Democrats must finance their inspiration

Glenn Hurst is a family physician in southwest Iowa and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

The analysis of election outcomes in Iowa is not a new topic. But applying the lessons that could be learned has eluded some candidates and our dedicated supporters. In at least the last four general elections, Iowa voters have selected the Republican candidates up and down the ballot. As a party, we are poised to repeat the behaviors of the past that have cost Democratic candidates their races.

Democrats have lost state House and Senate seats in most of rural Iowa. We have lost at the top of the ticket in the four key races, for president, governor, U.S. Senate, and several U.S. House districts. Our analysis to date has addressed the following concerns:

Have Iowans rejected Democratic values? The conclusion: not necessarily. Does it mean they reject all Democratic candidates? Again, not necessarily.

What we have not done with those conclusions is determine the correct course of action.

What it takes to win in Iowa is a combined effort: strong candidates for local offices and inspirational candidate higher up on the ballot. But we have not reached Iowa voters in a meaningful fashion. It is up to the candidates and the Iowa Democratic Party to change the way we run and who we support.

Local candidates are often tasked with the lion’s share of the persuasion work, finding new voters and getting them out to vote. Combined, they knock more doors than any candidate for Congress or a statewide office could do. They bring in the votes for their campaign. We expect that a good share of those voters will select Democrats higher up the ballot as well.

This takes money and volunteers. Sadly, the largest buckets of money for these candidates get sequestered in state funds that tend to be spent defensively, not offensively. They are spent on targeted races, usually in and around larger metro areas, with a pittance shared in more Republican counties.

Meanwhile, volunteers in red counties are engaged to do countless hours of outreach and organizing. With our recent outcomes, it is no wonder their willingness to charge into losing battles is waning.

Our federal and statewide candidates are expected to motivate Democratic-leaning voters to get to the polls, thus delivering the base. This should contribute significantly to lifting those local candidates into office. The Iowa caucuses, with all its flaws, demonstrated that Democrats are seeking leaders with a strong message. Bernie Sanders, arguably the most issue-based campaign, won the first, second, and fourth Congressional districts. It took him a lifetime to develop the donor base to raise his voice loud enough to be heard.

In most statewide races, reaching voters with a message takes resources that are again sequestered in defensive positions. Candidates with lackluster messages but good relationships with donors are funded in ways that drown inspiration by sheer volume. This approach has created a system that supports career politicians, donor-class insiders, and party puppets, not Democratic leaders. Iowans are not hearing the Democratic message. They are not hearing:

  • We want you to thrive, and here is how we will measure it and how we will get there…
  • We want your communities to grow, and here is how you can achieve that…
  • Your safety, comfort, and quality of life should be affordable and attainable, and here is how we will assure that…
  • We want you to reap the rewards of your work, and here is how we will empower you…
  • We want a fair opportunity for you, and here is how we level the playing field…
  • Your diversity is valued, and here is how we protect it…
  • Corporate corruption and corporate welfare must be stopped, and here is how we will stop it…

The ultimate solution to this problem is campaign finance reform. As a candidate, I have committed to legislation to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns. I have also committed to supporting legislation for term limits. I am a champion for U.S. Senate rules reform. We must impede career politicians from being useful tools of corporate and partisan interests.

But in the current environment, it is up to us to police our own spending and support. Our previous analysis has demonstrated that the Senate Majority Fund and House Truman Fund focus on backing Democratic legislative candidates in districts perceived to be competitive, leaving those in long-shot races to fend for themselves. When we fail to fund challengers in tough districts, we concede the race and create a cycle that perpetuates loss.

Funding for top-of-the-ballot candidates has gone to moderate, safe candidates whose values will not challenge Iowa voters to consider their own. When those candidates run on their potential appeal to moderate Republicans, or on identity rather than policy, we leave our base uninspired and potential swing voters with no reason to swing.

Albert Einstien’s suggestion, that it is foolish to repeat the same action and expect different results, applies to the Democratic strategy in Iowa. In an environment where campaign finance law continues to allow a wild west shoot-out approach to politics, it is up to us to police ourselves.

Large donors, labor unions, and PACs must take the initiative to support candidates at the top of the ticket who can rally our base and down-ballot candidates in difficult races who are doing the work. These are the candidates Democratic voters will show up to elect.

  • As a small donor...

    ...I find this recommendation rather confusing. But I suppose I may have accidentally followed it, because I donated to six candidates for the Iowa Legislature in 2020 and watched five of them lose.

    I hadn't realized I was donating to such "difficult races," but apparently that was the case. I'm not at all sure I'd want to donate in future to races that are even more difficult, because five losses out of six races was demoralizing enough.

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