DES MOINES, Iowa — Democrats in the Midwest know that the way to win back voters in states like Iowa is to talk about the economy, but they’re debating how exactly to do it.
As a state that can make or break presidential campaigns, and one that had regularly sent liberal Democrats to Washington, Iowa now serves as a test of whether Democrats can win back white voters who have swung toward the Republican Party over the last decade.
But Democrats in the state are divided over how populist their message should be and whether voters here will buy it.
Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District is in some ways one that should be prime pickings for the party.
The district voted for President Barack Obama twice. Active voter registration is roughly evenly divided in the district: 34 percent of active registered voters are Republican, 32 percent are Democrat and 33 percent are not affiliated with either party.
When Latham retired in 2014, Republican David Young won the open seat by almost 14 points, and he had no problem holding on to the seat last year while Trump was carrying the district by 4 points.
Democratic losses in the 3rd District mirror the party’s decline statewide.
From 1999 to 2011, Democrats occupied the Iowa governor’s mansion, first with Tom Vilsack, who served two terms, followed by a single term for Chet Culver.
But the bottom started falling out in 2010, when Terry E. Branstad, Vilsack’s four-term predecessor, beat Culver to reclaim the governorship. Republicans also took over the state House. Four years later, after Harkin announced his retirement, Republican Joni Ernst succeeded him, defeating Rep. Bruce Braley by 8 points in the GOP wave election.
Democrats hit rock bottom last year when they lost the state Senate and Trump won the state by 10 points.
“Obama winning Iowa in 2008 and 2012 kind of papered over a lot of the very serious structural deficiencies in the Democratic Party,” said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic campaign staffer who now runs the website Iowa Starting Line.
“The county parties started to kind of wither away. The thing was it was all obvious, but Democratic campaigns here in the state did not change up their strategies. They were still running the same ‘raise a bunch of money, poll test the top three issues and then run all of your campaign ads on those top three issues,’ and it just hasn’t been working,” Rynard said.
There is a feeling among some in the rural areas that Democrats have not focused enough on their needs.
“These are people who said they haven’t seen someone down in their counties and their towns in a heck of a long time,” said Cindy Axne, one of several Democrats challenging Young next year. “One even said [not] since Sen. Harkin.”
Democrats like Axne say they want to focus on issues aimed at helping rural voters, such as expanding broadband access and cellphone services.
“We don’t even have that in these communities,” said Axne, a small business owner and former state employee. “So how are they supposed to start entrepreneurial opportunities, small businesses, participate in economic opportunities if we don’t have those sort of things?”
Issues that divide
Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads heartland engagement efforts for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spoke here Sept. 30 at the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry, a showcase for Democratic candidates.
While Trump carried her district last fall, Bustos won re-election by 21 points. She said for Democrats to win back Midwestern districts, the focus should be on the economy.
“There are so many issues that divide us as a nation. I don’t know why anybody would walk into a room starting with an issue that divides,” Bustos said.
That notion plays well in Iowa.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, another steak fry attendee, received loud applause when he said that Republicans have frequently tried to divide people along lines of race, gender and sexual orientation and that the Democrats’ focus on tailoring their messaging to groups based on identity played into their hands.
“If we don’t get into power, none of the individual groups are going to be able to do a damn thing,” he said. “We will always be and fight for equality and justice for everyone. But what we have to let everyone know is we are going to fight for their economic well-being.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Axne.
While she called talking about protecting civil liberties and the environment “incredibly important,” she said Democrats also needed to talk about helping families provide for themselves.
Pete D’Alessandro helped run Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in Iowa last year, which came close to pulling off an upset over Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic caucus.
D’Alessandro is now challenging Young for the 3rd District seat on a robust Sanders-inspired platform that supports a $15 dollar minimum wage, single-payer health care and free college tuition at state schools.
“My problem with the politics that has happened in the last generations is we’ve nuanced the issues too much and we lost those working-class people,” he said.
D’Alessandro said the district isn’t “a bunch of backwoods people who voted for Donald Trump,” and is adamant it can be in play for Democrats in the future.
How far left is too left?
But like the national debate, there is a divide among Democrats in Iowa about how far to the left they should tack.
While businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, another 3rd District Democratic candidate, called the minimum wage of $7.25 “an abomination,” she was less clear on what it should be.
“I don’t know what the right number is,” she said. “I want to focus on how to get those kind of opportunities to people so they have a living wage.”
Similarly, Rynard of Iowa Starting Line said Democrats should be cautious about using terms such as “free college” because of its perception as an entitlement.
“Anytime you talk about certain government incentives or government assistance, there are ways that certain Democrats talk about it that sounds to voters like a handout or a freebie,” he said.
Greenfield said she wants to focus on helping people at trade schools and those who complete apprenticeships as well as helping those who choose to go to community colleges.
“We’ve got to bring pride back to our trades and pride back to some of these technical skills,” she said.
Democrat Heather Ryan, another Young challenger, is trying to approach politics with the same blunt style that Trump used.
Ryan, who is not related to the Ohio congressman, was almost banned from speaking at the steak fry for her use of coarse language when talking about the incumbent.
“I talk like a sailor because I am a sailor,” she told attendees, highlighting her service in the Navy.
But Bustos said during her speech that a better approach was one proposed by some of the other candidates: listening to the needs of Iowa voters and not simply being anti-Trump.
“We need to show them we understand their fears but also [their] anxieties and aspirations,” she said. “Frankly, my fellow Democrats, they don’t want resistance, they want results.”