J.D. Scholten was the Democratic nominee in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district in 2018 and 2020. -promoted by Laura Belin
We, Iowa Democrats, have a lot of work to do. The 2020 election was humbling and has been hard to swallow. In 2008, Barack Obama won Cerro Gordo County with 60 percent of the vote. Donald Trump carried it this year with 52 percent. Obama won Carroll County in 2008 with 51 percent, but Trump won overwhelmingly there this year, with 68 percent of the vote. Those are just a couple of examples of what happened across the state.
Is Iowa a red state? Yes, for now, but I am not sold that all is lost for the Democratic Party here. In order to improve our outcomes, we need some changes within the Iowa Democratic Party. It starts with whomever the new chairperson will be.
There are three criteria we should look for when searching for the next Iowa Democratic Party leader: 1) can they fundraise, 2) what’s their vision, 3) can they communicate the Democratic message.
I am honored that people have reached out to encourage me to run for chair, but at this time it isn’t a good fit personally. Besides, I have heard the names of several great candidates who are fully capable of executing the three criteria I have mentioned.
I am not sure what is next for me, but I do want to continue to help shape the party. In doing so, I have a few ideas based on what I’ve seen over the past few years. Here are my thoughts:
We need to keep the Iowa caucus, and we need to reform it. It is imperative that we solidify Iowa’s position as first in the nation for selecting the presidential nominee. Our best allies in this fight are the Iowa Republicans.
The goal of the caucus is to be an organizational tool for the party. The 2020 caucuses got a lot of attention for what went wrong. However, it was the smoothest caucus in terms of registering participants, as well as the most inclusive to date.
We should build on those improvements and continue to reform the caucus by simplifying it and making it easier for people to take part. Most participants, including precinct captains, are overwhelmed and/or confused by the rules and the amount of material to go through. One way we can simplify the process is by keeping all of the necessary requirements to still be considered a “caucus,” while giving each participant a ranked-choice selection, similar to the straw poll Iowa Republicans use in their precincts.
Ultimately, we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is a tremendous organizing opportunity for the party. Along with that, it brings in a ton of money into the state, supporting Democratic groups at all levels.
There’s a distinct difference between organizing for a campaign and organizing for the party. Right now, the organizing is mostly done by campaigns which are limited by time. In addition, campaign resources often come very late in the election cycle. That type of organizing usually starts in July of the election year and goes until election day. This causes campaigns to rely on a slash and burn, “all in” style.
In contrast, the Democratic Party needs to invest in year-round organizers. By doing so, we build relationships and we build trust. Calling someone five times a day once every two or four years, like we are doing now, isn’t doing the trick. We need to treat someone’s phone number the same way we would if we were calling them from our personal cell phone. We’re in the business of organizing, not debt collection.
OUTREACH AMONG PEOPLE OF COLOR
The Iowa Democratic Party’s outreach team and efforts need to expand. We cannot hope to reap what we haven’t sowed, and our relationships with all marginalized communities, not just Black and Latino, need to be cultivated much more intentionally. This includes outreach and communications in multiple languages, as a minimum.
The 2020 election forced us to see how good our data really is, because of the decision to phone/text and not to knock doors during the pandemic. The outcome wasn’t good.
The reality is that it’s a bit of a Catch-22. In order for VAN, the voter profile database that the Democratic Party uses, to work, local organizers must update the data frequently. However, VAN is extremely costly for campaigns, especially at the beginning of the election cycle.
If we had year-round organizers work with strong county parties on updating the data, VAN would be way better than what we have today. We need to continually update and expand the voter files.
With our campaign, we saw enormous gaps in VAN’s database, both in terms of accuracy and availability. For example, there were 60,000 independent voters for whom we only had an address–no phone number, email, or social media profile. How are we supposed to expand our reach when we don’t have the proper data?
Once we have the data, we need to safeguard it like the contacts we have in our own phones.
COUNTY PARTY INFRASTRUCTURE
The county level parties are the heart, the grassroots, of the party. Candidates and campaigns come and go, but the party remains. Along with the focus on getting candidates elected, building the base needs to be the priority. The caucus and the year-round organizing should feed into this. Strong local parties mean better data in VAN, too.
One reform the Iowa Democratic Party can do is to regionalize parties in rural counties. Many rural county parties struggle with numbers. I see too many rural county party chairs being overwhelmed because they have to do everything. Year-round organizers and a regional approach (like the Tri-County Democrats in Mitchell, Howard, and Worth counties) would help alleviate burn out and strengthen the party.
We just had a U.S. Senate candidate raise $47.5 million dollars! That’s amazing. All four Congressional Democratic candidates drastically out-raised their opponents, too. Now that the campaigns are over, what does the state party have to show for it? Do we have stronger county parties or better data?
After starting from absolute scratch and raising more than $6 million dollars over two cycles as the fourth Congressional district nominee, I have not had the Iowa Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee, or any party organization contact me about our campaign. No one has asked what we learned, what we did right, what we did wrong, or about our data, or anything else. The state party should do post-election analysis with candidates and their staff.
Democrats have a massive consultant issue. This complaint is more directed at the party nationally, rather than toward the Iowa Democratic Party. There are far too many consultants making decisions who have never been to Iowa or have no idea what’s happening here. They don’t realize that what’s happening in Des Moines is a far cry from what’s happening in the rest of the state.
Everything I suggest to improve the party and give candidates the best chance to succeed would cost money. If the type of money that Joe Biden and the Democratic Senate candidates raised this year is any indication, the money is out there. The way to turn that money into victories is by investing in year-round organizing, better data, and strong local parties.