‘Fed up and fired up’: Democrat leaders stay hopeful as Republicans lead in polls

By: - June 25, 2021 5:16 pm

The American flag and the Iowa flag fly on the grounds near the State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Katie Akin/ Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As Republican leaders show strength in statewide polling and 2024 GOP hopefuls come to visit, Iowa Democrats say they’re optimistic about their chances in 2022 and beyond.

“We’re not conceding anything. We’re going to fight,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in an interview. “Democrats are fed up and fired up to organize and win in Iowa.”

Republicans swept Iowa in 2020. The GOP holds the governor’s office, both chambers of the state Legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and three of four U.S. House seats.

At the Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner in West Des Moines Thursday, House Speaker Pat Grassley noted that GOP lawmakers represent all or part of 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties. 

“The Democrats continue to progress down the path of going further and further left, they’re clearly not learning that here in Iowa, that is not what Iowans want to see,” Grassley, R-New Hartford, said.

Recent Iowa polling shows GOP support is staunch. The Des Moines Register reported this week that President Joe Biden’s approval rating is underwater among Iowans, with 52% disapproving and 43% approving. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds had 51% approval, and Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley both have more constituents approving of their performance than disapproving. 

So where does that leave Democrats? Leaders in Iowa said the strategy for the 2022 elections and beyond will be policy-based: informing Iowans what Democrats are doing for families and decrying Republican policies at a state and national level.

“We know Iowans agree with us on the most important issues, on public schools, affordable prescription drugs, successful small business, more economic opportunity in rural and urban areas across the state,” Wilburn said. 

It’s just a matter of getting that message out, Wilburn said. U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, the only Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation, said she’s already crossing the state and speaking at Democratic events.

“My job as the highest-ranking Democrat and a party leader is to be out there informing people of the truth, what we’re working on in Congress,” Axne said in an early June interview. “And yes, of course, to get them fired up and keep them engaged.”

Wilburn said he expects Democratic messaging for 2022 will continue to include the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to policy issues. Throughout the 2021 legislative session, state Democrats made a lack of pandemic relief a refrain in weekly press conferences.

“It will be part of the overall message because the bigger theme is failed leadership,” Wilburn said, speaking specifically of Reynolds. 

The June Iowa poll found that, beyond just Reynolds’ approval ratings, Iowans also felt favorably toward her policies on schools, the economy, criminal justice, voting laws and the pandemic. On each issue, more respondents said they approved of Reynolds’ performance than those that disapproved. When asked whether they approved of how Reynolds handled COVID-19, 54% of Iowans said they did.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, used part of his speech at the Lincoln dinner to applaud the state’s actions during the pandemic. Reynolds moved to get students back into classes before some districts were ready. And she signed a bill in the middle of the night that banned schools and local governments from requiring masks.

“We have lockdown liberals trying to keep our kids out of school, continuing to hold them back, and we had a governor, we had a House, we had a Senate that said ‘no longer,'” Whitver said. “We’re going to put every single kid in every single school district back in school this year.”

State-level Democrats also remain determined to retake a majority in the Statehouse — despite the fact that Republicans hold an 18-seat advantage in the House and 14-seat lead in the Senate.

“I’m not the kind of person who likes to go for second place,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Jennifer Konfrst. “I’m fully aware of the demographic challenges, the map challenges, the redistricting challenges, retirements, everything that’s out there. But I am fully committed to doing all we can to get to (a majority) in 2022.”

Democrats and Republicans united in efforts to keep Iowa caucuses first

Iowa’s Democratic and Republican parties are united in their opposition to Nevada Democrats’ attempt to leapfrog ahead of Iowa in the presidential nominating process

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann issued a joint statement with GOP leaders in Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina opposing change in the nominating calendar. Wilburn said he had spoken to other early state leaders and was working to keep Iowa first.

Former United Nations Ambassador and possible 2024 contender Nikki Haley visited Des Moines Thursday. She said there were plenty of reasons to come to Iowa, including the state’s willingness to elect Republican women.

Democrats have echoed the call to keep Iowa first, arguing that state serves as a place for candidates to hone their message before a national campaign. Wilburn pointed toward the 31 Iowa counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016. If Democrats can connect with rural, working-class Iowans “who feel left behind,” he said, it would benefit them nationwide.

“Democrats can’t walk away from Iowa,” Wilburn said. “It’s a microcosm of what’s happening around the country.”

“If we can win in Iowa, we can win across the country,” he said. 

The state of the 2022 race

More than a year before the 2022 election, the race has begun in earnest in Iowa.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, announced his candidacy for governor this month. Other Democrats, including State Auditor Rob Sand, have not ruled out a run for governor.

Reynolds has not announced whether she will run for re-election.

Democrats are also angling for congressional seats: Former Crawford County supervisor Dave Muhlbauer has mounted a challenge for Grassley’s Senate seat in 2022. Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer is also considering a run for Senate, the Register reported

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, told several news outlets in June that she was “seriously considering” a run for Congress in Iowa’s 1st District.

Meanwhile, Republicans are largely planning for re-election — and some are looking ahead to the 2024 caucus cycle.

Haley scheduled events with several big-name Republicans during her swing through Iowa, including fundraisers for Reynolds, U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra, U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and House Speaker Pat Grassley. At her Thursday night event, she focused primarily on the 2022 race and taking the U.S. House and Senate back from “socialist” Democrats. 

“The Democratic Party has become the socialist party,” Haley said. “The proof is everywhere. Joe Biden doesn’t get it. A tax cut for business means a wage cut for workers.”

More national GOP politicians are headed to the state soon: Sen. Tom Cotton will be in Sioux Center next week. In July, the conservative Family Leader group will host a star-studded conference with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence.

In an interview after Thursday’s GOP Lincoln Dinner in West Des Moines, Kaufmann said he and his Republican colleagues plan to stick to their conservative talking points, reach out to the suburbs and rural areas, and win. They will rely on what he sees as strong support for the GOP’s approach to cutting taxes, fighting the pandemic, protecting students from “indoctrination” at school, and shifting support for mental health programs from county property taxes to state revenue sources.

“So when you’ve got policies like that that cross party lines, and cross ideological lines,” Kaufmann said, “I think we’ve got a winning hand.”

— Perry Beeman  contributed to this report.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.