Where Iowa Democrats go from here: Thoughts for the next party chair

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:

IOWA CAUCUS

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.

YEAR-ROUND ORGANIZING

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.

DATA UPGRADE

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.

EXIT MEETINGS

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.

CONSULTANT CLASS

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.

  • One thing

    to add to your very good article. The Monmouth poll asked if voters had been contacted by a campaign. About 50% said they had been contacted nearly every day – I suspect by e-mail though the term itself was not defined.

    But 30% said they had NEVER been contacted. I am not surprised by this number but it does suggest we need to understand this data better. Are we too aggressive in how we cull voters in the VAN? Is there a group of voters we simply aren’t seeing?

    FWIW.

  • I really disagree

    I have a hard time agreeing with any of this. Our issue isn’t our ability to fundraise. Many of our state legislative candidates did quite well at fundraising but still fell short on election day.

    And the Iowa caucuses were a national embarrassment. Yet we hold onto this disgraceful insult to democracy because we want more money — if that’s our focus, that’s why we lose.

    We need to engage people in democracy, and we can’t do that while suppressing democracy to make a quick buck.

    Ranked choice paper ballots, absentee voting — and we should make that how we vote in general elections too.

  • That last point about consultants is especially interesting

    I know at least two people who stopped donating to the national party because they were so disgusted by the We-know-what’s-best-for-you-Iowans Patty Judge debacle, plus a few similar things in previous years.

  • It's about engaging, messaging and candidates

    The new party chair needs to take a three-prong macro approach if the IDP is ever going to turn the state something resembling purple. They need to concentrate on engaging, messaging, and recruiting attractive candidates.

    To engage with potential voters, you have to raise awareness and bring them together — long before campaigns get started. And it has to be a constant effort. How? Make being an Iowa Democrat a social thing to do. The party needs to become a social destination, like PTAs and places of worship. When it’s safe to do so, get events going to develop social circles, which can springboard campaign circles. Getting your friends and neighbors together to enjoy food, beverages and company is the easiest way to build infrastructure.

    Regarding messaging: Iowa is not New York or California. Our candidates need to speak to our needs, which may not gibe with
    Democrats of Brooklyn. Iowans do not want to “defund the police.” If this means our messaging doesn’t conform to what comes out of the left-most wing of the party, so be it. Even Joe Manchin’s centrism is far more progressive than any Republican’s. Let’s raise the big tent here in Iowa and keep it raised. And convey that our candidates really do represent Iowans. We need to engage professionals who truly understand how to craft effective messaging, not rely on the one-size-fits-all approach that has produced enough crap to fill a CAFO.

    And we need attractive candidates. Tip O’Neill famously said, “It’s always the candidate.” We need to search for energetic women and men who can persuade their friends and neighbors to vote for them. That means don’t round up the usual suspects. Dump out the many-times-warmed-over coffee and brew a new pot.

    Anyone who declines to energetically adopt these fundamentals is doomed to bury the IDP in a hole so deep, we might as well be South Dakota.

    • Poor tip from Tip

      Tip O’Neill lived in a different time–a time when the parties overlapped. His advice that it is always the candidate and that all politics is local are both obsolete. There were many varieties of Dem candidates in 2020 but none of them beat Republican incumbents for the House either in Iowa or nationally. It was the national scene that mattered, not the candidates or local issues.

      And BTW, I’m for defunding the cops. Just today WaPo reports that cops took more stuff from Americans than did burglars. Cop burglary is called asset forfeiture. Cops get away with everything.

  • Agree

    We have so much work to do. We HAD so much work to do and it just did not get done. We do need to listen more to a wider swath of people. There is so much more to this story. Thank you for addressing it.

  • Courageous

    The next IDP Chair needs to be courageous. We play to give every Democrat a trophy and it doesn’t work. Why, in a party that prides itself on knowing the difference between equality and equity can we not get it straight? Moderate Democrats won. We got our president and in turn, shared our state sacrificially with Republicans—the very definition of equality.

    But wait, that’s not what’s best for the country. Or Iowa. So, now what?

    Let’s ask ourselves this: Do we want to win, or do we want to save the country? Ah, a dilemma. Why can’t we do both?

    We can. The problem is, we are struggling to do both at the same time. We cower last minute, and abandon our values for the win. For example, turning against the principles of Black Lives Matter and defunding the police messaging. Democrats, you marched to these very messages in June. By October, making actual sacrifices for racial justice was no longer a thing most contributed to. And why? For the win? That abandonment of values, the social justice value that defines our very party, still lost us a flippable Senate seat, two House seats, and a partridge in a pear tree.

    Republicans run their races with their values up front, unapologetically, in every cycle. We just don’t. We separate into the very left wing and centrist. We wait until the last minute to do everything, and we clearly don’t watch the game tape.

    Local parties should be organizing RIGHT NOW. We should be recruiting candidates and training them RIGHT NOW. We should revisit what it means to be a Democrat and stop using geography as an excuse to set aside our integrity. We asked this of the ”very left, ” and now we all need to do so. We need to stop operating from a place privilege and start operating with ears open, and our message clear. And the next IDP chair should be representative of the party: unbossed, unapologetic, probably Black or Brown or Asian or Gay or Female or all of the above. Because that individual will most likely be courageous. As their everyday life requires as such.

  • We should lead in Ranked Choice voting

    I like the suggestion of having year round statewide organizers, and making them responsible for updating information on the VAN. Campaigns have a spotty record of doing so, because campaigns aren’t accountable to the IDP.

    I especially ike the suggestion of ranked choice voting for the caucus, but I’d take it further. And we can do that without changing Iowa law, because state parties are free to run their caucuses as they like. So instead of voting at the precinct level, with all the crazy rounding errors that go along with it, we could turn our caucus into a statewide primary with 100% mail in ballots. The ballots could be mailed out, or handed out by canvassers—there’s the opportunity for face to face organizing. By caucus night, all the ballots are in Des Moines, and are counted in public view. It would grab the audience that normally pays attention to the Iowa caucuses, and literally show them what ranked choice voting looks like.

  • First in the nation presents a conundrum ...

    Being first in the nation means that the candidates know they are dealing with a national, not Iowa, audience. The national attention is cool and all – don’t misunderstand – but it seems to be fundamentally at odds with the central point of J.D.’s message – Iowa Democrats don’t look like coastal Democrats, and we need to be faithful to the grassroots here at home. Frankly, while I have a love-hate relationship with the attention, I think Iowa itself and our local Democratic base would be better off without it.

  • IowaMimi

    What do we want Iowa to look like? What is our vision? Republicans are clear. Guns. Tax cuts. Anti-abortion. Well, I’m not sure that’s what they want but that’s what they use to get what they want. We need a vision of a healthy, robust sustainable Iowa and then everything must be measured against that by all of us including the IDP. . You want big tax cuts, Republicans? Well we want a state with a talented and well educated work force that pulls business to Iowa. How will we have that if we collect no tax revenue to pay for pre-k – 16 education excellence? Short term it’s appealing but what does it mean for the long term? We want families to move here for our amazing quality of life? Why would they do that if our schools don’t rise to the top, our water is dirty, and recreational parks, trails, etc. are limited and not well kept?

  • Messaging

    Remembering the messages of this last election cycle, I’m not surprised that Biden recently talked about the phrase “defund the police” being used by Republicans to beat up Democratic candidates. I saw those ads too.

    “Black Lives Matter” is an excellent distillation of a very valid issue. “Defund the Police” is a terrible distillation of a very valid issue. And I say that after looking online to find out how “defund the police” is being defined and explained on the Internet. “Defund,” as a verb, is defined in the dictionary as “prevent from continuing to receive funds.” That makes the phrase sound like police departments would lose all funding and completely disappear.

    Being committed to an issue should not have to mean being committed to a bad distillation of that issue. Better language can be found. If the Democratic Party is not willing or able to drop bad distillations and adopt better ones, many more candidate beatings lie ahead.

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