New Iowa Democratic Party chair Rita Hart has her work cut out for her
Iowa Democrats at lowest ebb in decades
Rita Hart is the new chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Democratic Party with background via Canva)
The Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee elected Rita Hart as the next party chair on Jan. 28 by 34 votes to 14 for Brittany Ruland and one for Bob Krause.
Hart promised to focus “squarely on helping our party begin winning elections again,” and had submitted a detailed plan (enclosed in full below) to make that happen. She touted her experience as a former state senator who had won two races in a district Donald Trump carried, raised $5 million as a 2020 congressional candidate, and outperformed Joe Biden by more than Iowa’s other three Democrats running for U.S. House that year.
When outlining her vision for Iowa Democrats, Hart acknowledged, “We cannot fix everything in one two-year cycle. We need to be realistic about what can be achieved in two-year and four-year time frames.”
She and the rest of the state party’s new leadership team — first vice chair Gregory Christensen, secretary Paula Martinez, and treasurer Samantha Groark — take over as the Iowa Democratic Party is at its lowest ebb in decades. The party has no representation in either chamber of Congress for the first time since 1956, no representation in the U.S. House for the first time since 1996, only one statewide elected official for the first time since 1982, and its smallest contingents in the Iowa House and Senate since the 1960s.
A quick review of the most pressing problems:
A growing voter registration disadvantage
The Republican Party of Iowa has used direct mail and other methods effectively in recent years to increase their registration numbers. Iowa Democrats have not invested in any comparable effort. What GOTV the state party has funded has been geared toward generating absentee ballot requests, not new voter registrations.
Nearly three years have passed since Iowa Democrats last gained a significant number of registrants. With no competition for the Republican nomination for president, many Iowans changed their party affiliation in order to express support for one of the Democratic presidential candidates at the February 2020 caucuses.
But Republicans regained a voter registration lead by July 2020. The GOP advantage grew to nearly 27,000 by the end of 2020, and to more than 56,000 by the end of 2021. As of January 2023, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in Iowa by more than 93,500.
The disparity could widen this coming year, as GOP presidential candidates visit frequently before the first-in-the-nation caucuses, while the Democratic nominating calendar bypasses Iowa.
A larger pool of like-minded voters sets GOP candidates up for success. If Iowa Republicans and Democrats turn out to vote at the same rate in any given election, GOP candidates in statewide races will start out with an advantage and don’t need to persuade a majority of unaffiliated voters.
To make matters worse for Democrats, the party has been unable to match Republican turnout for quite some time.
A persistent turnout deficit
I created this table using statewide statistical reports available on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. Republicans have been more reliable voters than Democrats in Iowa’s last six midterm elections.
Iowa Democratic turnout in November (60%) exceeded the very low levels seen in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, but fell short of the party’s strong 2018 numbers. A Democratic turnout rate of 63% last year would have pulled Attorney General Tom Miller over the line (he lost to Brenna Bird by 20,542 votes). Democratic turnout in the 65% range would have saved State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, who lost to Roby Smith by 30,922 votes.
Meanwhile, the Republican turnout rate in the latest midterm (66.8%) was slightly down compared to 2018 (71.6%). But GOP voter registrations had increased by so much over the past four years that Republicans cast more ballots (508,232 for the November election) than in 2018 (492,802 GOP voters), even with a smaller percentage of registrants showing up at the polls.
Republicans who participated in Iowa’s 2022 general election outnumbered Democrats by around 88,000 voters. That’s a big hill to climb for statewide Democratic candidates, who must carry the independent vote decisively to have any chance.
A persuasion problem among independents
Consider the results from 2002. As the table above shows, Republicans had more registered Iowa voters than Democrats at that time, as well as a higher turnout rate. The statistical report showed 412,863 Republicans cast ballots in the 2002 general election, while only 353,584 Democrats did, giving GOP candidates a natural advantage of about 59,000, assuming both party bases remained equally loyal.
Nevertheless, Democrats easily won at the top of the ticket. Senator Tom Harkin was re-elected by a margin of more than 100,000 votes over Republican Greg Ganske. Governor Tom Vilsack was re-elected the same year, winning more than 83,000 more votes than his GOP challenger Doug Gross,.
That could only have happened if Vilsack and Harkin carried the 254,753 no-party voters who cast ballots, and/or received a significant GOP crossover vote.
Granted, Iowans tend to re-elect incumbents. But consider 2006, when there was no U.S. Senate race in Iowa, and the governor’s race was open. Even though slightly more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in that general election, Chet Culver defeated Jim Nussle in the governor’s race by more than 100,000 votes. He must have crushed Nussle among the 273,094 independents who participated in that election.
In Iowa’s 2018 election, about 34,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots, and Fred Hubbell lost the governor’s race to Kim Reynolds by about 36,000 votes. Had Hubbell managed to carry the independent vote (say, by a 55-45 margin or better), he would have become governor.
Democrats running in Iowa’s top statewide races in 2022 faced more entrenched GOP incumbents as well as a bigger turnout deficit. As mentioned above, around 88,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in the November election. Mike Franken lost the U.S. Senate race by around 148,000 votes, and Deidre DeJear lost to Reynolds by around 226,000 votes, pointing to a huge disadvantage among independents.
Miller and Fitzgerald (40-year incumbents with massive name ID) managed to attract a lot of unaffiliated voters. Each exceeded DeJear’s vote total by more than 100,000. But it wasn’t quite enough. One big reason: Democrats have lost ground in many longtime strongholds.
Disappearing Democratic strongholds
DeJear carried just four of Iowa’s 99 counties. Franken carried five in the 2022 Senate race. The last two Democratic candidates for president won just six Iowa counties.
When Iowa was genuinely a swing state, Democrats could count at least a dozen other counties as solid vote-producers. Dubuque is the largest of these former strongholds. Most of the others are considered “micropolitan” areas and contain cities with populations between 10,000 and 40,000.
Declining Democratic performance in mid-sized cities was already apparent in the early 2010s and was arguably the decisive factor in the 2018 governor’s race.
The erosion of Democratic support in these communities has been devastating for the party in recent legislative races.
- Republicans picked up the Iowa House seat in Boone in 2010 (already held the state Senate seat)
- Republicans picked up the House seat in Muscatine in 2010 and the area’s Senate seat in 2016
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Ottumwa in 2010 and the House seat in 2020
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Fort Dodge in 2014 and the House seat there in 2018
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Burlington in 2016 and the House seat this year
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Marshalltown in 2016
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Newton in 2018 and the House seat in a 2021 special election
- Republicans picked up the House and Senate seats in Keokuk in 2020
- Republicans picked up the Senate seat in Clinton in 2018 and the House seat this year
- Republicans won the Senate seat in Mason City this year (redistricting played a role)
Hart represented the Clinton area in the Iowa Senate for two terms, campaigned for Congress across southeast Iowa in 2020, and currently chairs the Clinton County Democrats. So she has had a front-row view of Democratic erosion in areas the party needs to start winning again.
subhed]A financial disadvantage[/subhed]
The Republican Party of Iowa has a built-in fundraising advantage, because many of its signature policies benefit business interests and wealthy individuals. Those with the capacity to donate to political candidates tend to favor tax cuts skewed toward the highest income brackets. The school voucher giveaway will largely help families that can already afford to pay private school tuition.
Iowa’s increasingly durable GOP trifecta exacerbates that problem, because many political action committees predominantly support Republicans, and those that give to both parties typically donate larger dollar amounts to those who wield power in the legislature.
Hubbell roughly matched Reynolds’ spending in the 2018 governor’s race, but the GOP incumbent spent millions more than DeJear last year. Franken raised far more than any previous Democrat who challenged Senator Chuck Grassley, but was also vastly outspent. And in most of the battleground state legislative races, the Republican Party of Iowa spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the Iowa Democratic Party.
Money isn’t everything in politics; Democrats fared poorly in Iowa’s 2020 legislative races, despite strong fundraising. But it’s hard to compete when your opponent is buying vastly more television, radio, and digital advertising and able to hire more field organizers.
The latest financial disclosures, filed earlier this month, show the Iowa GOP raised more than $4.8 million between mid-October and the end of 2022, and had more than $600,000 in the bank and no debts as of December 31. The Iowa Democratic Party raised just under $2.5 million during the same period and closed out the year with about $258,000 in the bank and $100,000 in outstanding loans.
The Iowa Democratic Party and affiliated local organizations have traditionally raised money through events featuring presidential hopefuls. But those won’t be happening here during the 2024 cycle.
Hart plans to spend most of her time fundraising to address the party’s many needs.
The new state party chair’s action plan
While campaigning to lead the party over the next election cycle, Hart sent an 11-page document to State Central Committee members.
A focus on fundraising
The overview made clear that Hart sees fundraising as her central responsibility. “Nothing else matters in structure if we do not have the correct model for fundraising because we will not have the money to do it.”
“Most of the Chair’s time will be spent fundraising so staff can execute the program.”
Hart has close ties to Iowa’s major Democratic donors — most notably Hubbell, who chose her as his running mate in 2018. These “usual suspects,” including the 2014 candidate for governor Jack Hatch, dramatically scaled back their giving to the state party in the last cycle, in favor of their new “Hughes Project” effort.
Hart noted that the Iowa Democratic Party hasn’t changed its fundraising model much “since the Vilsack/Harkin days,” and while that approach “has historically served us well […] the lack of Democratic elected officials means we need to try something new.”
She will “ask for six- and seven-figure investment from traditional high-dollar donors,” and look for ways to tap “low hanging fruit” through calling donors who give three- and four-figure amounts, and organizing fundraisers in all major cities, rather than just two big annual events in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Hart also wants to put “real money behind creating a strong small-dollar base” for Iowa Democrats, through many platforms.
“Deep” rather than “broad” organizing work
The most intriguing idea in Hart’s vision statement relates to “year-round organizing.” (emphasis in original)
“Historically, the party has simply assigned each staffer a congressional district. The effect has been wide coverage, but not deep organizing in any particular county. This plan proposes to flip that arrangement. Instead of starting with four organizers covering 20+ counties each, we will begin with organizers having responsibility for only a couple of contiguous counties and responsible for working that turf all off-year aggressively. This program will grow to cover more counties as more funding becomes available and serves as a pilot for an eventual 99-county year-round program.”
Priority counties for this deep organizing would include those with targeted Iowa House or Senate races for 2024, “pivot” counties that voted Obama-Obama-Trump-Trump (as opposed to reliably blue counties), and those that “need additional capacity to grow but have shown clear signs of committed leadership.”
Hart proposes a division of labor on GOTV, whereby county parties are “responsible for turning out and activating Democrats, and candidates at all levels are responsible for persuasion.”
A different approach to messaging
Hart hopes to hire more communications staff, to help generate more “earned media” (coverage in news stories, as opposed to advertising the party pays for), and messages that reach outside political bubbles. That is likely to mean fewer news releases quoting Hart on this or that story of the day, and more work developing “validators and storytellers that will make compelling content.”
“A statement from the IDP Chair saying Kim Reynolds is bad is unsurprising and unlikely to make news. The stories of people Iowans relate to and how they are affected by Republican policies can make a much bigger impact if handled correctly. It also generally requires looking outside traditional Democratic circles.”
A new governing structure
Near the end of the State Central Committee’s marathon Jan. 28 meeting, members approved a bylaw establishing a new “steering committee” to direct the party’s “operational and election related activities.” A forthcoming Bleeding Heartland post will discuss this change in more detail. It was reportedly a necessary condition for Hart to agree to lead the party, but on the progressive wing, many Democrats viewed the proposal as a power grab.
The new steering committee will include Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, and State Auditor Rob Sand as well as Hart and five State Central Committee members (the full governing body has more than 60 people). Past Iowa Democratic Party chairs will serve on the steering committee ex-officio. The group will handle many decisions related to spending, communications, and organizing, with some input from the larger State Central Committee.
Shortly before the Jan. 28 meeting adjourned, Hart thanked outgoing state party chair Ross Wilburn and State Central Committee members “for the confidence that you’ve placed in me today.”
“I’m here to say that I’m ready to get to work. And I need your help. So we know things won’t change overnight, but we do have the tools to get this job done. We have the talent. We have the know-how, and we certainly have the desire, both in this virtual room and all across the state. So I’m going to be calling on you. I’m going to call Democrats all over Iowa to step up in various ways to put your talents to use. We’re all going to have to dig deep to play our various roles, and I am so encouraged by the number of people who have already said to me, yes, what can I do? […]
“I’m excited for what our future holds together, and I look forward to getting to work with all of you. Let’s get at it.”
Hart is the 10th person to lead Iowa Democrats since 2010. She has an unenviable task, given Republicans’ many structural advantages. And while it may seem like the party has nowhere to go but up, improving Democratic performance during a presidential election cycle where the national party writes off Iowa is far from guaranteed.
This commentary first appeared at Bleeding Heartland and has been shared on Iowa politics with Laura Belin on Substack as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.
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