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Stray Thoughts

Elections, not caucuses, should be the focus

1/31/2023

Not that she asked, but I have some advice for Rita Hart, the new chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Yes, Hart is an experienced practitioner of politics. She was twice elected to the Iowa Senate. She was the Democrats’ lieutenant governor candidate on the ticket with Fred Hubbell in 2018. And two years ago, she came within an eyelash — six votes — of winning a seat in Congress. She also is a former teacher and still farms with her husband near the Clinton County town of Wheatland.

Normally, I would trust the judgment of someone with her credentials on what her priorities should be as the Iowa Democrats’ top state leader. But this is the Iowa Democratic Party, and too many party activists, along with civic boosters and journalists, cling to the belief that the process of choosing presidential nominees absolutely and without question must begin in Iowa.

The pressure will be on Hart to try to reverse the decision made late last year by the Democratic National Committee to reshuffle the party’s nomination calendar. The decision removed Iowa’s precinct caucuses as the lead-off event in the presidential selection process every four years.

But Hart should not waste even one minute trying to undo what has been done. The caucuses had long been unwieldy and failed to let all Democrats engage in the presidential nominating process.

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (February)

Instead, Hart should focus on a much more important task — getting the Iowa party, and its candidates, back into shape to wage effective campaigns for seats in the Legislature, in courthouses across Iowa, for top elective offices in state government, and for seats in the U.S. House and Senate.

The Iowa Democratic Party is a shadow of what it once was. After the beat-down in last November’s elections, the Republicans occupy all the U.S. Senate and U.S. House seats from Iowa, all but one of the statewide elective offices, and two-thirds of the members of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate have Rs after their names.

The picture for Democrats was not so bleak in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century. Remember when Democrats Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver served as governor from 1999 through 2010? Have you forgotten that period from 2007 to 2011 when the party had a “trifecta” in state government, meaning it held the governor’s office and a majority of seats in both the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate?

Even after the trifecta ended, do you remember when the Democratic Party had a majority in the Iowa Senate, giving Democrats a voice that Republicans could not ignore when shaping proposals in front of the Legislature from 2011 to 2016?

Yes, many people have enjoyed the state’s time in the national spotlight every four years, when presidential wannabes crisscross the state asking people to support them in the Democrats’ precinct caucuses. We enjoy seeing our cafes and coffee shops on national television as presidential candidates, and TV news celebrities, speak with folks about the next election. Our hometown pride kicks in when presidential candidates speak to crowds in local school gymnasiums where our kids play basketball.

But the Democratic caucuses have gotten more complicated since they began 50 years ago. It takes huge amounts of time and money to prepare for these events.

That is why some Democrats who are blue through and through make the case that the time party leaders and thousands of volunteers spend organizing and holding the caucuses would better be spent identifying, recruiting and prepping good Democrats to win offices in Iowa.

Hart’s time would be better spent listening to Democrats in rural areas who believe the party’s message has become too divisive for a state that has long tended to occupy the middle of the road.

She should worry more about helping independents and Democrats understand that the extreme messages they hear from candidates from both parties on the East Coast and West Coast are not messages coming from the lips of her party’s candidates in Iowa.

And Hart can be successful if she marshals the armies of volunteers behind the caucuses in a couple thousand precincts and gets them to turn their attention, instead, to get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates.

It will be up to Hart to lead the way. Otherwise, her tenure as party chair will be as brief as her predecessors, and Democratic voters will be as despondent as they have been in recent elections.

There were signs last week that Hart may need more encouragement on what her priorities should be as state party chair. The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that she said in a Q&A session with southwest Iowa Democrats a week ago, “We’ve got to continue to fight that fight for the first-in-the-nation status.” ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.

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