Iowa is a red state. Period. nnRepublican victories in the state last week rivaled GOP dominance in Iowa in the post-Civil War years, when most Iowans associated Democrats with the rebellion in the South.
Both houses of the Iowa legislature now have Republican majorities of about two to one, and Republicans now occupy all elected positions in the executive branch (with the possible exception of the state auditor position, which is undecided as of this writing). All four US Representatives and both US Senators from Iowa are Republicans.
Greene County reflects the state. All five district overseers are Republicans, as are all elected court officials except for the Democratic district clerk, who won the election unopposed, and the district attorney, a libertarian who also had no opposition. In hard-fought races, about five Greene County voters chose Republican for three Democrats each.
Elsewhere, Democrats may try to blame gerrymandering and voter fraud for Republican dominance in their states. That’s not the case in Iowa. Although Republicans have tightened the electoral process in Iowa, our legislative and congressional districts are unrigged and our elections are sparkling clean.
Republicans seem to have figured it out. Democrats face a challenge to do the same.
I’ve been independent for a few years. I voted for candidates from both parties on November 8th. In the days after the election, I thought about why I did it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the candidates who won my vote were the ones I felt most comfortable with, the ones who seemed closer to my interests and identity.
I think Iowa and Greene County went Republican for the same reason. More voters identified with Kim Reynolds as governor than with Deidre DeJear. They felt more comfortable with Chuck Grassley as US Senator than with Michael Franken. And once they rejected the Republican at the top of the ticket, it was easier to keep voting for the GOP on the ballot.
Of course, tenure played a big role. Reynolds and Grassley were trusted officials; It wasn’t DeJear and Franken. It’s easier to mark your ballot for known crowds than for newcomers.
But that doesn’t explain the defeat of two 40-year incumbent Democrats – Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald. They were more likely collateral damage pushed out by the great Red Wave that swept Iowa. Their loss margins were much narrower than those of newcomers DeJear and Franken.
It is instructive to compare voters’ favorite candidates with their political opinions. Opinion polls for several years have found that most Iowans support the choice of abortion, along with some gun control policies and the allocation of public taxpayer money to public schools.
But the same voters voted for Republicans on November 8, most of whom oppose the policy. Why is that?
It seems pretty clear that for most Iowa voters, satisfaction with the Republican candidates, simply as people, outweighed disagreement with their positions on these issues.
Of course, national issues also played a role. Inflation, border controls, and rising crime worked against Democratic candidates, and Republicans hammered those conditions.
But national issues alone cannot explain the GOP sweep in Iowa. At the national level, Democrats view the 2022 election as an unusual victory as the US Senate remains under Democratic control at this time and the US House of Representatives suffers a defeat. Usually, the party without power — in this case, the Republican Party — wins a significant number of seats in midterm congressional elections. That certainly didn’t happen in this election.
Over the next few weeks and months, Iowa Democrats will search their individual and collective souls to determine how they can improve their odds. It’s a tough challenge. The potential Democratic bank of candidates in Iowa is thin, and the burgeoning Republican term will only compound Democrat troubles in 2024.
For a start, the Democrats will probably need a stronger ground game in the future. More social media and mailing messages tailored to individual voters. More door knocks. Higher visibility of potential candidates. Political agents with more expertise and creativity.
To overcome the GOP term advantage, it seems to me that the key to Democrat success lies in how the party handles Republican legislative goals.
The Republican-dominated Iowa Legislature has already approved a proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution that says it does not guarantee abortion rights. If lawmakers approve the same proposed amendment in the upcoming session, which is almost certain, then the measure will go to a nationwide referendum. How will Democrats capitalize on Iowans’ dominant pro-choice leanings when that time comes?
Governor Reynolds seems determined to tap public funds for private schools. A bill this year that would set aside $75 million for the cause fell through, but the governor says she will push it again in 2023. There’s no reason to think that if successful, the $55 million will stay at that level for years to come. How will Democrats use this effort to their advantage?
After all, tax cuts are ground zero for Republicans. The GOP emphasizes what income tax cuts do for Iowa’s middle class, but by far the biggest benefits of Iowa’s massive tax cut this year are accruing to the wealthy. The state government expects Iowa’s annual state revenues to fall by $1.9 billion five years from now. How will the Democrats keep Republican feet in the fire when government funding is cut because of the cuts?
For now, the Republican Party can lose control of the Iowa government — but only if Democrats can offer Iowa voters more viable options. That requires candidates that Iowans are comfortable with and messages that speak to voters’ needs, wants and experiences. It’s a big task.
Rick Morain is a reporter and columnist for the Jefferson Herald.