Brian Bruening chairs the Clayton County Democrats. The following is an expanded version of a speech he gave to campaign donors and volunteers at a Thank You reception on February 19, 2023.
In August 2022, I decided to run as a Democratic candidate for Iowa House district 64, which covers all of Allamakee and Clayton counties, plus the Holy Cross precinct in Dubuque county. The current representative Anne Osmundson, a far-right radical, was running unopposed.
As a county party leader, I knew the impossibility of getting people to volunteer and vote when there are no actual choices on the ballot. Why turn out to vote when none of the races would be contested? Indeed, through strong encouragement, our county party managed to get Democrats on the ballot for most of the partisan contests that November.
My campaign raised nearly $10,000 in two short months. With that money, we distributed 150 yard signs and banners around House district 64. We created a branded website, as well as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook presences. We produced dozens of Facebook ads that generated more than 20,000 separate engagements. We made 22,000 impressions, with 9,500 complete ad play-throughs on YouTube. We sent nearly 10,000 text messages trying to inform no-party voters and get out the Democratic vote.
We also played three radio ads a day on local radio stations KMCH and KTCN/KADR radio over the weeks running up to the election. In addition, we encouraged our local newspapers to host a candidates’ debate, subsequently posted on YouTube, which spawned weeks of coverage.
Dozens of volunteers sent out nearly 2,000 handwritten postcards to young voters, to no-party women, and to infrequent Democratic voters. On election day, we had poll watchers up and down the district checking in on polling locations and marking off those who already voted. The information was sent to call centers in Clayton and Allamakee counties where we had dozens of volunteers calling Democrats who had yet to vote to encourage them to go the polls.
There were a few areas to which we were unable to direct resources: TV advertising, direct mail to all addresses, and door-knocking. Being in a rural district in the state's far northeast corner of the state, our nearest TV media markets are in Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, both of which were saturated with U.S. Senate and House ads and far outside our budget.
Direct mail, which studies have shown require upwards of four separate impressions to register with voters, was likewise cost prohibitive.
With door knocking, we faced the perpetual problem of canvassing in rural counties: lots of area with low population density. District 64 covers more than 1,440 square miles with an average population density of about 21 people per square mile. A drive from the north to south ends of the district covers more than 80 miles. A canvasser could easily spend an entire day knocking on doors and only hit 20-30 houses, with only a small fraction of those stops having anyone home.
I can’t remember the last time something so consumed my waking hours as working on this campaign. Every free moment was spent creating ads, designing postcards, talking to volunteers, all while still working full-time. We had no help from the state party, but relied on local volunteers and donors and county parties to put together the campaign. We were focused until the very end, and there could be no doubt that Democrats still had something to say to people in the rural counties of this district.
The results of my election were nearly the same as for the candidates running in this district over the previous two election cycles (district 64 is more or less the same as the old House district 56): I received a little more than 30 percent of the vote. Was it worth the effort and expense to run for office in district that has only become more solidly Republican since the election of Donald Trump in 2016?
At this point I could flood you with a ton of data about voting patterns, about changes in registration status, about the district’s rapidly aging population. If I wanted to create a grim portrait for Democrats in Clayton and Allamakee counties, and in Iowa on the whole, I could easily do it. A case could be made that rural Iowa is lost to Democrats without a dramatic change to the voting population.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, stated that we as humans have a fundamental freedom to choose: to choose hope in the face of despair, to choose bravery over retreat, to choose speaking up over staying silent. Not that long ago, Democrats in my area held offices as state representatives, state senators, and county supervisors. Yes, we live in a vastly different political and social landscape than we did in 2007, but we still live in a democracy, we still have the ability to present our ideas and values and to try to persuade others to join us.
After having a decade of complete control, Republicans have been legislating and governing without concern for consequences. As I see it, there are a few major undercurrents running through Republican governance in Iowa: fear of the unknown, nostalgia for a time that never existed, and a willingness to trade away others’ freedoms to preserve their own power.
Let's take a relevant example. Transgender and non-binary kids, and LGBTQ kids in general, are among the most powerless individuals in our society. And yet Republicans have introduced multiple bills in this session directly targeting them. Any guess on the number of self-identified trans kids in Iowa? In a survey taken in 2021, the total was about 800. That’s 0.15 percent of Iowa kids ages 6-17. Or 0.00025 percent of the population of Iowa. By comparison, nearly 3 percent of Iowa’s population works for HyVee.
So we have to ask ourselves, why is this tiny population being so aggressively targeted?
1) Fear of the unknown. Gender and sexuality are private and complicated issues, and the mere presence of these people forces self-reflection that a lot of folks don’t want to deal with. If there’s a trans student in their child’s class, will they be forced to answer questions at home? Preventing an awkward 10 minute discussion is worth stripping away the dignity from kids, right?
2) Nostalgia. A lot of people look back and say there never used to be trans people so why do we have to deal with the issue now? Of course this erases the fact that LGBTQ folks have always existed, and that it was literally a matter of life or death for them to keep their identities hidden. LGBTQ not showing up on straight people’s radars in previous decades does not mean they did not exist.
3) Sacrificing others to maintain power. Republicans in Iowa and the country in general have become very good at playing to voters’ fears to maintain their power. Sure, making school even more traumatic for LGBTQ kids is cruel, but it gets voters to the polls to vote for anyone with an “R” after their names. Transgender people are the easiest target, and the visceral fear of them is a powerful rallying cry for conservatives.
The journalist Adam Serwer wrote in an Atlantic essay, and subsequent book of the same title, The Cruelty is the Point,
Taking joy in th[e] suffering [of perceived enemies] is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.
Community through shared disdain, where kindness to others is weakness, and generosity a luxury saved for those exactly like us.
But this concept is foreign to so many of us. Now nearly a month after the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and Syria, volunteers continue to dig through the rumble in search of bodies. People still gather together to help survivors, to provide shelter, to share food and water, to family, to friends but to strangers too. The overwhelming majority of people show empathy and generosity in the face of calamity.
Look at video footage of people in disasters helping others who’ve lost everything. You’ll see smiles, and warmth, and empathy. Because here’s another fact: helping others is done with joy, it is an experience of solidarity and community, another answer to “the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”
So I ask again: Why do we as Democrats continue to work to present another vision of government, to stand up to the Republican dominance in Iowa, to volunteer, and indeed to run for office? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we as Democrats believe that we are our sisters and brothers keepers. Because staying silent is worse than losing an election.
As writer and historian Rebecca Solnit says in Hope in the Dark, “Many people no longer believer that a better world is possible, and that the best they can achieve is a better life for themselves and for themselves alone.” I for one refuse to succumb to this kind of nihilistic thinking. I believe a better world is possible, here and now, and not only in some unreachable future. I am committed to putting in the work. I know my voice is small, but I will still speak up.
We as Democrats must continue to speak up. Over the next months and years, as the many pieces of destructive legislation passed by Republicans come to full fruition, giving Iowans an alternative vision for the state will be more important than ever. Now, at this most grim of junctures, is the time Democrats need to rebuild and organize, to write letters to the editor, to post on social media, to talk to friends and neighbors, to leave no elections uncontested, and perhaps most importantly to build a strong relationship between county level parties and activists and the state party and legislators.
I have high hopes that the Iowa Democratic Party's new state chair Rita Hart will draw from her experience as a state legislator and candidate, and will help draw these disparate wings of the Democratic Party together to focus on the most important goal we must have as Democrats in Iowa: to find candidates for office and help them win.
Top photo of Brian Bruening provided by the author and published with permission.