Nine ways Democrats can keep 2018 primaries from becoming destructive

More Democrats are running for Iowa’s statewide and federal offices than at any other time in at least four decades. I’m excited to watch so many strong candidates make their case to be elected governor, secretary of state, or to Congress in all three Republican-held U.S. House districts.

Contested primaries are mostly good for political parties, I believe. For too many election cycles, Iowa Democrats tended to coalesce around one candidate early on. A battle for the nomination forces contenders to work harder and sharpen the message. With more campaigns trying to identify supporters and get them to the polls, I expect a record-setting turnout for Iowa Democrats in June 2018.

The process will also drive more activists to attend next year’s precinct caucuses and county conventions, since conventions may be needed to select Democratic nominees for governor and in the third Congressional district, if no candidate receives 35 percent of the vote in the primary.

The only downside to a competitive primary is the risk that the campaign could become intensely negative, leaving some of the most engaged activists feeling angry and alienated from one another. Case in point: some people are still arguing about Hillary v. Bernie more than a year later.

Fortunately, Democrats can prevent that destructive dynamic from playing out.


So far, I’ve seen little sign any of Iowa’s Democratic candidates plan to wage a divisive campaign for the nomination. How they can keep it that way:

Highlight your own vision.

The seven speeches at the Iowa Democratic Party’s recent Hall of Fame event were good examples of candidates talking about their backgrounds, values, and priorities. I’ve heard most of the contenders in other venues too, with the exception of Ross Wilburn, who is still exploring the governor’s race. All have presented themselves well.

The Congressional candidates I’ve heard speak this year (most of the IA-03 contenders and Abby Finkenauer, who’s running in IA-01) have similarly focused on major political and economic problems, how they would approach fixing them, and why they believe they could win the election and do the job well.

Keep contrasts with other Democrats grounded in policy or political differences.

Negative campaigning is a fact of political life, and I don’t have a problem with the tactic, as long as criticism of a primary rival is based on policy (a vote in the legislature, a public statement about an issue) or politics (misguided rhetoric or electability concerns).

The large number of Democrats running for office in Iowa makes it less likely that someone can win by tearing another candidate down. When so many people are competing for votes, A bashing B may drive support toward options C or D.

Don’t distort the truth about another candidate.

Many of the Democrats running in 2018 have been in public life for a while. We may hear legitimate scrutiny of their records. In the governor’s race, that could include criticism of how Todd Prichard has voted in the legislature, how John Norris decided matters that came before the Iowa Utilities Board, Nate Boulton’s approach to some legal cases, or business practices of companies managed by Fred Hubbell or Andy McGuire.

False or misleading attacks could fuel resentment that lasts long after the primary, hurting the party up and down the ticket.


Since 2016, many new people have joined Democratic Party committees at the state or county level, occasionally producing friction between longtime activists and those mobilized by Bernie Sanders. Some members of the “old guard” feel disrespected or threatened by the newcomers, who in turn may view the “establishment” with suspicion. A little conscious effort by party leaders can go a long way toward diminishing these turf battles in 2018.

Give all candidates equal opportunities to meet voters.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price has promised to remain neutral in all of next year’s primaries. I asked him yesterday what guidance the party has given members of the State Central Committee, county chairs, and leaders in constituency caucuses, who are allowed to endorse before the primary. (Some already have announced their support for gubernatorial or Congressional candidates.)

Price said, “What we’ve told folks is that even if you do endorse a candidate or have endorsed a candidate, that you need to make sure that you treat all candidates fairly and equally in this process.” So if any candidate comes to your county, “show them the same treatment of trying to bring activists together, invite them to dinners and soup suppers, that you can’t be showing any favoritism one way or the other in this race.” Price added, “The party has to show that we’re giving everyone an equal chance” to get their message to activists.

I haven’t heard of any local or county Democratic organizations excluding candidates from central committee meetings, fundraisers, or other events.

Avoid bashing candidates you don’t support.

Free speech applies to everyone. But when you take on a leadership role in the party, it’s wise to avoid antagonizing your potential allies. Next fall, Iowa Democrats will need all hands on deck to run the kind of GOTV operation that won this week’s election in House district 82.

Supporters of unsuccessful candidates are less likely to hold grudges if they remember that you fought for your choice without taking cheap shots at theirs.

Be clear when expressing your personal opinions.

When advocating for one Democrat over another, whether at an in-person gathering or on social media or in a letter to the editor, party leaders should be clear that they are speaking for themselves and not for the whole organization.


I am passionate about politics and have been a precinct captain or active volunteer for lots of candidates. Most did not end up winning the nomination, so I can relate to being disappointed after a primary. Although I’m currently undecided in all of Iowa’s 2018 Democratic races, I understand why many people picked a candidate early and respect their enthusiasm. I only ask that you:

Fight fair.

Either stick to positive messages about your favorite or do your homework before criticizing someone else. On social media I’ve seen too many good Democrats spread inaccurate claims about certain candidates. We don’t need to resort to smears.

Agree to disagree.

My parents canceled out each other’s votes in almost every election. One thing I learned growing up with them (and arguing with my Republican father as a teenager) was that you are not going to change another person’s entrenched opinion about politics.

No matter how strongly you believe one Democrat is the best choice, you are not likely to convince a firm supporter of someone else. It’s better to acknowledge, “We have a lot of great candidates this year” and direct your activist energy toward persuadable voters.

Stop talking about Hillary v. Bernie.

We all have our own reasons for choosing candidates. For some Democrats, it’s important to know where a person asking for their vote came down on the Clinton/Sanders question. If they caucused for Bernie, they may prefer Pete D’Alessandro (a top Sanders staffer) for Congress, or Jon Neiderbach (a vocal Sanders supporter) for governor.

On the other hand, Cathy Glasson (a high-profile Clinton endorser) has attracted many supporters on the Sanders wing because she is staking her gubernatorial campaign on a call for “bold, progressive change” including a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All.

Whether or not a politician’s stance in the 2016 caucuses matters to you, nothing more can be gained by arguing about how the last presidential race unfolded. Howard County Democratic chair Laura Hubka, who caucused for Sanders and voted for Clinton in the general, spoke for many in her rant about Democrats who can’t stop looking in the rear-view mirror: “I do not CARE who you supported. Move on.”

Here’s to committed Democrats getting through the next ten months without burning a lot of bridges.

Final note: Bleeding Heartland welcomes guest posts advocating for Democratic candidates in primaries. You can find guidelines for authors here.

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