DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Democrats are looking for the prescription that will help them emerge from their withered condition, after dominating just a decade ago.
After sending progressive Tom Harkin to the Senate for 30 years and twice delivering the state for Barack Obama, Democrats are powerless in the House, Senate and statehouse, and remain stunned by President Donald Trump’s solid Iowa victory last year.
While it’s a familiar scenario across the upper Midwest, the pressure on Iowa Democrats to recoup the working-class voters who marched with Trump is more intense: They’re charged with setting the tone in a little more than two years for the party’s presidential nomination.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan has ideas for Iowa, his own state and elsewhere. He is among three rising House Democrats — including Illinois’ Cheri Bustos and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — in Des Moines on Saturday for a Democratic fundraiser, capping a summer of early activity in the presidential proving ground by more than 10 would-be White House prospects.
“I think it starts with letting these working-class people know that we see them, we hear them and we know what they are going through, and we have a plan,” Ryan, from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Just as Iowa Democrats are starting from scratch, the little-known Democrats surveying Iowa are a sign the national party, too, is starting at square one in its search for its next standard-bearer after consecutive, star-studded presidential campaigns.
It wasn’t long ago Iowa Democrats were sitting at a 40-year high.
Just seven years ago, Democrats controlled both state legislative chambers and had occupied the governor’s office for 12 years. The party held three of five House seats, while Harkin was Obama’s right hand in the push for the health care law.
But economic blowback from a national financial collapse, a poorly handled state budget crisis and the widespread revolt by grassroots conservatives against the Affordable Care Act created an angry backlash in 2010 against Democrats, especially in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.
That year former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad was swept back into office. Four years later, Harkin retired and voters handed his seat to little-known, rural Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst, snubbing four-term Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in one of the year’s biggest upsets.
Iowa was also undergoing a rapid, politically consequential demographic shift. Iowa ranks in the top 10 of states with the highest population of whites and in the top 15 of those 65 years and older. According to U.S. Census data, both groups — two pillars of Trump’s win statewide and nationally — increased simultaneously after 2010 and became a bigger percentage of Iowa’s electorate.
“We’ve lost touch with certain voters,” state party chairman Troy Price said. “We talk about issues, but not the values behind the issues. We haven’t done the best job communicating with the people we fight so hard for. It’s why we are where we are.”
Especially stark has been the decline of rural Democrats. Last month, small-town state Rep. Todd Pritchard, an Iraq War veteran and former county prosecutor, left the crowded Democratic field for governor, dominated by Des Moines Democrats. The last rural Democrat to hold statewide office was Gov. Tom Vilsack, elected in 1998.
“That’s been kind of a sea change,” said Doug Gross, a moderate Des Moines Republican and former nominee for governor. “It’s difficult to go into the rural areas of Iowa and find anyone who will admit to being a Democrat.”
But time in the wilderness is stirring the Democratic base. No fewer than seven Democrats have announced they are running for governor.
“Those are the things motivating people now that have never been active before,” Democratic state Rep. Kirsten Running Marquardt said. “That’s sort of the bright spot.”