10 Things the Iowa Democratic Party Can Do To Rebuild

John McCormally joins the conversation on how Iowa Democrats can recover. Currently an attorney and member of the party’s State Central Committee, McCormally is a former staffer for the party and for various Democratic campaigns. -promoted by desmoinesdem

When it comes to rebuilding the Iowa Democratic Party, better messaging and party building are at the top of everyone’s list. Everyone agrees on the problems. Solutions are more elusive. Claire Celsi’s extraordinary article offers a great insight as to what the priorities of the next chair should be. While the next chair’s vision is important, rebuilding the party will take more than the vision of one person. As someone who has been on the IDP State Central Committee for six years, and will be for 18 more months, I am familiar with the potential and the limitations of the organization. In that spirit, I offer ten specific programs the IDP can implement to rebuild:

1) Hire a permanent field staff

The IDP should have 5-10 full time organizers based across the state. Effective organizing is not a seasonal activity. The party should hire a permanent field staff, charged with 1) building relationships with local leaders and community groups, 2) maintaining contact with volunteers and 3) leading regular canvassing efforts focused around issues. As it stands now, every two years campaigns attempt to reinvent the wheel, with campaign staffers recruiting volunteers for door-knocking and phone calling. We need a kind of permanent campaign, where IDP-trained staffers lead volunteer canvasses every month of the year and provide ongoing support to county parties. When the legislature finishes in April, we should have volunteers (led by IDP staffers) on the street in every county, telling voters what the GOP legislature has done. Using the VAN to record the data collected, we can track which voters are moved by what issues. But more importantly, this is the kind of community engagement that can harness the energy and anger coming in the aftermath of the 2016 Election. The IDP field staff (five to ten full time organizers) should be charged with organizing these efforts, as well as establish alliances with other like-minded groups in every community.

2) Establish County Party Block Grants

IDP should bring back the county party block grants, wherein county parties develop a plan and apply to IDP for help funding. Ten years ago, these were called Harkin grants, named after the Senator who funded them. The general idea is that party building is not one size fits all. What works in Story County is not necessarily what works in Wayne County, and Democrats in Lee County are not the same as Democrats in Crawford County. Trying to force one county party plan across 99 counties doesn’t work because county party leaders believe (correctly) that Des Moines doesn’t know what is going on at the local level. Instead, the block grant program empowers county parties to determine what will best help develop their party. Once a plan is formulated, they can then apply to IDP for helping with funding. These grants have helped county parties do everything from paying rent on a local office to putting on events. Each of the 99 counties could come up with a plan, and apply for an IDP county party grant. A monthly newsletter? A guest speaker? A pub crawl? The specific plan is less important than local democrats collaborating on a plan that best suits their unique county needs. The process of collaborating itself can help build a local organization, and working toward a defined goal is what helps build unity and create leaders. These don’t have to be big ideas- the Harkin grants ranged from $50-$1,000. But the process of developing the plan helped unite local parties, and working with the IDP helped facilitate communication and coordination between the IDP and the counties.

3) Establish a regular county party forum

The IDP should hold bimonthly training sessions with County parties. The IDP currently conducts a county chair call once a month, and while this is a step in the right direction, county parties need far more support from Des Moines. The IDP should adopt the model used by other political organizations and hold regular training session for their leadership in the form of 15-30 minute mini-trainings held twice a month. These can cover issues such as messaging, issue advocacy, organizing tips, or any number of topics suggested by the county chairs. These can be held over the phone/videochat, and the recording and materials from the training can be made available afterwards via an IDP YouTube channel. This will allow folks unable to participate in the call to still receive the benefit of training, and increase the transparency of the organization. Furthermore, IDP can and should ensure that every county party has an active Facebook page to make it easy for people to stay engaged in the party. Additionally, the IDP should create a forum, such as a list serve or private Facebook page for the county leadership to stay connected and share things that are working or share things that did not work. And once a year, IDP should sponsor a county chair retreat to gather all 99 county chairs in one place. The counties can learn a lot from each other and the IDP should support and assist in facilitating that communication.

4) Create a digital media position

The IDP should create a new digital media director position. While Democrats undoubtedly need to improve our message, we also need to change the way the message is disseminated. The IDP needs to retool its communications department to focus on digital media. The model of press releases and earned media does not reach young voters who stream their entertainment and don’t read print newspapers. On the other hand, web videos designed for social media have the potential to reach across demographics and are not bound by the same time constraints of traditional media. Both the Clinton and Sanders campaign produced many memorable web videos that defined their messages. The IDP should establish a digital communication position, and hire a person whose primary focus is the creation of digital video promoting Democratic ideas. IDP needs to find a young talented media savvy person, who can help write and film this digital video content, and produce a video every two weeks in-house.

5) Promote the bench

I am very frustrated when I hear someone say that Iowa Democrats lack a bench. It’s fundamentally wrong. Chris Hall (Sioux City), Abby Finkenauer (Dubuque), Todd Prichard (Charles City), Liz Bennett (Cedar Rapids) and Ras Smith (Waterloo) are all State Representatives under 40. Polk County just elected Nate Boulton as a State Senator. Not to mention County officials like John Murphy (Dubuque), Stacey Walker (Linn), and on and on. The future leaders of our party are already here. What they lack is access to Central Iowa donors and volunteer networks. IDP should make a point to host regular events (like Century Club Breakfasts, for example) with these rising stars and donor networks to make sure the bench can keep building their profiles.

On the other hand, we definitely need a constant concerted effort to keep adding to the bench. We must empower county parties to recruit candidates for school board, city council and other local races. Read John Murphy’s article about County elected officials. I agree with every word. We should be devote serious energy to recruiting and electing progressive candidates at the school board, city and county levels.

But while we can always use a deeper bench, its important to recognize several excellent potential statewide candidates already in office. We just need to help them get more widely known. Remember, Tom Vilsack was a little known State Senator from Mount Pleasant before he was Governor. At this point six years ago, Joni Ernst was entering the State Senate, and leaving the Montgomery County Auditor’s office. Our future is already here, we just need keep our future leaders in front of current donors and opinion makers as well as making the bench deeper and adding more future leaders to it.

6) Create a Candidate Academy

The IDP should sponsor an annual candidate training academy that teaches interested people how to run for office at any level. At a recent event, I heard a number of angry Democrats complaining about the candidates “recruited by the party,” and wondering why “the party” left Republicans unopposed in some districts. I was surprised to learn how many people believe the IDP picks candidates, or that someone had to have the blessing of the IDP before being allowed on the ballot. In actuality, voters pick candidates. Democratic candidates are selected in primaries, held in June before a general election. If you want to be on the ballot in a Democratic Primary for the Iowa House, all you have to do is get 50 signatures on a petition and turn it in to the Secretary of State’s office. Nobody—not the IDP, not the incumbent, not a republican can stop you from getting on the ballot if you turn in valid petition. The only thing capable of stopping you is the voters. The House and Senate caucuses do attempt to recruit candidates in as many districts as possible, but those candidates don’t always win. In fact, in my experience, people who have to be convinced to run make the worst candidates because they simply can’t match the energy of a highly motivated self-starter.

However, there is more to running for office than getting on the ballot. Voter contact, messaging, fundraising, time management—there is a lot to it, and it can be overwhelming. Its one reason why we have hard time filling every spot on the ballot. I know of one district where over 70 people were approached before someone agreed to run (that person is now a State Representative, by the way).

All this is a way of saying: there needs to be a program that teaches people how to run for office. I believe a two-day intensive candidate academy is the answer. Interested people could pay a small fee (enough to cover a hotel room, for example) and attend sessions on volunteer management, fundraising, direct mail, effective social media and more. Participants would practice door knocking and phone calling, develop concise talking points, and workshop ways of talking about issues. Most importantly, participants could learn how to mesh their unique passion and personality with effective campaign techniques. There are number of Des Moines and national political operatives who would be available and willing to help lead this program if there was an umbrella organization (like the IDP) capable of hosting and organizing.

7) Find the money

The next IDP chair must commit to at least 20 hours of call time each week, in addition to taking the time to meet with donors face to face. The ideas outlined above aren’t free. It takes money to pay organizers and while the IDP can take steps to cut costs, it is impossible to overstate the need for a strong fundraiser as the next chair. It takes close to $750K just to run a barebones operation. We need to do far more than barebones, and our traditional partners are going be struggling with scarce resources. AFSCME is about to get hammered in the legislature. So are teachers. So is Planned Parenthood. Without those partners, the next chair will have to devote even more time to individual fundraising, just to keep the lights on, let alone undertake the kind of aggressive organizing and messaging we need.

With all of the back and forth I’ve read in the aftermath of the election, perhaps one of the most disturbing comments I have read comes from a Western Iowa activist who wrote on Facebook, “Now that Clinton has lost, we can finally put an end to the party’s obsession with money and fundraising.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

We live in a world where money flows into political races from unknown sources. We had good progressive legislative candidates whose message was drowned out in an onslaught of negative advertising paid for by dark money groups supporting Republicans. There is no accountability, no disclosure, and no obligation to tell the truth. The reality is that Democrats were outspent in nearly every legislative race, and in some cases by as much as 3-1. There were ads run by Republicans that were out and out lies, but were left largely unanswered because we couldn’t afford to answer. If we don’t have the resources, we can’t effectively push back. It is immoral, it is wrong, and it is unfair, but it is also the state of campaign finance law. As much as we would like it to be different, it is not going to change without a constitutional amendment.

If recent history is any guide, the mid-term election is an opportunity to win back the Governor’s mansion. We will squander whatever opportunity we may have if we abandon our commitment to fundraising and fail to prepare for the electoral reality as it now exists. We need to raise money—a lot of it, and it is going to have to come from lots and lots of smaller individual contributions. That means hours and hours on the phone for the next chair, and hours more in individual donor meetings. However, by asking donors to fund specific programs, (like the ideas above, among others) we can help donors find a cause they are passionate about, rather than simply asking for more money.

8) Actively promote small donor giving

IDP should adopt the Iowa Public Television fundraising model, and actively solicit contributions of $100 and less during “membership” drives. Small dollar donations are central to every political campaign. The trouble for Iowa Democrats is that there are not enough active donors to sustain a small dollar program. The party currently offers the ability to spread contributions out over a quarterly or monthly payment plan. Why not expand that and create a “member” program wherein donors who make a defined monthly contribution receive a “thank you” gift. We already give Fall Gala tickets for contributions of $100 a year. Why not expand this thank you program to include those all-important sustaining donors? Let’s create an Iowa Democratic Party pin and give it to everyone who gives $20 a month. People who contribute $10/month get a subscription to a Democratic Newsletter and Democratic news clippings. If we could add 2000 donors at $10 a month, it amounts to nearly a quarter of a million dollars year, enough to offer five organizers a decent salary and benefits.

9) Ask the SCC to do more

As an SCC member, I’ve long been frustrated with how little the committee is asked to do. I’ve served on several other boards, and on each one I’ve been tasked with far more than simply attending meetings—most boards come with a fundraising obligation in addition to various community outreach activities. Yet the Iowa Democratic Party SCC is largely confined to six meetings a year, along with serving as an information conduit between the state, district and county parties. Some of this is by design, as the day to day strategy of campaigns has been delegated to consultants and candidate campaigns. However, it leads to frustration on the SCC, which in recent years has largely been relegated to approving financial transactions and passing meaningless resolutions. It’s time to ask the SCC to do more. While I would hope that every SCC member would be able to handle some fundraising duties, I have been told by previous chairs that past attempts at delegating fundraising have been ineffective. Moreover, not everyone on the SCC has fundraising ability. Nevertheless, everyone elected to the SCC should be asked to do more to support the party, whether its carrying out one of the new programs, lobbying county and local elected officials, carrying the message of the IDP into local media and community organizations, or attending county meetings in places other than their home county. And if the next chair wants to spread out some of the fundraising duty, I will be first in line to volunteer.

10) Messaging 101: Why are you a Democrat?

Finally, the previous nine things are all concrete programs the party could implement right now. For this last part, I’m going a little more abstract.

Nearly everyone agrees that Democrats need to redefine their message. Some people say that our problem is that we focus too much on social issues, and have forgotten the economic principles at our core. Others say we have become a party of cultural elites, out of touch with rural America. The reality is that the party has lost its identity. I think you could ask 100 people what Democrats stand for and you’d get 100 answers. Instead, I’d like to ask a different question:

Why are YOU a Democrat?

I’m not asking rhetorically. I mean it: Why do you care enough about this stuff to have spent this kind of time thinking about it? Why are you a Democrat?

Ask every Democrat you know that question. I firmly believe that by discussing our many different ideas about what this party stands for, and what it means to us, we will discover what direction it should go.

Why are you a Democrat?

For me, its because I grew up in a trailer court in rural Johnson County. My parents were 18 when I was born, and that trailer was all they could afford. Today, my mom is a lawyer, my dad is a doctor, and last month I argued before the Iowa Supreme Court. Republicans would probably tell you that we picked ourselves up by our bootstraps, but I know better. I know my mom graduated law school the same week I graduated high school thanks in part to federally subsidized student loans. I know my dad wouldn’t be a doctor without a government initiative to put doctors in rural communities. And for me it was Head Start, Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance that kept us afloat, and kept us alive. And most of all, it was dedicated public school teachers who used the power of their union to keep class sizes small and opportunities abundant. At every step of my life there has been a program created and fought for by Democrats that made it possible.

That’s why I’m a Democrat. Democrats invest in people. Every dollar the government spent to feed and educate and house my family back then has been repaid 100 fold in the increased tax revenue that comes when we lift people out of poverty. America was built on investments made by Democrats. Democrats built the middle class. Democrats built America. Republicans seem to believe its every man for himself. I’m a Democrat because Democrats believe we are all in this together, and I know first-hand that its true.

Why are you a Democrat?

It’s a story the party (and your Trump voting neighbor) desperately needs to hear—the real, unvarnished truth of why you are a Democrat. These are the messages that connect with people— real stories that reveal the character of who we are as a party and that show us the way forward. These are the stories that go viral on social media, because they convey more truth in their authenticity than could ever be ascertained in a focus group or push poll. We can take these stories, and turn them into short web videos. We remind each other why we’re Democrats, and we spread the word.

As it stands, the GOP has a huge advantage. We are out funded, out organized, and out planned. But we are right. I maintain unshakable belief in the Democratic ideas of social and economic justice for all.

Why are you a Democrat? Tell that story.

That’s how we message. That’s how we take it back, and how we win Terrace Hill in 2018. One person, one voter, one campaign at a time.

John McCormally is an attorney who has served on the IDP SCC since 2010, and previously worked for the party as Communications Director and as a House Truman Fund staffer and Field Organizer. He has worked on Democratic campaigns at the state, county and local level in Iowa, as well as in Louisiana and Nevada.

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  • thanks for this

    The points that resonate most strongly with me are promoting our bench (yes, we have one), establishing county party block grants, and doing more to train leaders of county parties.

    Like you, I’ve frequently heard that Democrats in Des Moines don’t understand that certain things are important for candidates in rural/small town counties. The grants approach is a powerful way to address that.

  • Parties picking candidates

    Agree with most of the post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Without picking nits, would just like to point out the IDP’s and legislative leaders’ annoying habit of keeping incumbent retirements under wraps until filing deadlines, in order to give handpick successors time to get their ducks in a row and preclude anyone else from running. Doesn’t that constitute party poobahs picking candidates? Recent examples: Dave Dawson’s seat in Sioux City, Deb Barry’s in Waterloo, Nancy Dunkel’s in Dubuque County, HD 55 in 2014. Who knows how many other good candidates there are who got big footed because they did not know about the opening in time, by design. BTW the Dunkel seat and HD 55 are now in the hands of the GOP soooooo…..

  • Is it the message or the messager?

    Seems like we should all dust off the cover of George Lakoff’s book “Don’t think of an Elephant.” Messaging is important, but having the right values and re-framing issues is as important. Especially in this day and age of PR politics where emotions are more important, the GOP with their numerical superiority can drown out facts. Trust, authenticity, and mutual respect is in very short supply.

    I agree with the above post that it does nothing for the credibility of the party to have insiders handpicked for offices. The myth that the Clinton team had a more overwhelming ground game and organization was repeated way to often, especially here in Iowa. Organization is important, but the Democratic party needs to evolve beyond the party machine strategies to win over disaffected democrats who voted with their gut instead of their head.

  • Tim Urban

    He left out voters. It is appalling to me that every election cycle volunteers spend many hours culling though voter lists for canvassing and provide their names, email addresses and phone numbers to the “coordinated campaign.” This information is gold. Every volunteer should be recruited to be part of a 2018 voter outreach team and all identified Clinton voters should be cultivated to vote in 2018. Turnout wins the game in off year elections and we have been overwhelmed by Republicans