IA-01: Jeff Danielson on "raging incrementalism" and Iowa Democrats' culture problem

Iowa Democrats “need to have a good family fight about what the future of our party’s going to be” and ditch the “canned messages” used in too many losing campaigns, according to State Senator Jeff Danielson. Re-elected to a fourth term in the Iowa Senate last year, Danielson is the highest-profile Democrat still thinking about running in the first Congressional district, where four candidates are already challenging Representative Rod Blum and two others recently ruled out the race. He spoke to Bleeding Heartland this week about his plans and how Democrats can regain the trust of voters who increasingly see our party as out of touch.

Danielson’s critique of the Democratic establishment has much in common with points often raised by Iowans who supported Bernie Sanders for president. But his call for “raging incrementalism” and reaching across the aisle is quite different from the ambitious policy agenda typically viewed on the Sanders wing as the solution to the same problem.


Danielson appeared on the July 9 edition of “The Steele Report” on KWWL, and I recommend watching his whole ten-minute interview with Ron Steele. I’ve transcribed portions that struck me as most relevant to how Danielson would approach a competitive Congressional primary.

Danielson won’t run for statewide office in 2018 but considers a northeast Iowa race to be “something that I can manage, because I’m a hands-on campaigner.” Since a narrow escape in 2008 (winning re-election by just 22 votes out of more than 32,000 cast), Danielson has charted his own path. He takes pride in the fact that “as an independent Democrat, I’ve had the freedom to manage my own campaigns for eight years now,” in contrast to other lawmakers whose re-election bids are typically controlled by party leaders and financed by the Senate Majority Fund. Noting that Democrats have had poor results lately in Iowa, Danielson told Steele,

We have lost the cultural popularity contest, in my view. And I want our party to expand that definition of what it means to be a Democrat.

And so, you know, you’ve watched my campaigns locally, you live in the district. I believe in keeping people safe and being fiscally responsible, and I talk about it a lot in my campaigns. And then, oh, by the way, we’re going to do some progressive things, like invest in education and make sure people have access to health care.

So a lot of it’s just a simple message that people can understand. It doesn’t get bogged down in the national stuff.

Danielson said he’s “about halfway” toward making a decision on the IA-01 race. He’s set up an exploratory committee and will soon start raising money. “But more importantly, we’re going to go out” into the 20 counties “and have a heart to heart about what it would take for Democrats to win” the first Congressional district. Danielson added,

I actually believe in competition. So whether I run or not, I believe the Democrats need to have a good family fight about what the future of our party’s going to be. What will be our messages, but also, what are the mechanics of how to actually win a campaign? […]

So mid-summer, August/September, we’ll make a final decision, but I really want to do the homework.

During the KWWL interview, Danielson signaled that if he seeks higher office, he will run a different kind of campaign.

This is my point that I’ve been making to Democrats. Whatever it is we’ve been communicating to Iowa voters, they ain’t buying it. And so it’s up to us to think a little more deeply about that. I don’t think we can have a fight over who’s more pure, litmus tests, and the purity tests. […]

All campaigns are about the future, and we have to have positive ideas, and actually focus on how to get people out to vote. […]

You can’t govern if you don’t win. […] And in Iowa, you need to have a broader message, because there are a lot of independent voters. And there’s a lot of ballot mix in terms of who votes for who[m]. And so I just think we need to have a broader message. And I have committed to that discussion, and that fight, family fight if you will, whether I run or not. Because northeast Iowa is a place where I think, people want common sense, common ground, and good ideas.

Steele asked Danielson what issues he perceives to have hurt Democrats.

It has been easy to paint us as a party of interest groups. And really, most voters really want to know, are you gonna keep me safe, are you going to spend my money wisely, and then, are we gonna make some community investments in education, can you have access to health care without declaring bankruptcy. To me, it’s a fairly simple message. […]

Over the last eight years I’ve tried to carve out an independent niche within the party, and I think we need to do more of that. Think about it. ’16: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump. Democrat, Republican, but did not fit the normal party mold. That’s where all the energy was. So I’ve said to you on this show and other times, that when you thump your chest as a Democrat or a Republican, most people are over that right now. They want real answers, they want some authenticity out of the candidates. And that’s what you can’t get when you’re in the coordinated campaigns with all these canned messages.

So, I think there’s a path for Democrats back to power in Iowa. But it has to be authentic, it has to speak to a broader message, and you also have to pay attention to the mechanics of a campaign. There were a lot of mistakes in the last campaign, on turnout lists, GOTV. And so it’s not just the message, it’s also the mechanics.


Speaking to Danielson by phone on July 17, I asked first about his contention that Iowa Democrats have lost the cultural popularity contest. “Absolutely. Without question,” he said. How much of that is because of Democratic mistakes and how much stems from successful efforts by Republicans and conservative media to define our party as out of touch with mainstream culture?

“It’s all of it, but most of it is self-inflicted,” Danielson believes. Elections in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 “have been absolute butt-whippings” that Iowa Democrats “lost convincingly,” without “structural impediments” like gerrymandering or new restrictions on voting that hurt the party in some other states.

How does Danielson see the 2012 election as a loss, considering that President Barack Obama won Iowa, while Democrats picked up seven seats in the state House and held on to their Senate majority?

The status quo to me is not, is not an effort that builds momentum. So, I suppose if people want to hang their hat on that, go ahead. But I’m seeing the trends. In some places in Iowa, voting behavior has switched from plus 5 percent Democrat to anywhere from 10 to 15 percent favoring Republicans. So, you know, I don’t see ’12 as a victory here. This is a trend, it’s real, and it’s cultural. So we have to do things differently.

Even though Danielson was re-elected in 2012, he emphasized, he wouldn’t want any Iowa Democrat to have the illusion that “something positive” went on in the middle of “this five year, now six-year trend […] Because it’s been building against us.”

I asked Danielson to clarify what he meant by a cultural trend. To some people, talking about the party’s cultural problem is code language for saying our candidates should back off on key issues where the right wing has demonized Democrats, talking less about racial justice, LGBT equality, or women’s reproductive rights.

No, and that’s our problem. We like to segment and fragment to get things into categories.

I think people should read up on Daniel Elazar, a political cultural map, and it has nothing to do with all the stuff you just described. It has to do with how people live, work, and interact with each other in their communities. [Note from desmoinesdem: here’s background on Elazar’s view of American political culture and the maps showing dominant elements in different parts of the country.]

And most folks do not think in the categories that you just described. They’re trying to raise their families, trying to put a little money away, and they’re trying to have some fun.

So that’s what I mean. Most of our canned campaigns, that are either run by D.C. or Des Moines, are–don’t give any of our voters the sense that Democrats actually live, work, and play in the same communities in which they’re trying to get votes. So Daniel Elazar, political cultural map actually goes a little deeper than that. I think it’s very similar to what [linguist George] Lakoff has been trying to tell us about how to communicate who we are.

Danielson added that in his re-election bids, I always say our goal is to “blend in and fan out.” Instead of creating his own campaign events,

I believe you should be a part of what’s already going on in a community. Show up at things. Be there and be fair. And not seem like you’re, you know, an unidentified flying object that’s been helicoptered in. And all of our advertising, all of our messaging seems to be, you know, not like what people are dealing with in their communities. […]

So it’s actually, it’s not cultural in the sense of the categories that people would line up in terms of political issues. It’s do people know that you’re from the area? Do they recognize that you’ve got calluses on your hands? Have you worked hard? Are you willing to stand up for them? You know, it’s, it’s cultural.

Would it be so easy for Democrats to avoid some of the hot-button political issues? Conservative talking heads routinely stir up unfounded fears about transgender bathrooms or taxpayer dollars for abortions, while Republicans spend heavily to put such concerns at the center of election campaigns.

Well, I would say Democrats should talk about keeping people safe, progressively investing in education, focusing on an economy that rewards work. I mean, a lot of this is just basic. It’s just basic. So they’re going to try all of that stuff. But you have, you should have, as a Democrat, made sure that people know what you’re doing.

I tend to ignore a lot of that stuff, to be honest with you. I just think, I just think voters are smarter than that, you know. […]

So here’s the problem with the way Democrats have run their campaigns. They wait to get hit. They wait to explain, you know? In this last campaign, I regularly had in what I was doing that we we were going to live within our means and support the troops. Why can’t Democrats just say that every once in a while?

So I just think it’s a part of making sure people know who you are, first. Continuing to show them that that’s what you’re about. Now I’m proud to be a pro-growth progressive and have championed a lot of issues. So you know, that stuff works if you don’t give the voters another choice.

And we have run these wait-and-see campaigns that I just think are, they’re horrible. So, I’m not going to do that, I haven’t been doing that. Most people don’t realize I’ve managed my own campaigns out of necessity, because I didn’t think that what had been going on, again was working.

We’re not communicating with the voters that are in front of us. We’re wishing for a voter that’s not there. Just be progressive and have values and speak to the voters that are in front of us, not the ones that we wish were there.

How can Iowa Democrats win in a political environment where our candidates are often outspent and hit with attack ads that don’t focus on substantive issues? “Well, it ain’t been hard for me, and I regularly expect to be outspent,” Danielson responded. “So I say again, you have to tell your voters who you are, and keep doing it, and keep doing it.”

He went on: “Why should a Democrat have to be 100 percent on all those issues? I made it very clear in my campaign that I’m an independent Democrat,” making decisions on public policy after listening to input and doing his homework. Danielson thinks our candidates haven’t talked enough about problem-solving and working across the aisle.

Now look, I know some people in our base don’t like that. But did you watch some of the advertising that Republicans used? They used a lot of those phrases.

So, you know, and I get criticized for being a part of No Labels. But there are a lot of voters who just want stuff to work. They don’t want you to line up the categories like you’re playing “Red rover, red rover, send this issue right over.” They realize all those issues are out there. They want to know if you’re going to work together to solve problems, and if you’re consistent and there’s some evidence that that’s how you’re going to conduct yourself.

And so, I think the antidote to ginning everybody up and trying to separate people, essentially dividing them during campaigns, is to continually point out that we have an obligation to work on problems together, and that’s the kind of public service you’re going to offer. We don’t do hardly any of that in our canned messages. In fact, I get criticized for doing some of that, and I’m going to keep doing it.

Regarding Danielson’s new exploratory committee, I wanted to know whether his fundraising will be geared toward covering fact-finding travel around the district as he makes up his mind, or whether he is already trying to raise serious money toward a Congressional campaign. “I will attempt to raise serious money, yes,” Danielson said. He’ll use those resources to research the preferences of voters in IA-01. He’s not going to be one of those who announces an exploratory committee and “a week later they’re running.”

Well, I don’t think there was much exploring going on. So I actually believe you owe it to your supporters, to your family, and to yourself to truly do the homework about what is possible in a district.

And look, this homework is about whether Democrats in northeast Iowa want to win again with a broader message, inviting independent voters and moderate Republicans to be a part of what we’re trying to accomplish. I firmly believe that’s the best long-run strategy for things that actually work and can be long-lasting.

Health care is a perfect example of that. We’re about to see-saw back and forth as a country because there doesn’t seem to be any common ground to be had. I think there are a lot of voters who would like to actually see that. But they have to have candidates who are willing to say to their own family, to their own party, we have to be better at reaching other people to grow what we’re trying to do.

And I often wonder why people think this stuff is Burger King and UPS, right? Well, you rarely get it your way, and you never get it in 24 hours. And yet we seem to think that public policy and politics in this day is like Burger King and UPS. People want it their way and they want it, they want it in 24 hours, and that’s not the way it works.

So I want a Democratic Party that’s a lot more mature and savvy about the support that’s out there. I think the support is out there for us. I’ve proven it in my own campaigns, and I want northeast Iowa and other folks to be a part of that.

Since Danielson mentioned access to health care as part of a simple, winning message for Democrats, I asked whether he favors single-payer health care (Medicare for all) or incremental improvements to the Affordable Care Act. “I believe we should be for raging incrementalism as Democrats. Absolute, raging incrementalism,” Danielson said. Democrats don’t realize how out of power we are, in his view. “We don’t have a right to demand anything right now. We can’t win elections.”

Some activists point out that Sanders gained strong support from independents during the 2016 primaries while pushing a bold progressive agenda, including Medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage. They argue Democrats should follow the same path to appeal to voters who have lost faith in our party. Danielson isn’t convinced.

I’m aware of that assumption. And so, knock yourselves out. But this Democrat is going to build a broad coalition of people that can work on all of those issues in a way that actually brings people together and invites independents and moderate Republicans to be a part of that. So, a lot of theories about how to do this. I have ideas that I think will work, and we’re going to pursue them.

As a state senator, Danielson has voted multiple times to raise Iowa’s minimum wage. Does he have a specific level in mind? “I’m for incremental increases in the minimum wage that allow businesses to adjust. And I think most businesses can appreciate that approach.” Translation: he won’t be joining the fight for $15.

Any comments about the IA-01 race are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- I’ve been a detractor of the No Labels movement. I stand by my criticism of an organization that elevates the elite bipartisan consensus and over-emphasizes deficit reduction at the expense of the public investments our country needs. No Labels also has a history of giving its “Problem Solver Seal of Approval” to pandering candidates without any record of bipartisan accomplishment.

That said, I understand the appeal of No Labels to politicians who genuinely have a record of working across party lines. Former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning, who passed away in May, co-chaired No Labels in Iowa with Danielson. During our interview this week, Danielson said he and the group’s leaders haven’t yet discussed finding a Republican to take Corning’s place.

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  • Learning the wrong lessons

    I disagree with him that the way to win is to be Republican lite, and I do not believe that incrementalism is a winning message. Most people want their government to help them, and at the very least not hurt them. If the first thoughts a politician offers are about being fiscally responsible, living within our means, tightening belts, and family budgets, you know what you’re getting: someone who wants to help run the federal government, but does not understand the basic truth that a federal government that issues its own sovereign currency cannot run out of money.

    The important question is whether the dollars spent are chasing sufficient resources, as Alan Greenspan told a disappointed Paul Ryan some years ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNCZHAQnfGU Democrats who don’t understand this are more likely to show how “responsible” they are by voting for “grand bargains” involving cuts to social insurance programs. Democrats who use Republican framing on economic issues are inviting voters to vote for the real thing.

    States have to balance their budgets. Like Greece, states cannot create money, and irresponsible spending can get them into trouble, as Iowa is learning all over again after the Branstad spending on tax cuts. But in times of recession or emergencies, the federal government is the spender who can bail the states out after a Katrina, or massive job losses.

    I’m glad you added links to your older pieces on No Labels. They are corporate-funded posers who are dedicated to entitlement cuts.

  • I'm grateful to Senator Jeff Danielson...

    …for one thing especially. He has been working to protect Iowa landowners from new proposed fake lakes that are promoted as drinking-water supplies but are actually economic-development gifts to local boosters. That may cost him some political support from the fake-lake boosters, but fighting misuse of eminent domain is a worthy cause, and he’s also helping conservation.

  • Jeff is a Leader

    No one knows his stuff like Jeff Danielson. I’ve heard him speak several dozen times on big issues and little issues. I’ve heard him speak respectfully but clearly to people who disagree with him. I’ve seen the respect that other colleagues have for him. Even Sen Dotzler, who is a powerhouse classical liberal, knows that Jeff is the one who understands the issues and gets things done.

    I believe that identify politics has been the main thrust of Democratic rhetoric lately. I support those goals but they should not be our main goals. Remember Steven Covey’s Seven Habits? We need to keep First Things First. Jobs. Education. Health care. And in order to have those we have to have our fiscal house in order and a strong economy.