Map to White House leads down an Iowa blacktop road

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

The 2020 Iowa Presidential Caucus cycle rang in last Tuesday night when they called the governor’s race for the Republican, Kim Reynolds, by three points.

Wednesday dawned with Democratic candidates calling labor leaders and sending texts to legislators lining up support as farmers harvested a spotty corn crop that’s not worth what they need.

Bernie Sanders. Corey Booker. Eric Swalwell and Julian Castro. They were all over Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District of Northwest Iowa campaigning for upstart JD Scholten in his quixotic bid to unseat the notorious Rep. Steve King — the Republican who consorts with white nationalists and swears he won’t back down. Scholten came closer than anybody has in eight tries, inching within three percentage points of the indomitable King. Call him the Beto of Iowa — no cigar, but Scholten sure turned some heads. The former semi-pro pitcher, a 38-year-old bachelor, gave all the signs that he intends to climb back into his heavily-used Winnebago camper dubbed “Sioux City Sue” after his hometown. If he can afford the gas, unemployed and broke.

“You haven’t heard the last of JD Scholten,” he promised the deflated hotel ballroom crowd.

Two Democratic women did turn Iowa heads and seats. Abby Finkenauer, a union daughter of Dubuque and a state legislator, beat incumbent Rod Blum for the 1st District congressional seat in Northeast Iowa. Blum crashed into office with the Tea Party wave, and alienated folks back home with a brusque attitude and a House ethics probe over a shaky business deal. Finkenauer, 29, defeated the Trumpish Blum 51-46%.

Democrat Cindy Axne unseated Rep. David Young, a former chief of staff to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, in a close race by winning Des Moines overwhelmingly and while carrying none of the rural counties in the central Iowa district. Young, a friendly bachelor who seldom offended, made the mistake of going along with the vote against pre-existing conditions in Obamacare. It was his undoing.

All the insurgents led with health care. Scholten called for Medicare for all beside Sanders and nobody argued with them. They cheered. Axne worked with four female Democratic Iowa House candidates from the capital city suburbs, all of whom were successful in building campaigns around various health care issues, from a disastrous Medicaid privatization a la Kansas to the lack of mental health services in rural areas. Finkenauer ran a positive-themed campaign about the future, health care, a higher minimum wage and jobs. The union boys at the John Deere tractor plant in Waterloo who voted for Trump warmed right up to her. They’re plenty nervous about orders, as are Caterpillar and Case-IH, in the midst of a trade war while Blum stood by. These candidates listened.

Hubbell, the scion of the wealthiest family in Iowa, never quite warmed up to the 75 of 99 Iowa counties that are rural. He was an insurance company executive. He was sober and serious with facts and figures. When Democrats knocked on doors in Ottumwa, the doors shut with the answer, “Hubbell’s going to raise my taxes.”

That’s what Reynolds told them in the ads and Hubbell couldn’t buy enough ads to talk them out of it.

It was a similar split-verdict across the Midwest: In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly beat the radical Kris Kobach, the secretary of state who tried to make voter suppression into high art. The Sunflower State was worn out from Gov. Sam Brownback and steep tax cuts that bled schools dry. It helped elect a lesbian Native American, Sharice Davids, who once was a kickboxer, over a longtime incumbent Republican in the western suburbs of Kansas City.

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker similarly wore out his welcome with relentless attacks on public employees, and cuts to social services and schools. He was run off by waves of voters in the Madison and Milwaukee suburbs who had voted for Trump. Tony Evers won, but it was so close — just a point.

That’s because Republicans maintained solid control of rural areas across the Midwest. In Iowa, Democrats lost two seats in the Senate. Claire McCaskill fell victim in Missouri alongside Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. And there was Hubbell, who lost the key governor’s race in the lead-in caucus state and bellwether of Iowa. Hubbell got clobbered in rural Iowa — by 17 points in my home county of Buena Vista — so now the statehouse is draped in red. It may be a pyrrhic victory that fosters more overreach and hubris for which the GOP could pay an even steeper price in 2020. The all-GOP statehouse the past two years has gutted public employee rights, starved schools and bid out the state universities to the ag chemical conglomerates.

The Midwest that led the Tea Party surge of 2010 and that heaved Trump into the White House perhaps has run its course with that brand of politics. Minnesota, which flirts with conservative populism and nearly went for Trump, was painted blue as its 10,000 lakes on election night. Illinois went all-Democrat, too, with the election of Obama financier JB Pritzker.

What can a presidential interloper trying to understand Iowa first, and then Wisconsin, those two key Trump swing states, draw from this? How can Democrats compete for that rural white vote? Or can they?

They can. Scholten did it in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 190,000 to 120,000, and independents at 172,000 lean conservative. His main argument was that we are losing our rural communities and driving farmers to the brink. He was the only candidate talking much, if any, about climate change. People liked him because he came across as friendly and honest, and increasingly they don’t think King is by his dalliance with Trump. Finkenauer did it by bragging up her union roots, and promising to fight for beleaguered but lovely old Mississippi River towns where manufacturing has run dry.

The economy may be decent in New York but the anxiety out here is palpable. Two-thirds of Iowa’s counties are shrinking. Wisconsin dairy farmers are culling the herds amid hard times. Steel prices are rising yet the trade troubles persist, and those soybeans aren’t worth what they used to be — 30% less because of the China tariffs.

Democrats across the Midwest confronted those anxieties in their campaigns by offering security — with pension protection, universal health care, collective bargaining rights for public employees, and Medicaid expansion as Republican reforms saw nursing homes close, service denied and insurance companies get fat.

They weren’t talking so much about immigration or abortion, or even Trump.

Scholten was talking about aspirations. So was Beto O’Rourke. And so did Barack Obama, whom Iowa embraced one cold January night. Nobody had heard of him before. His roots were in Kansas and his home in Illinois, and he understood the vernacular.

First, show up in those rural areas. Hillary Clinton didn’t have a good map. Neither did Fred Hubbell. Obama did. Finkenauer did, and might not have won those rural counties but out-performed Hubbell by two to five points. That’s what he needed to win.

Second, this is populist territory, flyover country where people think they’re getting dumped on. Trump and Obama won by campaigning as populists, against the system. So did Tom Harkin and Steve King, from opposite sides of the spectrum. Gov. Tom Vilsack never sounded so passionate as when he talked about saving disenfranchised rural people. That talk resonates. Sherrod Brown knows it. Joe Biden has it down.

Third, health care remains the issue. It won’t get solved before 2020. It took Bernie Sanders a long way in Iowa, and he happens to be from a rural, white state. Call him a socialist, but he does draw a crowd and knows how far to tread on guns.

And fourth, almost all the winners were women, from the Republican governor of Iowa to Sen. Tina Smith in Minnesota, who succeeded the groping Al Franken. Kamala Harris worked the Iowa midterms. Amy Klobuchar is just next door and loves to pop down from Minnesota for a cup, don’tya know. Elizabeth Warren is always top of mind.

Clearly, Iowa, Wisconsin and even Kansas are not hopelessly lost in a sea of Trump narcissism and denial. The midterm election wasn’t quite a wave, for sure not in Iowa, more like a split verdict that reflects Midwestern pragmatism and fatigue with radical experiments that don’t add up to much in the paycheck. We have always expected honesty and humility, but have been getting less of it. When candidates offer it, as the Iowa congressional candidates did, white rural voters will give them a look — just enough, in Axne’s case, to get her over the hump and flip that seat.

King swore he’s not giving up. Trump plows ahead by lighting fires. The voters in the Midwest told Walker and Kobach and Blum and Young, not so fast. The wave may be building if one of those candidates can figure out how to catch it. John Delaney just bought an ad in The Storm Lake Times, a good toe in the water.

Editor’s Note: This column also appeared in the US edition of The Guardian (www.guardian.com).