Iowa Democrats battle surging GOP ahead of 2024

  • As the 2024 presidential election approaches, Iowa Democrats are at a crossroads.
  • Democrats in Iowa have seen Republicans dominate in a number of contests in recent years.
  • Local Democrats were also dismayed by the shift in the party’s presidential nomination calendar.

When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, Democrats turned their attention to Iowa, the battleground of the Midwest that has been teetering between parties at the presidential level for years.

It certainly helped that Obama represented neighboring Illinois in the Senate at the time, giving him the kind of regional clout that previous Democratic presidential candidates have not been able to use to their advantage.

Obama won Iowa with ease in both 2008 and 2012, when Democrats held multiple statewide offices and veteran Democratic lawmaker Tom Harkin held the state’s Senate seat.

But Harkin retired after the 2014 midterm election, and Republican Senator Joni Ernst has held the seat ever since. In the 2016 general election, Donald Trump easily defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and in 2020 Trump again won the state against current President Joe Biden.

In 2022, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds won re-election in a landslide, and her coattails helped the GOP win nearly every state office. (The only statewide Democratic officer is Chartered Accountant Rob Sand.)

Should Trump win the Iowa primary and become the Republican presidential nominee next year, he would be the current favorite to win the state’s six votes again in the general election.

How could things go so wrong for the Democrats in Iowa?

For one thing, rural voters have decidedly swayed to the Republican Party over the past decade, making it difficult for Democrats to win statewide elections in Iowa. This rural realignment has also hurt the competitiveness of Democrats in states like Arkansas, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Second, the strength of Democrats in cities like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport is not strong enough to overcome Republicans’ sizeable electoral advantages in rural areas.

And third, the National Democrats’ removal of Iowa as their party’s statewide first caucus in favor of South Carolina has meant that the Hawkeye State is no longer among the party’s targets, while the Republicans are leaving the Iowa caucus in first states for the Parliamentary election 2024.

As Republican candidates begin to flock to the famed Iowa State Fair this weekend, Democrat enthusiasm in the state has plummeted. The party knows it has a serious problem to deal with if it is to reverse recent statewide losses and regain seats in the state legislature.

Rita Hart

Former Iowa State Senator Rita Hart, who lost a close congressional race in 2020, now leads the state’s Democratic Party.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file

State Senator Claire Celsi, a Democratic congressman representing West Des Moines, described the state of the party somberly in a recent interview with the New York Times.

“It’s so bad,” she told the newspaper. “I can’t tell you how bad it is.”

Celsi cited the inability of the Democratic minority to rein in the conservative agenda of the Republican legislature and the reduced importance of Iowa in the Democratic presidential nomination process.

With Republicans opting to impose stricter abortion restrictions in the state while introducing a school pass program to be borne by taxpayers and relaxing child labor laws, Democrats have been largely powerless to stop these developments.

Former Rep. Dave Loebsack, who represented a contested district in eastern Iowa from 2007 to 2021, told The Times that finding candidates to run is difficult because the party is in deficit in the legislature and the GOP is currently in deficit State holds all congressional seats in the country.

“There is no question that the Democrats in Iowa are at rock bottom,” he told the Times. “It’s even difficult to recruit people to run for office when we’re so low.”

In 2020, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks won Loebsack’s seat, defeating former Democratic Sen. Rita Hart by just six votes out of nearly 400,000 votes cast in one of the closest House of Representatives races in U.S. history.

Hart is now chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

As the election approaches, Hart wants to shift the party’s focus from presidential politics to local issues.

“The way the media has changed, the way people have gotten their information, hasn’t made us understand that we need to talk to our country people in Iowa,” she told the Times. “I firmly believe that we must empower our district parties to do just that.”

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