Mediocrity won't motivate

Chad Cooper is a Cedar Rapids resident, writer, and lifelong progressive. -promoted by Laura Belin

The Iowa Democratic Party has had a rough year. First, the bungling of last February’s caucuses, and now a dismal showing in races across the state on November 3.

The elevation and financial backing of moderate, middle-of-the-road candidates clearly isn’t a winning strategy. It’s not effectively motivating progressives or swinging undecided and independent voters in this state. While U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer’s loss in the first Congressional district is befuddling given her record of diligent work for Iowans, and Rita Hart’s fate is dangling by narrow margins in the second Congressional district, the campaigns of Hart, U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield, and J.D. Scholten in the fourth district were lackluster affairs from the beginning.

Those candidates peddled a compromising work-with-anyone message that has come to commonly serve as a euphemism for inaction and political expediency. Finkenauer applied a similar approach and found herself on the losing end in 2020 against a proven plagiarist. Meanwhile, there are issues in this country and state that demand urgent action, including social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and true universal affordable healthcare.

Democrats are worried about continuing to lose ground in rural counties, but that concern appears short-sighted. The demographic trends in Iowa show a state losing rural population as young people either move to larger metro areas or leave the state entirely. Iowa Democrats are chasing a diminishing, albeit entrenched, population. And, what good is appealing to rural voters if it means undercutting your principles? In just this last election cycle, we saw candidates like Greenfield and Hart stiff arm issues like police reform and single-payer health insurance to avoid rustling rural feathers.

Democrats are too busy running from Republican accusations of socialism and “radical liberalism” instead of doubling down and convincing voters across the state that progressive policies will actually benefit them and their families. Democrats have allowed Republicans to set the field of play, and they’re wondering why they’re losing?

The state and national Democratic Party are in moderation stasis. Even in a year with record voter participation, Iowa Democrats lost ground in the state. It appears the Iowa Democratic Party and prominent Democrats are unwilling to commit to truly progressive candidates to motivate young people, attract voters to the state, and transform the base for fear of alienating moderate voters and offending myopic rural sensibilities. Instead, they seem content pursuing the fading rural vote while rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship of political moderation. Good luck with that.

Top photo of Chad Cooper provided by the author and published with permission.

  • Genuine curiosity

    Are there any states with rural populations like Iowa’s where this approach has been tried and has resulted in election wins? I really don’t know. And I don’t mean rural states like Vermont that have established rural progressive voting blocs, but states much more like Iowa. If there are, I’d be very interested in learning more about examples.

    • Minnesota

      I’d never say any state was an apples-to-apples comparison, but Minnesota is close, and they’ve seen success building up the vote in the major metro areas and supporting progressive candidates on the ticket.

      • Thanks for responding!

        Curious again — has MN run successful progressive candidates in rural districts? I ask because the Minneapolis metro area has 3.28 million people and is bigger than the entire state of Iowa, and I’m guessing that Democrats usually have at least a fighting chance there because it’s urban.

        In the election a few days ago, rural Minnesotans dumped Collin Peterson, a conservative Democrat in the U.S. House, for a Republican. Looking at Minnesota’s congressional districts, I see the usual pattern of urban districts electing Dems and rural districts electing Pubs. Peterson seemed to be the last holdout.

        I would seriously welcome examples and stories of progressive candidates anywhere in the U.S. succeeding in rural districts in the past twelve years (the exception being Vermont, which seems to be its own special nation:-). Also examples of progressive candidates managing to excite enough rural voters to win statewide races. When I skim the table that shows what percentage of each state was urban in 2010, I seem to see a significant correlation between more urban and more Democratic. But I only skimmed, and there may be very encouraging election outcomes I don’t know about.

        • Response

          I’m not the person to make a case for success in rural districts because that would go against my core argument. My primary point was that chasing the vote in rural districts is a fool’s errand in states like Iowa. You won’t find many progressives succeeding in rural districts, and my point is that they likely won’t need to in the future as demographic trends show populations concentrating in metro areas.

          Moderate Democrat campaigns lose because they don’t excite, expand, or transform the base. Iowa Democrats spend too much time and energy chasing after a fading rural vote that likely won’t support them anyway instead of empowering and increasing their progressive base. Put the focus on increasing turnout in the larger metropolitan areas and stay true to a cohesive progressive message, then convince voters from all areas why progressive policies are the best answer for Iowa voters.

          Unfortunately, progressives haven’t had the opportunity to mobilize across the board because the national Democratic Party has been hesitant to downright resistant to promoting and elevating truly progressive candidates.

        • Other Rural State Successes

          I don’t know about MN but Dem candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana have done well in statewide races in recent years.

          Dems also picked up House seats in red states like Kansas, Oklahoma and South Carolina in huge upsets. But, that was probably due to the 2018 Blue wave washing out GOP candidates in a referendum on Trump. But still – those were seats that no one thought could ever go blue.

          Dems have had a shot at seats in KS and LA because GOP governors had disastrous tenures in those states. The Dems should figure out how they did it so they can use those methods against Kim Reynolds in 2022.

  • What's your beef?

    Are you complaining that lackluster campaigns lose? Then explain how Feenstra won. He barely had any campaign at all and was accused of being in a witness protection program by a journalist on Iowa Press.

    Are you saying the candidates are not liberal enough? Then how did Scholten get endorsed by Blue America Pac, one of the the fussier progressive groups that regularly condemned both Finkenauer and Axne during the last two years?

    • Pretty simple

      Feesntra won because he’s running in the most conservative district in the state.

      As for Scholten, my guess is that endorsement was because Democrats saw the biggest opening they’d had in years with the departure of King in that district. Unfortunately, they (Democrats) still lost.

      My primary point is that lackluster, moderate Democrat campaigns lose because they don’t excite and transform the base. Iowa Democrats spend too much time and energy chasing after a fading rural vote that likely won’t support them anyway instead of empowering and increasing their progressive base. Put the focus on increasing turnout in the larger metropolitan areas and stay true to a progressive message, then convince voters from all areas why progressive policies are the best answer for Iowa voters.

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