Holiday Politics

Rural polling place in Johnson County

What went wrong for Democrats in the 2022 midterm election? A lot. How do we fix it? The first reaction, and I believe the wrong one, is to throw the bums out.

I like Ross Wilburn, Iowa Democratic Party chairman and have since he was the Iowa City mayor. I agree with the idea that if he can’t perform as state party chair — and the lack of Democratic wins during the recent election cycle makes a case that he can’t — we should replace him. There are three parts to this and they don’t lead us there.

First, Democratic core activists like the groups with which I associate were very busy with political work for a year before the November election. Whatever analysis we or others might make about the mechanics of the campaign (Vote Builder, money, coordinated campaign, messaging) it doesn’t detract from the fact our core active Democrats were busy working to get our candidates elected.

Second, the state central committee, which elects the party chair, is increasingly irrelevant. Our last days of glory were in 2006 and 2008. It has been a long, dry season ever since. The biggest change in the state central committee has been the rise of Bernie Sanders supporters who wanted to change everything for the better. They won their elections to the central committee, yet I’m not seeing change we need. The last two cycles have really rotted. Maybe they should be replaced as well.

Third, the problem in replacing folks on the state central committee, and how they organized the 2020 and 2022 cycles particularly, is millennials and Gen-Z voters are not stepping up to help campaigns the way my generation was accustomed to doing. I noted in a previous post, contrary to the national trend, they were the ones who found reasons not to vote on Nov. 8. Instead, they are packing their bags and leaving the state permanently. This is part of a broader dynamic. Changing members of the central committee can be fine, yet it doesn’t address the brain drain ongoing in Iowa. This is an unrecognized, real-world consequence that costs the party. People who leave the state to better themselves seem most often to be, if not always, Democratic voters.

A Republican strength is it targets young Iowans who attend community college, get married, raise a traditional family, and settle down close to where they were born. The culture of this is stifling, yet some folks in those generations thrive in it, have multiple children, and buy McMansions to withdraw into church, school and family. For the most part, they are not Democrats.

Making do in this bleak Iowa cultural landscape seems unlikely for young people who have more ambition and are willing to trade what they know for a chance at something better. They will leave the state and never look back.

I’m not sure changing the party chair addresses this core problem. That’s why I’m not anxious for major changes in the state central committee.

For a minute, let’s go into the Wayback Machine. After Wilburn was elected in 2021, The Des Moines Register reported,

Wilburn said he would begin the party’s rebuilding efforts by creating a three-election-cycle strategic roadmap; improving candidate and local leadership development; working to become a better asset to county parties and other constituency groups; and improving the party’s use of data.

State Rep. Ross Wilburn elected to lead Iowa Democratic Party as chairman by Brianne Pfannenstiel, Des Moines Register, Jan. 23, 2021.

What of that plan? To my knowledge, that was the only public mention of it. On its face, it’s one cycle down and two to go. From my perch, candidate development seemed very good. There were great candidates fielded, like Kevin Kinney, who didn’t win their elections. This part was successful, even if the results were disappointing.

I’m not sure how the state party became a better asset to county parties. Here in Johnson County, we had freedom to structure a campaign the way we wanted. It appeared we had enough paid staff and resources to conduct operations. Statewide candidates were frequently present. We weren’t successful in the most Democratic County, yet there should be valuable lessons to learn. The biggest lesson should be found in answering the question why did we fall about 4,700 votes short of our 32,000 Democratic margin goal?

As far as improving the party’s use of data, all I heard as election day approached was that we were focused on turning out likely Democratic voters who previously voted only in presidential years. We had the data to target those folks, yet not enough of them voted. As I have written, my precinct turnout, among Democrats and Republicans was significantly less than 2018 and 2020. Part of that is erosion of Democratic registrations yet turnout in both parties was down. Three cycles equals six years, so hopefully the state central committee is busy analyzing data to figure out what went wrong during the first two.

During previous election cycles, I wrote my analysis of the election quickly, soon after the polls closed and results were known. It seems essential we take our time this cycle to examine the results carefully and thoroughly. I plan to live in Iowa for a long time, and would like to see more Democratic wins. 2023 will be the first time I’ve had a Republican state senator since we moved here in 1993.

Things have been better when Democrats had a say in our governance. We are a distance from that being the case again. During the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, part of the celebration has been coming to terms with that reality.

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