it.
Where do we go from here?
At the national level we need to have a 2 cycle strategy. The senate has Class 1 up for re-election. This is a horrible map for the democrats. Gaining 3 seats will be out of the question. If we hold 48 seats, we should count that as a major win.
The house could flip but it is a major uphill battle. In 2011 the congressional map was drawn against the democrats in a big way. Getting to the majority will require a 2010 type of wave for the democrats. We would have to win every seat that has a democratic performance index of zero and 24 seats that have an index of -1% or -2%. That is not impossible but we would need a significant wave to make it happen.
In order to win the house, we need to focus on the states. The Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee should be a major focus of our national efforts. The governors and state legislators elected in 2018 and 2020 will be deciding control of the US House for the next decade. North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Virginia are purple states but the four of them give the GOP a net 27 seats in the House. The battle for the house starts there.
Advice for the Central Committee
First, bury the hatchet. Whatever issues remain from the caucus’ need to be put aside. We are counting on you to lead our party. Don’t get stuck in the past. The most ineffective armies are the ones that are fighting the last battle, not the next one. This includes letting go of drastic overhauls that many would like to see on the national party level. Don’t pick a fight over super delegates. There is no way to even begin that conversation without the entire primary system being opened up. The current system works great for Iowa. Ask any activist from any other state and they will tell you they want our spot. Any member of the central committee, any county chair, any activist with a following of more than half a dozen has more power than super delegates from 48 other states. I was a party leader in South Dakota for over a decade. I didn’t get a phone call from a presidential candidate until I lived in Iowa for about 6 months.
Avoid over correction. There are always ways to improve but don’t burn the house down. If you feel like this is simply a defense of the status quo, you’re not too far off. Modern day campaign tactics have been developed over hundreds and thousands of different elections. Following the best practices is no guarantee of success but it gives you the greatest chance.
I had a seat at the coordinated table in 2014. I saw the field program up close. It was run well. Years ago, I had a front row seat to the birth of the modern field program. It came out of the ’02 and ‘04 senate races in South Dakota. Steve Hildebrand, Mitch Stewart and a number of others literally wrote the book on field in the 21st century. It is what made Barrack Obama the democratic nominee in 2008. Jeff Link and the 2002 Harkin campaign developed something very similar here in Iowa with the early vote push that has become a staple of successful Iowa democratic campaigns. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, just because we’ve had a few bad cycles, this is the wrong approach. A good, data driven, field program works. It is not going to overcome a republican wave but it will put democratic candidates in the best position to mitigate the damages. The lack of success over that past few cycles is not an indictment of these strategies but rather recognition that the Republicans have started understanding the importance of field as well. I don’t really know Andy McGuire or Ben Foecke. I have met them both a few times and they strike me as good and competent folks. I did work closely with Troy Price and Scott Brennan during the last cycle and before that with Tyler Olson, Sue Dvorsky and Norm Sterzenbach as regional colleagues. The IDP has an excellent reputation as a model for parties around the country. I did not see anything this cycle that was outside the practices employed by the most successful state parties.
Control the platform process. It is important for the grassroots to have input but that is not the place for specifics or pet issues. I received three rounds of mail from the Iowa Republican Party telling me that the democrat running for the state house in my district was against public safety because he belonged to a party “that calls for legalizing all drugs – including making dangerous and deadly drugs like heroin, cocaine and crystal meth legal for purchase and consumption.” There were numerous attacks on this candidate that were simply pulled out of the IDP platform. These are unforced errors. A platform is about general ideals. A political party is not a policy making organization. The IDP exists to help democrats win. That is all. If you want to make policy, run for office. If you are involved in the IDP on any level, you job is to help the candidates running as democrats to win. Once they win, they can institute policies that, hopefully, you agree with.
Advice for the next Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party
The next Chairperson for the IDP has the distinct possibility of looking like a genius. 3 of the last 4 cycles of been some of the worst of my lifetime and 2012 was, at best, a push. It is time for democrats in the Midwest to start climbing our way out of the hole we are in. Trump provides us with that opportunity.
The simple truth of the matter is that a Trump presidency will do more to revive our party then anything we can do. In politics, pendulums swing hard and fast. Think about the way that President Obama united and motivated the republicans. That was Barrack Obama. No-Drama Obama. We have Donald Trump as our foil. Every one of his picks for his cabinet is further verification that he has no desire to moderate his presidency anymore then he did his campaign.
The next chair of the IDP needs to focus on the basic blocking and tackling of politics. Don’t get crazy. Stick with what has been proven, over the long haul, to work. I’m talking really basic. Like Politics 101 kind of basics. Do these things really well and you will put the IDP in a position to win.
First, raise money. Ideas take resources. There is no substitute for money.
Second, recruit candidates. It is likely that we are going to see the best cycle to run as a democrat since 2008. Anyone who has been waiting for the right moment needs to get off the sidelines.
Third, work with your county parties. A weak county party cannot be saved by the state party. What a state party can do is engage and train activists on the county level how to effectively use the tools at their disposal and the proper role and function of an effective county party.
Finally, get involved with the Association of State Democratic Chairs. It is a great place to look for best practices from states that are in similar situations. It will also give you some allies if Iowa’s position is ever in danger.
As I said, this is very basic. You would be shocked how many state parties try to get fancy or do things drastically differently and fail at one of these basic functions.
We have a real fight ahead of us for the next 4 years. We can and we must continue to fight Trump and the Republicans every step of the way. I wanted and expected Hillary Clinton to win but I was not looking forward to spending the next four years defending her against every conspiracy theory that congress decided deserved a special investigator. There is a freedom that comes from being on the outside. The GOP broke it. They bought it. Think of the messaging out of the Republicans over the past 8 years. There were no ideas, it was simply a bunch of different ways of saying ‘no’. They have lost that advantage. We now have it. As long as Trump doesn’t start WWIII because a tweet got under his skin, we will survive.
President Obama said don’t boo, vote. I would add don’t protest, organize. Only 715 days until the 2018 midterms. Let’s get to work.