Iowa Democrats feel party is retreating in industrial towns and farming communities
KEOKUK, Iowa – Democrats lost last year’s election for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District by the narrowest margin in a House race in nearly 40 years. After the heartbreak of six votes, some expected Democrat Rita Hart to immediately declare a rematch in her party’s long-held Southeast District.
So far, no Democrats have come forward to run.
Reluctance to venture into a district now as competitive as it comes is a measure of Democrat fatigue in a state that has been viewed for decades as a real battleground. Even as the coronavirus pandemic gradually wanes and President Joe Biden‘s job approval remains strong, Democrats in Iowa say they can feel their party retreating, especially from industrial river towns they claimed once to be strongholds.
“I kind of think we’ve passed the point of no return,” said Rich Taylor, a former Democratic state senator who lost last year after eight years representing economically struggling Lee County. , which runs along the Mississippi River in the southeastern corner of the state. “I believe the people of Southeastern Iowa are going to wake up. But I don’t think it will make a difference for the next 20 years.”
“The big question is, can we bring it back? “
It took years to get there. For more than a decade, Democrats have seen their ranks decline in farming communities. At the same time, their once dominant strength in the state’s industrial towns has been undermined by the diminishing power of the unions and loss of population. The popularity of Republican Donald Trump among the white working class of these regions seems to some like a coup de grace.
“The big question is, can we bring it back? Said Matt Pflug, a Democrat member of the Lee County Supervisory Board. “I don’t know if we can.
Democrats’ struggle to defend a six-seat majority in the House next year could boil down to battles for similar river districts. In western Wisconsin, Republican Derrick Van Orden is seeking revenge against 13-term Democrat Ron Kind, who only occupied his seat by 10,000 votes in 2020. Across Mississippi, Minnesota Democrat Angie Craig took victory by an equally narrow margin and will face a rematch. by Republican Tyler Kistner.
Further south, Republican Esther Joy King is running again in a district in western Illinois, where five-term Democrat Cheri Bustos has decided not to run. Bustos won just 12,000 votes in 2020, having won over 55,000 in 2018 and nearly 60,000 in 2016.
And in northeast Iowa, Democrats are in no rush to face Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson, who defeated Democrat Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District last year.
National Democrats and some local activists say they expect a competitive candidate to emerge in both districts. Neither Hart nor Finkenauer responded to requests for comment.
Could the Biden administration’s economic agenda help Democrats win races?
Democrats argue that the Biden administration‘s economic agenda will be key to winning these races. Its proposed infrastructure and family support initiatives – $ 4 trillion in new spending on top of the $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief program adopted in March – “will provide unprecedented resources to communities underserved and rural in a way that can truly deliver generational change, ”said Sam Cornale, executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
“But it is not enough, however, to just put in place a good policy,” he said. “I think we also need to communicate how this can impact everyday Americans.”
Since February, Biden has been to Wisconsin once and twice to Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states he narrowly won last year. He did not go to Iowa, where Trump beat him by 8 percentage points.
Iowa was once a major political battleground. Over the past two decades, the state has oscillated between presidential elections, as parties have traded control of the governor’s office. For 30 years, he sent Liberal Democrat Tom Harkin and Conservative Republican Chuck Grassley to the Senate. Harkin’s seat is now occupied by Republican Joni Ernst.
These Democratic victories were built on support from unionized workers, a progressive rural farming tradition, and support in the state’s small and medium metropolitan areas.
Democrat Dave Loebsack, a college professor, won seven consecutive terms in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District until his retirement this year, mostly by posting large margins in Johnson County, the university’s seat. of Iowa and a growing suburban corridor.
Prior to that, Iowa Representative Leonard Boswell, Democrat, farmer and Vietnam War veteran, served for 16 years, transporting vast swathes of rural southern Iowa.
What happened to the Democrats’ labor base?
But the once strong Democratic union base has shrunk as manufacturing jobs left cities such as Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk along the river. The trend has left former industrial estates with disproportionately older voters without a college degree, voters who lean for Republicans.
In 2016, Trump transported 9 of Iowa’s 10 counties along the river, missing only Scott County, the most metropolitan. Notably, Trump was the first Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower to make Dubuque County, for decades a union stronghold.
Last year, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks beat Hart in the congressional race by crashing dramatically into the district’s vast tracts of farmland west and south of the Mississippi River. There simply weren’t enough Democratic votes in the river towns.
“Previously, we could count on the union vote here,” said former State Senator Jerry Kearns of Keokuk, in southeast Iowa. “No more.”
Kearns served as president of his local United Steelworkers for 20 of his 38 years with auto parts maker Henniges. Today, only 500 unionized employees remain out of the 1,500 Kearns formerly represented.
Union voters are younger than 20 years ago and “don’t realize what the Democratic Party has done for organized labor,” he said.
Union leaders see Biden’s agenda as a benefit to workers, but workers themselves are not as engaged in politics, Kearns said, “and are more interested in things like guns and rights. that they want to blame the Democrats for having tried to take away from them.
Up the river in Des Moines County, Case International’s agricultural equipment plant in Burlington has about 350 unionized workers, up from 2,300 who worked there 20 years ago. Des Moines and Lee counties had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state in April.
There are few signs of growth in Keokuk. The washed out, white Civil War-era houses and old pre-war brick factories that run down Main Street and its side streets to the Mississippi River are the landmarks of more prosperous days.
Biden’s economic aid could provide Democrats with ammunition to campaign in places like this. But it will have to compete with the perception that the party has been taken over by the “socialists”.
Tom Courtney, former state senator and longtime union official, said he believes more voters than just a decade ago are struggling to separate Democrats they know from those who speak for the name of the party at the national level. When he sought a comeback campaign last year, his opponents linked him to Liberal New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who ran for president in as a Democrat.
“I think there are a lot of people who liked me and my policies, but just didn’t want a Democrat because they didn’t like AOC or didn’t like Bernie Sanders,” said Courtney. “We did not fight this national message.”