A path forward for Democrats

Rosanne Cook, Sarah Prineas, Emily Silliman, and Janice Weiner co-authored this post. -promoted by Laura Belin

November 3, 2020 was a kick in the teeth for Iowa Democrats. We lost in Iowa and we lost badly. What should we do about it, other than feel disheartened?

The Potluck Insurgency is a grassroots activist group based in Johnson County. After the 2020 election, four members of Potluck’s steering committee undertook a project to debrief candidates from urban, suburban and rural districts; former officials of the Iowa Democratic Party; and activists from other grassroots organizations.  Seeking to identify reasons for our losses in 2020 and to formulate recommendations for a path forward in Iowa, we interviewed 34 people over the course of three months, in hour-long interviews, working from questions prepared in advance.   

After these interviews, we drew some conclusions about next steps. The following advice is directed at everyone from Iowa Democratic Party leaders, to activist groups like ours, to candidates. These are concrete actions that all of these groups can take to improve our chances in 2022.

  • Go local. County parties and grassroots organizations must get active and stay active at the local level. Serving as a precinct captain for a county party central committee must be more than just showing up to a monthly meeting—it has to mean getting out and registering voters, organizing people, showing up as Democrats at local events (not just Dem events), engaging in discussions, and showing the flag.
  • Listen to our candidates — let them lead. We have good candidates who know their districts. As a party, we must amplify their messaging and support their authenticity by using templates and themes that are flexible, not prescriptive. Broad themes are fine—cookie cutter messages, cowboy cards, and ads are not. Play to people’s strengths.
  • Reframe our messaging. We must reframe our messaging so we are not stuck responding to Republican taunts and lies but are pushing out our own clear, concise, consistent messages. Part of that is getting out ahead on issues and framing them as we see fit. Part is reclaiming language that Republicans have appropriated, such as freedom, liberty and patriotism. Part of it is also having clear responses ready to deploy to combat the two most virulent Republican talking points: That we are gun grabbers and baby killers. To accomplish this we need to work with communications experts—many of us may have those experts living right in our own communities.
  • Ditch the coordinated campaign. Every two years, we hear the same litany—this time, it will be different. But it’s not different. It’s not working and it is especially not working for our Statehouse candidates. (The people who work on them are great—it’s the concept that is not.) We’ll never have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the Statehouse if we don’t identify and get the right people out to vote. Yes, investing in GOTV is still a must, but we must be smart and make much better use of our resources and the knowledge gained over the course of each campaign.
  • Fix the VAN or start over. The information in the VAN (the database used by most Iowa Democratic campaigns) is in poor shape, to be charitable. Either we invest time and money in cleaning it up, including getting rid of the bad phone numbers and adding in contact information where it is missing, or we invest in a new system. We could offer incentives—VAN for free for a certain amount of clean-up, for example. Until and unless we take decisive action here, we will be at a disadvantage when it comes to voter contact.
  • Year-round organizing. This is where the IDP can take the lead with paid organizers who can help get county parties organized and organizing—including those in tough, red territory. If that means organizing regionally—several counties working together in some areas to pool resources—that is what we do. The IDP can start by hiring a permanent state-wide organizing director.
  • Focus on communications. We need really good communications people as part of the state-wide teams. If you have them locally, use them, by all means. But this is an area of expertise that the state party can double down on and help candidates. And if communications needs are being met by consultants, there must be contact between these resources and county parties and county-level activist groups.
  • Value every candidate. Those running in very red districts are doing some of the bravest, hardest work. They contribute to party building, they are ambassadors for candidates further up the ticket, they help us cut into margins, and they force Republicans to use resources. We must value them. If that means giving them access to the VAN for free or at a highly discounted rate, then do it. If that means providing them with other resources, then we do that, too.
  • Women support women. We have seen time and again that most (not all, but most) of the grassroots groups are women-led and women-driven. The Potluck team that put together this report is made up of four women.  Our interviewees consisted of 21 women and thirteen men. Women have creative ideas and know their communities. They are outstanding at relational organizing. We need to empower them, support them and help them soar.
  • EMILY: Early Money Is Like Yeast. Help people raise the first thousand; give them the tools so they can be effective fundraisers. Groups like Flip It Iowa can teach candidates how to organize fundraisers. Once they prove they can raise money close to home, it is easier for them to draw in more money. Money can never again be allowed to be an issue—for the most part, it was not in 2020. That is a positive takeaway from 2020.
  • Be proud of our values: We have values—we care about people, we respect their differences, we care about their future, just as we care about our state. Never forget that or apologize for it. We need to make sure Iowans know that government is a force for good in their lives.

 If you are interested in reading the entire report and reviewing specific recommendations for various entities of the Democratic infrastructure in Iowa (the IDP, Truman Fund and Senate Majority Fund; county parties, grassroots groups, and candidates), it can be found here.

About the Author(s)

Emily Silliman

  • Thank you for this

    “Money can never again be allowed to be an issue—for the most part, it was not in 2020. That is a positive takeaway from 2020.”

    I’m very glad to read that money was mostly not an issue in 2020. I’m one of the apparently-many Iowans who donated to multiple Iowa House races in the hope of flipping the House. Obviously that didn’t happen. Now I’m wondering if one of the things to consider is where donations would do the most good for the 2022 election.

    One reason I donated to individual races was because I had no clear idea of how the money would be used by the IDP. After reading this post, I realize that I might be willing to donate to the IDP, or projects therein, if I saw a good plan/rationale that laid out how and why the money is needed and would be used effectively to win elections.

    In any case, thank you for compiling the report! Per your post, my teeth feel just a little better now.