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Republicans Need to Keep Their Eye On Rich Leopold

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JEFFERSON–The biologist and former head of the DNR under Chet Culver’s administration emerged from obscurity when he became the first Democrat to announce a candidacy for governor.

He’s running on a campaign and message to reconnect rural voters to the Democratic Party. “Things for the most part have gotten better since the recession. Recovery has largely happened. But it’s happened with an urban focus. 7 counties are doing very well. But there’s 92 that are not.”

Monday night, Leopold spoke to about 30 Greene County residents including the local press. “Since our announcement I’ve travelled to smaller, rural towns. My campaign has been covered by about eight local radio stations and fourteen county papers. The circulation for those papers may not be as big but the people that live there read them from cover to cover.”

On the day Leopold announced his candidacy Lt. Governor Reynolds, who will be the incumbent Governor, announced she has already raised 1.1 million dollars. That’s quite a challenge for any Democrat to overcome. But a grassroots campaign that directly engages local communities where it’s easier to gain earned media may lower the cost of getting exposure. He’s also the only Democrat in any capacity working to reengage rural Iowans.

In 2012, President Obama ran a national campaign with a heavy focus on social issues designed to increase his margins in the cities. He was anti-gun and pro-gay. After Tom Harkin’s exit from the political stage there was nobody to keep the Iowa Democratic Party organized in rural counties. Upon his exit, Iowa followed the same trend of urban blue and rural red.

Last year I spoke to one Iowan who had been a lifelong Democrat and had shown up to watch a Republican presidential forum. “I grew up in the union hall. I’ve always caucused with Democrats. But our party now sides with the environmental kooks over labor. They want to talk about trannies in the bathroom and God has become a bad word”.

And Leopold has had similar interactions. He told the group, “there is a silent rage in rural Iowa. I have smart, reasonable friends who voted for Trump. And it wasn’t about his policies. They are mad at the system and want to tear it down because their communities have been left out.”

His message wasn’t yet polished or succinct. He had a tendency to get wonkish on policy. Local farmer and professional curmudgeon, George Naylor asked, “When you talk about being a fiscal conservative, do you mean like when my combine mechanic tells me things I need to get fixed right now to make sure I don’t have to spend more money down the road?”

These town hall settings are going to give Leopold ample opportunity to learn to communicate his policy goals into folksy narratives.

And he talks about revitalizing rural communities. He mentioned renovating mainstreets and boosting broadband services so young people that grow up in small town Iowa can return and have good jobs. He wants rural Iowa to once again become a place where families can thrive in small towns. He has a plan to “rebuild Iowa.” Or said another way (which he didn’t) he wants to Make Iowa Great Again! That message recently ruled the countryside allowing Trump to win our swing state by nearly 10 points.

Anybody running against Reynolds will be a severe underdog. After 2008, a grassroots Tea Party movement emerged in response to Obama’s sharp turn to the left. However, the effort was boosted by a well financed infrastructure that did things like fly Governor Sarah Palin to rallies, collect the data of those in attendance, and recreated and organized the model all over the US.

Democrats have the anger but they don’t have those resources. Leopold’s efforts to organize the rural counties may not make him governor but could still serve as a lifeline to rural Democrats as they fight to win back seats in the statehouse.

The country is Republican but we need to protect it. And we need to keep our eye on Rich Leopold.


–John Thompson is a graduate of West Point and Harvard and a member of the Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee