Commentary

To rebuild, Iowa Democrats have to fill their leadership vacuum

November 4, 2020 11:46 am

Sen. Tom Harkin campaigns with former Rep. Bruce Braley in Des Moines in 2014. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Where have you gone, Tom Harkin? Iowa Democrats turn their lonely eyes to you.

Woo woo woo.

There are a lot of reasons why a year when everything seemed to be going Democrats’ way — a record turnout, the most unpopular president in recent history, a raging pandemic without competent management by the state or federal GOP administrations — ended in an embarrassing rout.

But the problem Democrats need to solve first is the glaring lack of leadership at the top of the party. There hasn’t been a clear Democratic leader in Iowa since Harkin, the long-time former senator, announced his retirement in 2014.

This isn’t a knock on Mark Smith, who took over as state party chairman after the caucus debacle in February. The party chairman is an important job in Iowa, but it’s more about shoe leather than vision. It  used to be Harkin who groomed, recruited, essentially chose and directed the people in those jobs and gave them their statewide authority.

Rep. Dave Loebsack has been the most senior Democratic officeholder in the state since Harkin retired, and he clearly had no interest in trying to lead the state party. Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal was the other top Democrat at the time and he had the respect and savvy to do the job. But he had his hands full with the Senate and ultimately lost his Council Bluffs seat in the 2016 red wave.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack was the other likely suspect, and he did try to help Democrats retool their messaging after 2016. He tried to persuade the party to move away from identity politics, stop obsessing about Trump and make a cogent economic argument that could appeal to rural residents. In retrospect, it was sound advice, which Democrats not only ignored in 2020 but went full-bore in the opposite direction.

Vilsack, an old-school centrist who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was mostly unknown and not particularly trusted by the younger, Bernie-centric progressives who were providing most of the party’s energy. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests, COVID-19 and liberals’ utter captivity to the constant barrage of Trump outrages rendered the party helpless to focus on a message that would resonate in small-town Iowa.

Now Loebsack is retiring and the most senior Democratic officeholder — and potentially only Democrat left in federal office in Iowa — is Rep. Cindy Axne. She could step up — someone needs to — but she’s holding onto her southwest Iowa district by her fingernails. If she, or someone, doesn’t figure out how to win outside Polk County, she may not survive another cycle.

It’s hard to say whether Theresa Greenfield, had she defeated Joni Ernst, could have become the party matriarch. Certainly not at first, but maybe with time.

Before Tuesday, I would have picked J.D. Scholten as the model for how to win elections in rural Iowa. He ran a completely different playbook than most Democrats. Instead of going into the COVID deep freeze, he traveled everywhere in his district in an RV.  He tailored a rural-friendly message that focused on economic, ag-based issues while maintaining progressive positions on issues like health care and the environment. We can only wonder if he would have been more successful against Ernst than Greenfield was.

If 4th District Republicans hadn’t woken up and ousted Rep. Steve King in the primary, Scholten might have prevailed on Tuesday. But ultimately, he couldn’t overcome the GOP advantage in the district. Even so, Scholten may still have a future in statewide politics. Two losses don’t necessarily disqualify him. Look at Mariannette Miller-Meeks, for whom the fourth time running in District 2 may be the charm.

Harkin served the state well and he’s earned his retirement. Iowa will probably never see the likes of him again. But Democrats will have to find a leader who can fill, at least in part, the vacuum of vision and direction or Iowa can get used to being a permanent red state.

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