Without Harkin Iowa Is A Red State



It is taking Democrats a long time to figure out what they lost with Tom Harkin. The political ecosystem of Iowa has always become unbalanced when one of the parties lacked a clear leader. The success of Republican Party of Iowa and The Iowa Democratic Party has always required a person that both inspired and nurtured party building and served a distinguished role in an elected office.

I grew up in a big family on a farm outside Jefferson. My mother was active in local and state politics. At one point she chaired the Greene County Democrats. She had a good relationship with John Culver and other elected officials. One of my earliest memories is being carried down the parade route of the annual Bell Tower Festival wearing a “Harkin for Congress” T-Shirt. My mom considered Tom Harkin a friend. Within a couple of years so would people all over the state. They wouldn’t talk about his legislation or concern for the disabled. They would talk about the cute thing his little daughter, Amy, said when they came to town and took them to Dairy Queen for milkshakes.

Retail politics in the 70s and 80s were essential to success. I’ve sat down to listen to stories from John Reed and Richard Rogers who are both still active in advocacy. They recount their days as pilots flying Robert Ray and Terry Branstad on short trips between municipal airports in single engine planes. Candidates had “their guy” in every county who would walk them around main street introducing them to community leaders and put them up for the night if they needed a place to stay. Harkin had learned the model and kept it up for 40 years.

Grassley’s emergence on the statewide scene had come under a Republican Governor. He grew his network the same way but didn’t bear the responsibility of party building that was on Harkin’s shoulders. Although there was not a hard and fast chain of command, a “buy-in” to a candidate from somebody like Harkin or Branstad was a signal to activists, donors and party officials that quickly aligned resources. Buy-ins were something earned as recognition for loyalty and hard work. Primaries were won or avoided all together because of a signal from the de facto leader.

When the party leader moves on there is a dramatic shift in the party ecosystem. At that level the party building done by the leader seems so effortless that many people take for granted the person that was holding it together. There is also usually a fracturing as folks and factions compete within the party for the top spot. Branstad’s departure had this effect when he left office in the 90s. Senator Grassley was accustomed to leaving the role of party building to state politics. The state folks played “king of the mountain”.

Harkin was ready for the opportunity to foster success and share the top role. In a climate of low unemployment and budget surplus the 1998 gubernatorial race seemed remarkably low key to onlookers. Former Congressman, Jim Ross Lightfoot, matched off against businessman and Branstad friend, David Oman and Paul Pate who left his role of Secretary of State to run for the top spot.

Pate’s departure created an opening for a old faction to reemerge in Iowa politics. Former US Senator John Culver who Grassley defeated in 1980 had been a close friend of Ted Kennedy since their college days on the Harvard football team. The Culver / Kennedy faction seized the chance to grab the Secretary of State’s office in what seemed to be a good springboard for a higher office.

That year was the first election since I had turned 18. I didn’t even understand what the office of Secretary of State did. But I was excited to get my first piece of political mail a few weeks before I shipped off to the Army. I asked my mother about the post card from Culver and she recounted stories of John Culver personally taking the time to discuss with her issues like military pay. I called the number on the card and was asked to come make phone calls. My sister and I took some friends to Des Moines. We met Mari Culver who seemed to be running the show. She sat us in a messy office of boxes and folding tables and we called through lists of primary voters on computer printouts.

I remember seeing some Vilsack signs in the office. I asked my mother about him but she didn’t have any strong opinion. The State Senator and former small town mayor carefully gathered support from unions and other stakeholders. He narrowly defeated former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick.

Harkin wasn’t on the ballot that year but neverless made the effort to ensure his party made a strong run. Lightfoot regularly polled ahead. However, on Election Day Vilsack upset the former Republican congressman. It was no surprise that the victory came by winning bellwether and red counties where Harkin had been taking locals out for ice cream since his days in congress.

Harkin and Vilsack worked well together. When they both were on the ballot four years later they organized their resources so well that they created what is known today as the Voter Activation Network. They combined their lists, contacts and information in a computer managed database that would soon emerge as the Democratic National Committee standard. Ironically, years later, this tool is one of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Republicans struggled to get legs without a party boss while Harkin and Vilsack continued to keep the Democrats strong. When Vilsack left the office Chet Culver made his jump. He joined together with the Secretary of Agriculture, Patty Judge, and bucked the establishment ticket of former Congressman Mike Blouin and Dr. Andy McGuire.

With a strong party infrastructure and Kennedy money, Democrats kept the governor’s mansion and seized control of both chambers of the state legislature.

The Culver administration wasn’t quite as symbiotic with Harkin as he had been wirh Vilsack. Although Culver was a state politician his ties to the Kennedy network complicated the interests between the Democratic Governor and Senator. In the 2008 presidential race the Kennedy family was initially courted by Senator John Edwards who sent some staffers to work with Culver. After a short bid for president himself, Vilsack left the race and endorsed Clinton. With an endorsement by Iowa’s First Lady, Culver’s resources and influence helped the North Carolina Senator in the Iowa Caucuses. With the typical establishment Democrats split between Clinton and Edwards, young Senator Obama from Illinois won the first in the nation caucuses. Clinton never caught up.

Soon after, Republican stakeholders who were frustrated by the lack of priority to their interests recruited Branstad for a comeback. The Republican field was cleared of establishment candidates and the factional Democratic Party rolled under the weight of a national GOP wave which also captured the state house.

Although President Obama’s 2012 election was successful it was the beginning of a rift that would allow partisan platforms to overcome relationships forged during potlucks. Obama pushed hard on social issues such as gun control and gay rights to run up margins in cities. The anti-Christian and anti-gun message seemed like a far cry from the Iowa Democratic Party that has just two years prior passed one of the most gun friendly pieces of legislation in the history of the state.

In January of 2013, Harkin announced he was not running for reelection. The Republican primary for the open US Senate race did not have any takers from well known conservatives. The Democratic side had a cleared primary path and was shaping up to be a general election that was US Rep Bruce Braley’s to lose. Braley had risen to his office as an advocate for trial lawyers. His style was more about raising money and effective electioneering than getting to really know Iowans around the state.

Joni Ernst was a State Senator from a rural community. Although she also lacked her own statewide network, Governor Branstad, who was running again himself, was able to provide the same type of support that Harkin brought Vilsack.

Braley left a hole in northeast Iowa that further shook the party. A crowded Democratic primary emerged where the former speaker of the Iowa General Assembly faced of against two Cedar Rapids politicians. What was normally a base for statewide Democratic turnout was angry with competition. In a district that seemed like a long shot for conservatives a less dramatic primary emerged for the Republicans.

In Northwest Iowa a government contractor had returned home. Jim Mowrer announced a challenge to Steve King. Most people saw the race as impossible based on the results of the last cycle. A well financed run by former Iowa First Lady, Christie Vilsack, failed to unseat the conservative firebrand after redistricting had given him new territory. However, Mowrer brought a lot of money to the race. Due to his connections to Vice President Biden many speculated the challenge was meant to build an organization for the two time presidential candidate to make a third go. Mowrer had reason to be optimistic riding on the coattails of a contested US Senate race that seemed to favor Democrats when he announced his bid in July of 2013.

The Southwest district seemed like a very good opportunity for Democrats. Latham’s late retirement announcement left the Democrats stuck with Staci Appel, a token candidate with extremist views, that had already cost her a State Senate seat running with the benefit of incumbency.

The Republican ticket travelled together to Pizza Ranch meeting rooms and County Fair Morton Buildings. Calling ahead to longtime friends in the county yielded high turnout and excited stories in the local papers.

On the Democratic side the candidates realized they weren’t getting any traction but they were slow to realize why what they had done in the past was no longer enough. By the end of 2014 there was only one Democrat in the Iowa Congressional delegation.

Braley got the bulk of the blame from Democrats. IDP holding the State Senate was the only good news on election night. State Senator Mike Gronstal used his rising stock to place Andy McGuire as chair who he and other establishment Democrats felt was cheated out of the Governor ticket in 2006. However, neither Gronstal or McGuire addressed the hole left by Harkin’s party building.

Many swing voters don’t follow politics close enough to understand where they fall on issues. They think of parities in terms of presidents they liked or didn’t like. A lot of farmers were sour with Reagan because of the farm crisis or blamed Bush for war. However, with Obama using social issues to run up the vote in cities a lot of people in small counties started to wonder why “trannies in the bathroom” were O.K. and God was not. Why were kooky environmentalists shutting down job programs supported by organized labor? The state was ripe for a realignment. Tom Harkin hadn’t come to town in a few years and on the national scene the country seemed to be getting out of control.

Trump emerged as a leader of the primary. As soon as it became clear he would carry the GOP banner, Governor Branstad made it clear to his folks in every county of the state he was with the NY businessman. Nobody in Iowa was afraid to tell a pollster they were with Trump. Without Harkin there was nobody local with a statewide network to travel to communities and reinforce with Democrats the need to get out and vote.

The internal polling of the Hillary campaign never showed an opportunity in Iowa. The nationwide urban and rural divide in the parties made winning the US house again a nearly impossible task for the DNC. They needed to control state legislatures after the census in order to have an opportunity to gerrymander districts that could give them a shot at taking the US house. They saw Iowa’s redistricting system as the “Gold Standard” so the money for the field, television and mail was moved to places like Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. The Super PACs took the cue.

The pallets of mail that usually harangued low propensity voters until they finally sent their absentee vote for the Democrat didn’t happen. Gronstal and other Democrats did what they always did in the past and figured it would be enough. But what they had always done in previous cycles was on top of a statewide effort built on keeping local relationships warm for 40 years. On election night they learned that they had underestimated what that meant.

Two years earlier Branstad’s network with a local focus had no Democratic equivalent and he won 98 counties. The same network helped Trump win 94.

After confirming from several Democratic insiders that their quarterly State Central Committee Meeting and Chairman Candidate Forum was open to the public I decided to attend. I openly introduced myself with both my interest and conservative affiliations.

I worked my way around the room asking wallflowers about the latest rumors such as potential candidates for governor. I didn’t hear a lot of new names. Liz Mathis still seemed to be the one on the tip of everyone’s tongue. There were rumors Senator Amanda Reagan and outgoing Senator Gronstal had been asked. One of the last remaining rural legislators, Rep Todd Prichard’s name came up. There was speculation that the Jasper County party boss, Senator Chaz Allen, was courting some activists to test the waters towards Terrace Hill. Dr. Andy McGuire, the current party chair, is still mentioned but usually with a sigh of frustration. Some are skeptical that after presiding over a dramatic loss for the party she should be the one to bring it back.

Mike Gronstal had recently entered the race for party chair but prior obligations prevented his attendance. The pool of candidates included a few names I’d known. Robert Krause was active in veteran circles and recent run for the opportunity to lose to Grassley. Kim Weaver just came off the trail in a token attempt to oust Congressman King. Two years prior, Jim Mowrer turned a King challenge into a bid for party leadership. After coming up short of securing the boss spot he landed one of the Vice Chair roles. It didn’t seem like Weaver had the momentum to win chair but she could end up following the same path. Most people were ready for a big change and didn’t think Gronstal would win.

Kurt Meyer, a local party chair who had successfully organized across county lines in rural parts of northeast Iowa was one time part of the Harkin network. He had a pretty good handle on what had happened in the last three years. However most of the other candidate speeches were aimed at generalizations of what needed to change or preaching to the choir about being proud Democrats.

Some good concerns came up from the State Central Committee such as questions about how much time the chair candidate expected to spend raising money. Candidates were asked about the cost of using the Voter Activation Network. The resource was great but the price was prohibitive to local candidates and burdensome to major candidates attempting to take on a well financed GOP incumbents. Other questions completely missed the mark such as what they would do to enact the platform during the upcoming legislative session when they didn’t have the votes to matter.

The reality of the IDP without Harkin is that the job of the next chair should be to rebuild a locally focused network that can engage people in their own community outside just the topic of politics. They would need to take a long term focus. The chair would need to hand the network over to the Democratic Gubernatorial candidate who in all political realities is likely to lose. The relationships would need to be resilient enough to keep the locals optimistic after suffering the third sweeping loss in a row. The resiliency would be further damaged if the chair was not reelected because of a 2018 loss.

It is difficult to win a crowded race for party leader on a message that “we aren’t going to be able to stand up for our platform right now and 2018 looks bad. But trust me while we lose for four years to prepare for our comeback.”

2018 is a challenging map for Democrats. There are 5 incumbent Democratic Senators who will fight to keep their seat in bright red states. Many of the rest are battleground states. Iowa has no Senate race and with a priority of winning legislatures ahead of the census there will be no national money here and we will have to fend for ourselves.

However, in 2020 the DNC will have to try again in Iowa on Senator Ernst’s reelection for lack of better options. This will bring some money back to the state but will there be anything left to fall in on?

David Loebsack is 20 years older than Harkin when he made the jump to Senate. Does he have the energy to take his game statewide and build the kind of network Harkin had? He is probably worried about his own seat after Dr. Christopher Peters, a little known candidate that emerged a week before the filing deadline received more votes than any of Loebsack’s previous challengers while spending very little money.

It is difficult to take out an incumbent president. The bully pulpit of the office enables the White House to control the media cycle. If your potential opponents are arguing that you are weak on terrorism you can pick the week of their first primary debate to kill Osama Bin Laden. Trump had a knack for controlling the media without being the leader of the free world. Senator Ernst will likely have a strong reelection no matter what IDP does. Iowa is a Red State.

–John Thompson of Jefferson is a graduate of West Point and Harvard University. He is a candidate for State Treasurer and serves on the State Central Committee for the Republican Party of Iowa.