Zach Meunier is the previous campaign manager of Rob Sand for Iowa, Rita Hart for Iowa, and Dave Loebsack for Congress.
Enough with the doom-and-gloom.
Campaign managers are not optimists by nature. One of my professional mentors described a campaign manager’s job as “thinking of all the ways you can lose, then working every day to stop that from happening.” So I have found myself in a very strange position in the last month, as the guy arguing that joy cometh in the morning for Iowa Democrats.
Yes, it has been a brutal decade for Iowa Democrats. 2022 was the culmination. Two historical trends that favored the GOP converged in the same year. For the first time since 1986, Republicans had an incumbent governor and U.S. senator running for re-election together, a powerful combination. For the first time since 1962, it was a midterm for a Democratic president who had not won Iowa.
Those factors contributed to a red wave cresting in Iowa when it failed to materialize in most other states. But what lies ahead?
After spending a few weeks looking under the hood of the election data we have available, I have reached one inescapable conclusion. There is a clear path for Democrats to win again in Iowa at all levels: statewide, Congressional, and legislative. In important ways, Iowa still bucks national trends of partisan voting, and the makeup of the Iowa electorate is not locked in stone.
Let’s go through my takeaways from the 2022 elections in Iowa:
1. Iowans are still willing to vote for some Democrats, even more than voters in most red states.
One of the defining political trends of the 21st century is the decline of split-ticket voting. While Iowa is not immune from that trend, this year Iowans proved that they are national leaders in voting for candidates of both parties on the same ballot. This also means Iowans, more than most states, are still willing to vote for Democrats in large numbers. We only need a few more of them to do so, percentage-wise, to turn losses into wins.
State Auditor Rob Sand is the clearest example because he won. Rob is now the only non-federal statewide elected Democrat in the country in a Trump state with a Republican governor. The three federal ones are Senators Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. That’s a short list, and Iowa is on it.
But only looking at the win-loss obscures the actual numbers, which are more informative. Attorney General Tom Miller and State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald could not quite overcome the red wave in Iowa, but their overperformances each rank in the top seven nationally. That again puts Iowa in an even better position.
That’s right: three of the nation’s top seven ticket-splitting vote-getters, of either party, were Iowa Democrats. Most Iowans who crossed over didn’t only vote for Sand; most ticket-splitters also voted for two other Democratic statewide candidates. And that was in the Republican “perfect storm” year of 2022.
The same trend held at the state legislative level. Kim Reynolds won 75 of the 100 state House seats and 38 of 50 state Senate districts. Yet, voters crossed over to elect Democrats in about a dozen Iowa House districts and four Iowa Senate districts that Reynolds carried. So even in a brutal year, Democrats managed to win across the state in some very tough districts.
Newly-elected Iowa House members Josh Turek, Elizabeth Wilson, and Molly Buck, and State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott (who won re-election) all showed a clear path forward for Iowa Democrats.
So don’t forget: Iowa is a leader in split-ticket voting, up and down the ballot. Put another way, Iowans are not just voting for the party. Many are still willing to vote for the person.
2. Democrats are winning in states similar to Iowa.
I have seen some absurd state-to-state comparisons of how “red” Iowa is, again, based on only win/loss facts. But the numbers instead show the truth. Inside Elections rated each state’s 2022 baseline. Among GOP-leaning states, Iowa was next after North Carolina, and before Georgia. North Carolina has a Democratic governor. Georgia has two Democratic U.S. senators.
Not only that, but Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana also have Democratic governors, and Montana, West Virginia, and Ohio all have one Democratic U.S. senator. Yet as you would expect, Inside Elections rates them all as more Republican than Iowa, most of them substantially so.
If anyone quits on Iowa being willing to elect Democrats, when three of the top seven ticket-splitters into the nation were Iowa Democrats, and states as red as or redder than Iowa still elect some Democratic governors and senators, they are simply misinformed.
Winning at the top of the ticket in Iowa is plainly doable. We can debate how to do it, but to borrow a line from David Plouffe, enough with bed-wetting negativity.
3. Look out for future Republican primaries.
A significant benefit for Republicans of having two entrenched incumbents at the top of the ticket was the lack of Republican primaries receiving widespread media attention. The current shape of the Republican Party led them to nominate weak candidates in many states, including Blake Masters and Kari Lake in Arizona, Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, Tudor Dixon in Michigan, and Herschel Walker in Georgia. Horrific candidates may have cost Republicans some state legislative races, but not at the top of Iowa’s ticket.
By running for reelection, Kim Reynolds and Chuck Grassley kept divisions in the Iowa GOP beneath the surface. Don’t misunderstand me—the governor and senior senator are wrong on any number of issues. But neither publicly called for jailing teachers or made the results of the 2020 presidential election the center of their campaigns.
Meanwhile, consider that Grassley had a challenger from the right, who did almost nothing and got 25 percent of the GOP primary vote, even after Grassley spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on statewide TV ads before the primary!
Iowa Republican primary voters are ready to nominate some wild, tough-to-elect candidates when they have an open race in the future. We need to get to work to be ready to beat them —not just because we want to win, but because they will be more dangerous to our state. Way-out-there GOP candidates will make our job of persuading voters a bit easier, compared to getting voters to fire someone they’ve elected in the past.
I do not pretend the work Iowa Democrats face ahead will be easy. It is alright to be angry. It is ok to be frustrated. During the next legislative session, Reynolds and the Republican majorities will try to take our state further in the wrong direction.
The path and work ahead are clear. 2022 was a rough year, but it also showed the resilience of Iowa Democrats. Now we have work to do.
Stop the doom-and-gloom on social media and make sure fellow Democrats know we can win again. Why? Because in the worst year in generations, some did.
Then, we have to get out there and do the hard work of talking to Iowans, helping campaigns, contributing, and running for office.
You don’t need to wait. There will be a lot of absurdity during the legislative session, which starts in less than a month. Let’s get organized and make sure Iowans know what is happening at the capitol.
Top photo, taken at the Clinton County Democrats Soap Box in September 2022, provided by the author and published with permission.
Democrats: Live Healthier
To win with any frequency, Iowa Democrats have to do 3 things:
1. Replace the party leadership. For whatever reason, they are not relying on what should be their native inherent belief in what it takes to recruit the right candidates in the right areas with the right appeal and the right messaging. They too often take their marching offers from the national party, which is too fixated on its East and West Coast progressive factions, which are increasingly out of step with the more centrist feelings of most voters in rural states.
2. Organize. I have worked enough with various candidates to realize that too often, each is on their own without the organizational help — particularly the database usage, communication tools and GOTV efforts — of what should be the prime reason to be well connected with the state party. Whether it's because of lack of effort, lack of imagination, lack of funding, or lack of leadership, Iowa Democrats' organizing efforts pale compared with that of Republicans.
3. Listen. Democrats in other rural states have won by listening to what their voters are telling them. In Iowa that means getting away from Polk, Story, Johnson, and Linn counties; recruiting candidates who know how to run on the issues elsewhere; and helping spread their messages.
Modifying the election landscape is like losing weight: You need a change in living habits instead of quick diet fixes. Democrats have two years to make the necessary changes to change their lifestyle their bad habits kill them for good.
Taking action on strong essay.
A solid and positive cheerleading message. But, I see few D efforts to operationalize priorities and messages at the state or local levels. What is the state-wide message to convey to Iowa voters? What is the alternative to the easily understood MAGA message? With a message and coordinated campaigns, you can recruit.
Waiting is a problem. Messages and priorities (even bullet points) need to be activated to sure Iowans know what is happening at the capitol. Not just during session, but all 12 months of the year.
thanks for essay.
Combining main column and spot on comment
Democrats in other rural states have won by listening to what their voters are telling them. In Iowa that means getting away from Polk, Story, Johnson, and Linn counties; recruiting candidates who know how to run on the issues elsewhere; and helping spread their messages.1. What comes first? If new leadership fails to generate money, message and coordinated campaigns, it will make no difference.
2. Organize all. I disagree with focus on 'only D's. 's There are D leaning I's and maybe a small number of R's who voted for Miller, Axne, etc. If D's feel their priorities resonate, they should be unafraid to reach out to all Iowans.
3. Use every megaphone and media to articulate key priorities-with solid messaging. Iowans support D policies for the most part (see Progress Iowa poll). Listen and learn from Iowans and candidates on how to best craft the message and work with media..
It seems to me that the problems started after Tom Harkin retired.
We don't have a State wide leader and metropolitan areas are not on the same page.